XII – Tanizaki vs the Triglavians: the Role of Mystery in Worldbuilding

Imagine that a novel begins:

Sam got out of the car and went into the gas station to buy cigarettes and a flashlight.

There’s nothing to suggest that this shouldn’t be true—that at some point this didn’t or couldn’t happen—and so we, as readers, accept it.  We suspend our disbelief for a few more lines.  But we don’t believe it yet, in the way that, if the writer does their job, every word between this sentence and the last will imprint almost as vividly as a memory from our own lives.  For us to really believe that this is true—for us to buy into the story—something else has to happen.

Now picture:

Sam, still slightly out of breath, climbed over the ragged convertible’s door, which he discovered was permanently jammed shut.  He ducked into the store past a poster of his own face, sans mustache, to buy cigarettes and another flashlight.

Do you see this one a little better? 

What’s the difference?  The second is obviously longer in words, though it covers the same actions and expanse of time.  That extra language is used to produce some details, so at first glance we might imagine that the specificity leads us to buy in.  Essentially, we’re thinking, Well jeez, if they know all those details, it must be true!  This is akin to how cult leaders are actually more effective when they make wild claims, because they lead us to think they must be right, precisely because their claims are preposterous while they’re so confident about it.  To some extent, this is how any storyteller works.  They project an air of sureness about what they’re saying, and deliver carefully curated clusters of details to get us to believe what they’re saying, writing, or showing on the screen, not just accept it.  This is as true in ancient oral poetry as it is in more modern forms like novels or movies, and the postmodern form of videogames.  EVE, for all its scope, breadth, and internal history, relies just as much on its details as any of its predecessors.

But encyclopedias are full of details, and no one finds them to be engaging stories or worlds.  We might read them and accept the information as true, and functionally believe it, and yet a good storyteller can get you to feel the reality of lightsabers in a way you’ll never feel anything you see described in an encyclopedia.[i]

It is actually the delicate blending of details with mystery that makes us believe, really experience, a story or a world.  In the example I wrote above, the detail that our character is out of breath might add to the image, but the word “still” makes us wonder where he’s coming from, and why he’s out of breath after driving a car.  We might likewise wonder how the car’s door got jammed shut, or why he appears to have just recognized that (Did he steal the car?  Is that why he’s out of breath?) or why his face is on a poster at the gas station, or why he has a mustache now.  (He must have stolen it!  No one with a mustache and a convertible is ever up to any good!)  Even the word “another” makes us wonder what happened to his first flashlight, and perhaps interacts with the other details and their resonant mysteries, so we can begin to see the outline of a story, yet dimly, flickeringly, so that we want to read more to find out.  This reflects our conscious experience of the real world—we are constantly presented with details that form contours in our minds, but since we never get to see everything at once (like an encyclopedia or god) we have to feel our way forward, based on these details, to bring the whole thing into light; and even then, we uncover further mysteries, and keep going.  Thus, what gets us to buy into a story, to believe it, is when it mirrors our conscious experience of reality by carefully deploying believable clusters of details that outline a mystery.  The story begins to feel like another world because we explore it like we do this one.

But in the example I gave above, the story is in the linear, monophonic, non-interactive medium of prose.[ii]  That is to say, your ability to feel forward through the world is itself a sort of illusion, as in actuality the author is leading you along. 

So what happens in a world like EVE, where the storytelling is embedded in a world we actually can explore on our own, and where much of the story actually comes from what we do?  How do you get someone to believe in a world, not just a story?  And how does this form manipulate the interactions between detail and mystery that make it all tick?

In 1933, electric light was still fairly new to Japan.  The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki saw this simple technology, which is now ubiquitous and not generally tied to any specific culture, as something distinctly Western, foreign, and contradictory not just to traditional Japanese aesthetics, but to the philosophies behind them.  In a quiet and deviously humble essay titled “In Praise of Shadows,” he begins by explaining the challenges of building a new house that still feels authentic: hiding wires, using wood panels instead of tile, and so on.  But this is just the literal application of what he really wants to talk about—shadow, mystery, depth, age.  In Tanizaki’s view, the core philosophical element to a Japanese home or to Japanese design is not its characteristic sparseness, but its use of shadow, or recessed alcoves that hide the artwork within them, of deep eaves that block the sun.  The real problem with electric light isn’t that it’s foreign, but that it is too effective at eliminating these carefully curated shadows, and all the depth and variety they imbue.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because this is the same issue the storytellers at CCP have to balance in EVE.

We might think of a story like the darkened rooms of Tanizaki’s essay, and our progress through them like a small candlelight.  Here, the light would be the details, (the new mustache, the broken car door) and the darkness would be the mysterious reality they imply (Did he steal the car?).  The detail casts into certainty some things, but at the flickering edges of its light, it creates uncertainty, illusion, mystery, so that we can’t be sure what things are.  A pot at the edge of a flickering light might be a face, or a mirror; a bookshelf might be a radiator, or a window—and only as we draw closer do they come into focus, just as, later in my example above, you would expect to find out what our character is really doing.  As more candles are lighted throughout the darkened room, their shadows intersect and pool together just as much as their lights.  We do indeed see more of the space, but very little of it with any certainty.  When the story concludes, in most cases, we can at best see only half of the forms in the room.

The encyclopedia, in comparison, throws on the halogen floodlights, obliterating shadows and overwhelming us with a deluge of details and certainty.  In this light, we might find the room mildly interesting, but not addicting—not enchanting, and certainly not begging us to explore and interact with it.  Moreover, the room will look the same at any hour of the day, and to anyone passing by.  There is nothing organic, nothing unknown, that can arise out of this abundance of details without any mystery.   In essence, this is the difference between an art and a science.

Controlling this process—lighting the right candles at the right times, directing the eye to the right places—has been difficult enough to justify storytelling as a virtuosic artform going all the way back to Homer.  But it’s made even harder in the days of online wikis, fan theories, and databases.  Indeed, it’s tough for Star Wars or Harry Potter to contain any real depth of mystery any more, because over time they have not only gotten more and more detailed (or brighter) but they have also had those details combed through and assembled into something like very literal encyclopedias.  As I showed so briefly above, there is this weird parabola in our ability to believe a story, so that the barest lines do nothing to engage our imagination, but total encyclopedic omniscience also reminds us that we’re dealing with fiction, and everything feels more designed than depicted.  Creators in older and more detailed universes thusly need to be careful to work with what they already have, to stay in that middle-ground where there is still mystery; or, to keep using Tanizaki’s metaphor, they need to add items to the room without throwing on any more lights.  That is a whole lot to manage.  It’s no wonder longer projects of worldbuilding often lose that initial spark.  (Candle pun intended.) 

The challenge in a game like EVE is that the story doesn’t begin at the beginning.  Entering New Eden is more like getting off the plane in a foreign country than cracking open a book or starting a movie.  To compare it to my example above, we don’t necessarily begin with Sam’s little scene at the gas station, seeing it through the lens of prose—we might be on the other side of town, as a character ourselves, and might see this part of the story firsthand only if we’re in the right place and time, and then might only hear about it afterwards.  Even if you’re one of the rare few who has been in EVE’s world since 2003 when it launched, in story-time, you’ve only been around for the most recent instants at the crest of an eons-long history. 

But it is precisely that history that makes the world so immersive. 

I remember the moment I got hooked on EVE’s world, some time in my very first hours in the game: I was running a mission in my Kestrel, and I flew by the massive wreck of some ancient freighter.  It looked nothing like any of the ships I could read about in the market, and it was as big as a station—while still being only one broken piece!  I was stunned with the idea of how old this universe was, how long it had been around before me.  I was humbled, and hooked.

This combination of dazzling futuristic technology and impenetrable ancient worlds is what makes a lot of sci-fi tick.  Perhaps the best, most efficient worldbuilding ever done is the words “A long time ago,” at the beginning of Star Wars.  I mean, really, can you imagine a more economical way to build in the mystery that is so addicting than by setting up a vibrantly futuristic world and then telling us it happened in the past?  That one line might have, on its own, made the single biggest difference in whether Star Wars became a universe you wanted to visit, or stay in.  We might download EVE for the spaceships, the things we can do in the world, but we are sucked in by those ancient stations, wrecked starships, and planets settled longer than human cities in real life.  This is the magnificent interplay of detail and mystery, light and shadow, in EVE’s storytelling.  It is only made more powerful by the way you are dropped right into it, given your own little candle, and invited to forge out into the dark.

But people pay for content.  One of the challenges of this type of storytelling is that everyone is not at the same point of the story at the same time.  While a new player might be utterly enthralled just looking at the asteroid colony in a mission, advanced players need things to do.  So, like any game, EVE has to run out expansions.

The challenge in rolling these out is very much like Tanizaki building a house with modern amenities and traditional aesthetics.  Like Tanizaki had to take pains to put the right shades on his lighting, or to hide the telephone behind a staircase, EVE’s storytellers need to introduce new game mechanics, new activities, without making the world feel too new, or solved.  They’ve done this with varying degrees of success. 

Two of the major expansions over the past decade have involved first the pirate Sansha’s Nation creating “Incursions,” or randomly spawning NPC invasions all over space, and then the more recent Triglavian invasion, in which an entirely new civilization began attacking the universe out of, essentially, another dimension.  While the Sansha’s Nation existed in-game prior to their major expansion, and so fulfilled Tanizaki’s philosophy of repurposing and deepening older material, the Triglavians were implied in the lore but didn’t exist in the world at all prior to their expansion.

I worry about the dynamic of every new expansion being OH MY GOD WE’RE BEING INVADED… again.  Obviously, marketing has some interplay with storytelling here: while it’s better for the story to uncover some ancient mystery, it’s easier to market an OH MY GOD INVASION to new, current, and returning players.  In my opinion, the exigencies of marketing this way do compromise the storytelling, forcing it to be at best less creative, and at worst compromising to the mystery that really forms the bedrock of a fictional world.  To put this another way, we might come for the invasions, but we stay for the depth, and it’s very easy to obscure that depth by constantly rolling out new content. 

However, the rollout, especially of the Triglavians, was masterful.  I do think it’s important to direct my criticism at the marketing, the management decisions that force every new storyline to involve another invasion, because the layering of mysterious messages distributed to players, encrypted in a new fictional language, and then the steady escalation of information,[iii] coupled with new content that unfolded it, exemplifies our simile of carefully curating new candles around a darkened room.  It is even more of an achievement for EVE’s storytellers and worldbuilders that they were essentially set up to fail by the necessities of marketing a new expansion, and yet they still managed to capture some of the magic.  This being said, herein lies another example of market pressures making the form and distribution of art contradict its function.  The game’s world would naturally be better off if these could be synergized.

Perhaps all stories, not just worldbuilding, but all worlds too, are some part of Tanizaki’s “dream world of candle and light.”[iv]  Indeed, dreams haunt us because they feel so close, and yet like they contain so much more than we can grasp—the best worlds and stories work the same way.  While in EVE’s lore, the presence of the atavistic Triglavians might reside within darkness, it would be almost impossible to introduce them with the sudden totality of a new MMO expansion without creating the effect that the lights have suddenly been thrown on.  This makes the act of exploring the world not one of pushing deeper into that darkness as if pulled along by it, nor even of seeing apparitions in the fog alongside a boat the storytellers are driving, but of pushing oneself through that absolute, shadowless glare of a laboratory.  In this light, we might marvel at the things we see for the way they were constructed, but it is impossible to imagine that they exist on their own.  Exploring the world becomes a theoretical, intellectual exercise, more akin to memorizing sports statistics than interpreting mythology. 

Yet, videogames are a brand-new medium.  What we’re discussing here is storytelling, but much of EVE’s history also involves storymaking—that is, the way players have created and then chronicled intricate histories with their own actions.  To me, it’s both beautiful and fascinating that we haven’t yet discovered all of the ways these things interact, or what this new medium can really do.  Capitalism isn’t kind to any sort of art, and over time, as our societies evolve and our videogames are further innovated, we might gain enough data to see how marketing and monetization can work with storytelling and storymaking, not against them.  Moreover, in any competitive game, people optimize themselves out of their most engaging gameplay[v]—they solve problems, which is ultimately the goal of any game—and in so doing gradually turn up the lights themselves. 

Tanizaki’s essay is a powerful snapshot into one of those strange periods between times, when old and new blend but are not yet indistinguishable.  In 2021, EVE Online, and digital media in general, are in much the same place.  I hope that in the future, this blog will do some of what “In Praise of Shadows” does for us now—whatever that is.


[i] This is also the sort of buy-in mechanism used in a lot of modern cults, or “mystery religions,” such as Q-Anon: modern as we are, our brains still prefer the story to the facts.  That might never change, and maybe it shouldn’t.

[ii] Go back to Post I for a nice refresher on what different mediums do better than others.

[iii] A good example from midway through the story is when the Triglavians hacked billboards to broadcast their message, and the in-world news site The Scope reported on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Mj8g4k2Gs

[iv] In Praise of Shadows, pg. 1

[v] A fantastic essay on how we ruin our own games: “Water Finds a Crack,” by Soren Johnson,  https://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369

IX – “It Doesn’t Matter Until it Matters”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part Three

I swing open the side panel of my ancient Area 51 and set a small fan pointing at it.  On Discord, there are half a dozen pictures of my corpmates’ computers set up about the same.  This is our version of shoring up the trenches before the guns start to toll.

I pause a moment to look inside the computer for the first time.  I press the power button, and the fans start into a cool hiss, like the background noise of an airplane mid-flight.  This sound has accompanied me on many fleets, through many cold winter nights; it’s greeted me when I return from turning on my electric blanket, from smoking a bowl out in the snow, or when I’ve come running back from the bathroom before my ship finishes a long warp.  It has, in summer breaks, combined with the hum of air conditioning, helping me believe that I really am in a spaceship.  I’ve never had to crack it open before.  Since I got it in middle school, it has always been massively overpowered (blame my grandparents) but now, in the August before my senior year of college, I don’t just want to play it safe—I want to post my own picture of my own setup to Discord.  There’s a buzz in the air.

The computer sits beside the ornate dining room table of a historical Victorian mansion in western Massachusetts.  I’m dog-sitting.  In the whole house, it’s just me, two lovely Corgis—and now, issuing from my speaker, the excited voices of my corpmates moving and fueling titans, relaying information from their spies, debating outcomes, taking bets on who will FC.  Yes, I hauled my 74-pound anachronism of a desktop up here just for this, and I’m not shy to admit it.  I finish grilling some gourmet sausages I found in the freezer, let the dogs out one more time, and strap in for the long haul.

In a few hours, we would be committed on grid for the X47 Armor Timer,[1] in what would become the Glassing of the North.

This is a narrative.  It’s not in-character or in-game, but it’s about that feeling you can’t really get in any other game—the butterflies, the camaraderie, the knowledge even as it’s happening that this might be one of those I was there type moments.  Even better, I could say we were there with the twenty or so members of my corporation, with whom I weathered this battle of thousands.

This battle was happening in 10% time-dilation, meaning that everything was happening at one tenth its normal speed so the servers could (kind of) keep up.  That draws out the experience.  It makes this EVE’s version of trench warfare.  Indeed, it makes sense for all warfare in EVE to happen on a shorter timescale than real life—it is a game, after all.  In New Eden, most wars last a few months, most battles last an hour or less.  So proportionately, this hours and hours-long slog with thousands of pilots on field is EVE’s version of the Somme.  Throughout it all, I sit on a comms channel with my own corp, where we are able to have a running commentary, interrupted periodically by our fleet commanders barking orders.

In between firing doomsdays, I entertain myself.  I play with the dogs.  I do some pushups (Henrietta likes to lie on her back beneath me while I do so, you know, for snuggles).  I practice my bass.  I water the plants.  I chat with the corpmates.  I do some stretching.

The gameplay itself is, let’s say, less-than-riveting.  In fact, playing in slow-motion, when someone else is making every decision for you, is probably the single most boring thing you could do in a videogame.  I know a lot of people who hate on these massive ‘tidi-fest’ fights for just this reason.  Even flying five characters simultaneously, I need to touch the keyboard about once in as many minutes, at the most. 

And yet, this is one of the fondest memories of my gaming career.  I had a great time.

That’s because I wasn’t there for the gameplay.  I was there for the same reason someone might write fan fiction, or go to a convention, or even a concert—I was there to be part of a narrative, to be part of the community that would build and sustain it.  Part of that narrative was us against them, and in this sense I was there to have an eyewitness account of what I’d debate on Reddit, in local chat, and watch debated on EVE talkshows for months.  But you can’t have an us against them narrative without them.  So in this sense, I was there not just for the concentric communities of Burning Napalm (my corp) Northern Coalition. (my alliance) or Panfam (my bloc): I was there for the “Imperial Legacy” supercoalition against us, and to be a part of the broader EVE community. 

For me, this is the quintessential experience of the “Strategic Mindset” I’ve been writing about for two weeks.  While we were indeed battling tooth-and-nail over an objective, and would have been happy to win by any means, the presence of that objective, shared by so many other players, imbued it with an importance that in turn trickled into everything we did during this period, in game and out.  Stretching and taking care of my body in real life was a way to make sure I could be available to fight all night, just like the fueling and moving of capitals (tasks normally seen as chores) that had been done all morning in-game.  The Strategic mindset, and the community that shared it, in this way extended my gameplay past the admittedly menial piloting on-field.  In fact, I cared as little about how boring the actual button-pressing was as I would care about making a “narrative” out of a deathmatch in Halo.  This was a completely different type of gaming.  And at that point in my life, it worked for me.

Before and after spending several years with NC., I was in smallgang groups.  Smallgang fights were my preferred playstyle, and indeed for most of my career in EVE I’ve had a Recreational PVP mindset: I’m always the guy to miss out on big kills because I didn’t bother to pile on, choosing instead to secure an out-gate or start hunting for the next target.  Over the period from 2012-2019, this became an increasingly rare attitude in NC. and, I later found out, across the rest of EVE as well.  During this time I took several long breaks to focus on school and my real life, and after each I noticed not only new faces in corp, new doctrine fleets, new political geographies, but also fewer roaming fleets, fewer people willing to undock without an FC and an objective.  This frustrated me in times of relative peace, and no doubt led me back into some of my breaks.  But during times of war, this was no issue at all.  My entire EVE social sphere, and indeed most of EVE’s inchoate podcasting and streaming ecosystem, focused on these major battles—on the ones that didn’t happen, the ones that did, and on planning and preparing for them always.  This worked well for me.  I wasn’t at a point in my life where I could devote time to getting better at the game and finding my own fights, as I did when I was 15, and as I do now at 24.  Instead, I could actually log in once or twice a week to prepare for the massive battles that happened once a month or so.  In the meantime, I could follow EVE’s news on media sites, on Reddit, and eventually on various Discord servers.

In this way, I wove the narratives of EVE’s wars into my real life.  These were narratives I fought over in arguments on media, in discussions on Discord, and almost in a secondary sense, in the actual game.  This is not something you could do in most games.

This period from 2012-19 was good for me as a New England Patriots fan, as well.  (I hope not too many of my readers are both anti-Panfam and fans of another team in the AFC East…)  This served as a complement to EVE, and I appreciated football in much the same way.  I debated it with friends.  I followed media about it.  I learned as much as I could about the game.  And similarly, I sat down about once a week for the primary-source material of watching games.

The difference, though, is that I wasn’t actually playing for the Patriots.  Even as a faceless linemember, EVE gave me a way to be the fullback, or even a water boy, for figures like Vince Draken and Killah Bee.  That charged my time following media sites and discussions with even more importance, so that, instead of just being a “fan” of EVE and of my groups in it, I was also preparing myself for that gameplay.  A tiny tidbit I heard on a talkshow or read on a Discord might influence my decision to buy another dreadnought, or move another Apostle.  My out-of-game activities thus had some significance for my in-game activities, not unlike how a football player watching tape can prepare for gameday.  To distill a small mountain of Fan Studies literature, this essentially created a feedback loop, so that my consumption of content was also my role in content creation; and because everyone else was doing this as well, on both sides of every war, we were able to create the collective fan culture of EVE, and the many subcultures within it.[2]  This is another way to understand the “offensive and defensive narratives” theory I wrote about in last week’s post.

It’s possible in any game for the fan activities of discussion and news consumption to become extended over periods of time greater and more diffuse than actual gameplay, so that the gameplay is effectively, but not literally, woven into daily life.  Any time someone debates game balance or theorycrafts new tactics in any game, they’re doing this.  The success of Twitch is a testament to this. 

However, because EVE’s gameplay is so open, and many forms of it are indistinguishable from, for example, reading an EVE-related Discord, EVE’s “gameplay” is about as close as you could get to literally being possible without even firing up the game.  Of course, in order to keep the terms clear, I think it’s important to refer to “gameplay” primarily as time actually logged in to the game.  But for sure, if you log in to sit in standing fleet and chat about your group’s war narrative, that is much more similar to following game news on Discord while waiting for the bus than, for example, the difference between actively playing Overwatch and being part of an Overwatch Discord.  Of course, there are plenty of gameplays in EVE that would be as different from their fan activities as a game like Overwatch—but in the PVP scene, those would largely be of the Recreational mindset.  For a Strategic player, some aspects of their gameplay might almost literally be done offline.  That means some aspects of their gameplay might almost literally be woven into their daily life, almost like augmented reality.  When I think of the Battle of X47, I think of dogsitting in Massachusetts as much as I do of firing lasers.  When I think of the Glassing of the North, I think of planning our evacuation on Discord as much as I do a scorched-earth campaign from Tribute to Malpais.  This is an incredibly cool feature of a totally unique game.  It also means the social habits we build in EVE translate to our real lives.

Growing up, my parents hated sports.  My grandfather, who had me officially on Sundays, but most other days as well, taught me all about his favorite sports—I suspect initially so I would be invested enough to mess with his old bunny-ear television so the picture was clear, but he didn’t have to get up.  He didn’t, and still doesn’t, really follow teams in particular, but just the sports themselves.  This gave me free run to pick our favorite teams.  In central New Jersey, we had both Philadelphia and New York to pick from, so naturally I picked the ones from Boston. 

One thing he used to say, and still will say from time to time, is that “The great thing about sports is that it doesn’t matter at all.  At least until it does.”  What he meant by this was that during a game you might care so much about the outcome, but then the next day, the world is exactly the same no matter what happened.  That’s a really cathartic, refreshing experience.  It not only gives you a few hours of absolute focus, and companionship, in which you’re not worried about one other thing in the world, but also lets you pace you weeks and months out with the steady rhythms of stress-relief afforded by games.  And yet, unlike a contest like politics—which my grandfather and I also both follow fiercely—when your team inevitably loses, the world goes on without noticing.  It’s a really good thing, and an important thing in a society, to let people blow off steam and build relationships around something that is inherently meaningless. 

At least, it should be meaningless.  The other half of his statement, “until it does” is a reminder that there is a point when sports begins to influence the real world, positively or negatively.  One big example is in role models.  Now, on paper, there’s no reason to root for one team over another, any more than there’s a reason for a tabula rasa newbro to join one alliance or another in EVE.  But when a team tolerates a player who is a bad role model—getting in fights on the field, hogging attention, walking off when their team is losing[3]—this tells an entire city, and an entire fan base, it’s ok to act like this.  Or, even worse, if you act like this, you’ll be as successful as he is.  That matters.  This was something my grandfather would remind me often when I was little.  While he didn’t root for any teams in particular, there were those he would refuse to root for because of their cultural influence.  When I picked the Patriots as my favorite team in my favorite sport, he was pleased—they don’t fight, they don’t brag, they do great charity work.[4]  That allowed sports to be meaningless again, as they should be.

EVE is strikingly like sports in this regard, especially in how I played it as a bloc linemember with a Strategic mindset.  Fleet fights offered a few hours of absolute focus, and of community, and offered enough narrative weight to allow me to pace out my weeks and months with the rhythms of EVE wars.  Just like sports, you might care so much when fighting, or preparing to fight; and just like sports, it should remain meaningless. 

The first two parts of this three-part essay began with snapshots from within my time in New Eden.  This one began with a narrative snapshot from my actual life.  This is intentional. 

Indeed, in those first two scenes—a standoff with Goons and a tug-of-war with Brave, respectively—there was also a me sitting at a computer screen, making things happen.  In the second scenario, when I started FCing, people heard Paul’s voice, which to them was geddy’s voice.  Most forms of digital media refract our more singular selves into many parallel versions—the one on Facebook, the one on Zoom, and so on; EVE is perhaps just a more perfect crystal that makes those refractions crisper and clearer.  Who we are when we’re playing is, and should probably remain, theoretically unanswerable. 

But phenomenologically—that is, regarding experience—there are continuities between the self on the game and the self in real life, just how there are continuities between the fan who follows a sports team and the child who starts to imitate their favorite players.[5]  Social habits I form while playing EVE do undoubtedly carry over to my real life.  As my grandfather keenly reminds us, that makes some of the things we do in EVE, and how we treat each other, actually matter in the real world.

Jon Oliver did a great job compressing a lot of research about conspiracy theories and the actual mechanics of mental gymnastics into a short segment, and while he’s talking about COVID, the very same mechanics are true for any narrativization.[6]  (Of course, Hume’s theory on reason and the passions from last week has importance here too.)  Essentially, we might think of narrativization as a skill.  The more you do it, the better you get at it, until you are able to do it without even realizing it, filtering new information through the lens of the old.  This is why, as Oliver discusses, people who already believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe the next.  This also maps with what a close family member of mine learned in Alcoholics Anonymous: the more often you lie, to yourself and others, the easier it gets.

Now, let me dial back the rhetoric a bit here.  Following EVE narratives is by no means “lying to yourself” and spinning your side’s defeats into victories is not remotely comparable to making life-threatening decisions about a deadly virus.  But all of these use the same mechanism in the brain: the mechanism of narrative.  The difference is of degrees, not of nature—albeit of such different degrees that narrativization in EVE can actually be really fun and healthy, like sharing fan fiction.  However, this is how EVE can begin to matter:

Each time you make a narrative out of events, it gets easier for your brain to do this the next time.  But your brain doesn’t know the difference between EVE and real-world narratives.  Being really good at ‘spin’ in EVE does no doubt train you, in some small way, for buying ‘spin’ in your real life. 

In some ways, this is a testament to EVE’s power to recreate the world.  A few weeks ago, someone commented on one of my Reddit posts promoting this blog to the effect of ‘I’m going to stop reading all of your stuff forever because you mentioned something about climate change.’  Clearly, for that reader, journalism[7] has become a customer-service industry, and disagreeing on something in the real world is grounds to silence someone’s thoughts about New Eden.  That’s not healthy. 

This is the final aspect of the Strategic-Recreational dichotomy that I wanted to talk about.  While Recreational PVP exists largely outside of narrative, Strategic PVP almost requires it, and can sometimes almost be it.  Does that make Strategic PVP dangerous?  Absolutely not.  Its relationship to fan culture and community building is intensely cool and really healthy.  But we might think of consuming EVE war narratives more like alcohol—fun in small doses, but potentially harmful in large ones. 

Part of why I’ve devoted three posts to the Strategic-Recreational divide is because I want to help players understand each other a little better.  I am all for conflict and contest, just like in sports, but (as with so much on the internet) misunderstandings in EVE’s PVP world often lead to what I consider really unhealthy degrees of vitriol.  This comes from both sides.  Smallgangers hate Strategic groups who won’t engage in a fair fight, and those nullbloc members who just want to do their part in the isk-making cold war hate the Recreational roamers who come through and deny them gameplay.  It is utterly routine to see pilots from either mindset bragging in local chat about denying a fight to someone else.

I don’t want to make a false equivalency here.  There are two ways EVE can come to matter, negatively, in the real world: the first, shared by both Recreational and Strategic PVP, is essentially a lack of sportsmanship, an ability to dehumanize the person on the other side of the screen just because they’re an adversary in a videogame.  That happens in any game, and on most online social platforms generally, and it is something we all should work against.  However, EVE’s unique focus on fan-driven war narratives also makes a second way it can matter, that is exclusive to Strategic PVP: when ‘spin’ in EVE becomes such a habit it carries over into the real world.

While part of allowing an open world is allowing people to treat each other however they like, I personally can’t get behind using the cruelty of wasting someone’s free time as a weapon, or of driving a narrative so hard the opponent becomes the enemy.  This just further erodes our already threadbare sense of human community, making what should be a meaningless online gaming interaction something that actually damages a person’s trust and compassion in real life.  This kind of thing is allowed in EVE, and it should be, but just like an athlete setting a bad example for their fanbase, I think it’s unethical.  I hope that having this template of mindsets lets us understand the motivations of ourselves and others a little better, and if it doesn’t change the actions pilots take in New Eden, I hope it at least works to lower the temperature, and help us remember that we are playing with our opponents as much as with our allies.  I don’t want everyone to get along in EVE.  I actually want as much conflict as possible.  But whether you’re a primarily Strategic or Recreational PVPer, or not a PVPer at all, I hope we can keep it perfectly meaningless. 


[1] For a general reference: https://community.eveonline.com/news/news-channels/interstellar-correspondents/battle-of-x47l-q-120-08-01/

[2] This is a distillation of several essays in the Fan Fiction Studies Reader, compiled by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse.  Some of the writing in it is pretty dense, but it’s all extremely helpful for understanding fan cultures in online media.

[3] One notable and more recent memory is Odell Beckham’s antics with the Giants.  I really dodged a bullet on rooting for them my whole life! https://www.nj.com/giants/2018/10/did_odell_beckham_quit_walks_off_before_halftime_g.html

[4] They also probably don’t cheat.  But if you want my answer to that inevitable question, look at the paragraph about David Hume in last week’s post.  Of course, I want to believe they’re not cheaters, and find solace in the fact that they would have never been found guilty of any of their scandals in a criminal court.  I also think there’s a reaction when someone wins so much for so long that others do want them to cheat, and arrange facts to support that thesis.  Either way, as role models, I would argue that, since no young Pats fan would believe they have ever cheated, no young Pats fan is getting the message “it’s ok to cheat” from them.  But that’s a whole other can of worms.

[5] This is of course true for adults as well, but with less clear contrast.

[6] Just watch the whole thing. It’s great.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b_eHBZLM6U

[7] For lack of a better word.  This is a blog.  I know that.

VIII – “Why You Running?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part Two

“Oh come on, we’re just trying to give a good fight,” they write in local as we’re defensive-bubbling and running for our lives. 

It began with a Gnosis, who wandered into us seemingly on his search for deeper truths.  Shockingly (not shockingly) it was bait.  We were 1 jump out of GE-, back when it was still the home of the massive, chaotic, and respectably belligerent Brave Collective, so this was no surprise.  It’s actually what we wanted.  As soon as we grabbed the Gnosis, about forty more ships began to pile in next door and head our way.  After a brief skirmish, we began to pull our gang of six back toward our wormhole.

Scenes like this around the home of a group like Brave are as constant as waves breaking on a beach.  Due to the hyperconcentration of nullsec populations, there are a handful of capitol systems that will reliably give a response to roaming gangs.  We have spy characters in all of those alliances, so we can always sense their activity and listen to them communicating while they chase us—that also means we get to see the standing fleets interact with everyone, not just our actual characters, and can begin to see some trends.

Whenever the roamers run, from any alliance, someone from the throngs chasing after them always writes in local chat to the effect of ‘we just want to fight, why are you running?’  This is an apparent appeal to the Recreational PVP mindset I wrote about last week, however Quixotic in its attempt at gaslighting someone into feeding their fleet into a woodchipper.

So once we reach our wormhole, we ping on Slack for reinforcements.  All over the world, a dozen or more people roll out of bed, tab out of Zoom, and run stoplights to get to the keyboard.  In a PVP-focused group, these fleet formups have the excited energy of undressing before sex (albeit usually with more people, and anticipating even greater pleasure.  Likewise, if the fleet goes well, we’ll all be satisfied, late for work, and a little sweaty.)  We form a respectable fleet of Cerberuses, able to fight at range, shred anything coming in to hold us down, and fight comfortably outnumbered.  We engage the enemy fleet with roughly 18 vs 40 characters.

They run.  When I repeat in local what they just wrote to us, “I thought you just wanted to fight?” one of them replies, “We’re just trying to give our newbies experience, they wouldn’t learn anything from fighting that.”  We laugh at the rapid redeployment of their goalposts, and pursue their equally rapid retreat back to GE-.  Still hoping for a response, we hang around.

We listen on their comms as they discuss ways to ‘helldunk’ us –to utterly smack us down without any possibility of resistance.  Despite their apparent aplomb in local chat, they want to get revenge for the ego-bruise of running away, empurpled further by the fact that they know the numbers were still in their favor.  Soon enough, a major fleet commander, Kel Drosto, logs in and begins forming their own doctrine of Cerberuses.  They are able to get pretty much their entire group of 40, who were previously disorganized and thus much less effective, into a mirror matchup with our 18.  Kel also makes sure they have about the same number of logi[i] as we do damage.  We hang around just to see if we can get them split up and grab stragglers, and when it’s clear we can’t, we run again back to the wormhole.  When we ask why they thought we’d fight that, one of them writes “We don’t want a fight, we just want you gone so our newbies can make money in peace.”

Last week, I wrote the first in a three-part essay about the framework of Strategic versus Recreational PVP mindsets. (If you’re interested in this post, you should probably read that one and circle back.)  This post is the second in that series, but it was actually the first one I conceived of, over a year ago, while still working to close our connection to Brave’s space.  I isolated those three, contradictory statements, each tied to something we did:

When we ran initially, it was ‘We just want a fight.’

When we came back to fight it was ‘We don’t want to lose because then our newbies don’t have fun.’

Finally, when they formed an unfightable response, it was ‘We just want you gone so our newbies can farm.’ 

It struck me how eerily reminiscent this was of my own time in a nullbloc, when in local chat or on Reddit, allies and enemies would wildly spin and narrativize engagements and retreats—but it stuck out, seeing this in a smallgang setting.[ii]  Clearly, all three statements couldn’t possibly be true, as each contradicted the next.  Even so, I was left wondering, Who are they talking to?

I don’t want to actually engage with any of those statements.  As with any propaganda, they are a house of mirrors, with some grains of truth and some self-fulfilling prophecies, and I’m sure not one of them speaks for every one of the standing fleet members.  Rather, I’d like to look at the mere existence of propaganda as a calling card of Strategic PVP.  I think this interaction with Brave—though it could have been any major alliance—exposes another vital difference between Recreational and Strategic PVP:

In Recreational PVP, psychological warfare, narrative ‘spin,’ and other forms of metagaming are seldom done at all, and if they are, it is to produce the gameplay but not be it in and of itself.  In Strategic PVP, they are part of the gameplay

In normal narrative spin, one is speaking both to the enemy and to their allies.  For the enemy, it is designed to challenge their understanding of events and deflate morale.  Indeed, if even 5% of a fleet hesitate to log in because they believe their side is losing, their commanders incompetent, or their cause unfruitful, that might swing the tide in a major strategic battle.  It’s impossible to quantify, but in a world where all combatants are volunteers and can check out at any time, this sort of ‘offensive spin’ is undoubtedly effective.  The same line of propaganda, however, is offensive when heard by someone on the opposing side, and defensive when heard by someone on the same side.

Defensive spin relies on David Hume’s principle that “Reason is and ought only to eb the slave of the passions.”[iii]  In other words, rather than reasoning our way to a conclusion (as most European philosophers had assumed for centuries) Hume asserted that we actually use our reason to defend what we already wanted.  Even simpler, while most people thought Reason -> Conclusion, Hume said (Desired) Conclusion -> Reason.  This phenomenon underpins most of our real-world politics—people putting on blinders to support their side, filtering incoming information for what they already agree with—such that, for example, someone making a lot of money off of oil might convince themselves that climate change isn’t real, or someone who already didn’t want to get vaccinated convincing themselves it is unsafe.  Naturally, this also underpins propaganda in EVE.  Defensive spin essentially gives members of a group who already wanted to believe their side was winning a means to do so.  I’ve felt this myself, when in a nullbloc: at first you are at sea in all the different narratives, and beginning to entertain ones that undermine your alliance, then when the explanation you want comes along, you think oh thank god!  You grab hold like of a life-preserver, and then begin to interpret future events through its lens.  Everybody does this all the time, and when Hume writes “ought only to be,” he means that this is a big part of what it is to be human.[iv]

Normally, the defensive element of your side’s narrative allows your members to defend themselves from the offensive element of my side’s narrative, and vice versa, so that the two opposing narratives exist in a sort of balance.  But in the case of a standing fleet spinning events against a roaming gang, there often is only one narrative.  This was the case in our engagement with Brave: exactly as I detailed in the previous post, we were motivated by the prospects of a fight, while they were motivated perhaps secondarily by this, but primarily by being part of a group and that group’s success.[v]  That’s not a problem at all.  But it does mean that generating a narrative would have been useless for us—outside of making them angry so they’d come fight, but as we saw, that backfired when they over-formed for us—and likewise this means that the offensive element of their narratives had no demoralizing effect on us either.  Unlike in a bloc war, when two narratives are matched against each other with as much or even more importance than actual fleets, our group didn’t just have a strong defensive narrative, it existed outside of narrative altogether.  Who were they talking to?  Themselves.

At first, when I understood that they were basically just talking to their own members, I understood it as a form of gaslighting their newer players.  I’m sure to some extent that is the case.  Blocs are very protective of their newbies, and certainly don’t want to look foolish in front of them.  But within the framework of Strategic PVP, this would be a gross oversimplification.

The fact that this happened in local chat, where we were as well, and not on their comms (where they at least didn’t think we were) means that it was an invitation to their other pilots to play along.  This is the difference between narrative in a book or movie,[vi] where one group produces it and another consumes it, and narrative in a videogame, where everyone produces and consumes it together.  From the standpoint of media history and the different ways we use art, that is immense.  Only in a videogame could you join your alliance standing fleet and both eat up the narrative and help produce it in local chat.  So, what I originally thought was just manipulating newer players is actually part of what makes EVE a work of art.

Psychological warfare is a valid tactic in Recreational PVP as well.  From smacktalk in local chat trying to get an enemy to be overly aggressive, to use of spies and intelligence manipulation, there are plenty of ways Recreational PVP players can try to get in an opponent’s head.  When, earlier this spring, marauders were buffed to a point of game-breaking invincibility, and every standing fleet began to reply with several, my group even discussed using the ‘helldunk or blueballs’ strategy of boring the enemy into lower numbers that we could actually fight, just like in a major strategic campaign.

But in Recreational PVP, psychological warfare is a means to reach the only end, a fight.  In Strategic PVP, there can be several ends—winning a decisive fight, winning an objective, denying a fight to keep winning the moneymaking cold-war, etc.—and winning the narrative can also be an end. 

Just like how, when a standing fleet chases away roamers, it is possible to say that they won their game and the roamers never got to play theirs, it’s also possible for a standing fleet to win the narrative without their enemies ever engaging in it. 

Just like with last week’s post, there are infinite shades of gray—and understanding them is actually why defining Strategic and Recreational PVP as mindsets is better than using more concrete metrics.  If a standing fleet repeatedly chases away everything without a fight, its numbers will drop.  If a roaming group repeatedly fails to catch things, they may begin to narrativize to soothe their egos.  And of course, any time we talk about a group, we have to remember that it is a group of individuals, and it will never have absolute homogeneity of goals or values.

This said, one final wrinkle worth noting is how blocs use the promise of Recreational PVP as propaganda to recruit and fill fleets for their Strategic goals.  Now, this is not to say that the former is used as a ruse for the latter.  Having been in nullblocs from 2012-19, throughout the culture shift towards a cold-war mentality, and the subsequent percolation of strategic value into all assets, I believe that many large groups do attempt to keep both mindsets alive.  They succeed to varying degrees.  On the “Less Than Ten” Podcast episode with Dunk Dinkle,[vii] leader of Brave, he begins by explaining the tension between these mindsets and how to balance them, in response to a meme that indicted him for only having a Strategic mindset.  Clearly, a historical goal of Brave’s has been to train new players using a Recreational PVP mindset—but to do so, they also need the infrastructure that can only be defended with Strategic fleets.  And certainly, training new players with Recreational PVP is effective, as the emphasis on actually fighting lends this mindset more towards skills development; but well-trained new players are then themselves a strategic asset, living in symbiosis with the many other playstyles in a large group.[viii] 

From listening to this podcast, it’s clear Dunk himself works to keep the Strategic mindset out of their training fleets (which I imagine includes their standing fleet) and focus on “fun per hour.”  But this clearly requires active work, as my example interaction with Brave’s standing fleet shows how the Strategic mindset—or at least a Strategic fleet commander—can take over.  As I’ve shown above, propaganda and ‘spin’ are themselves core elements of the Strategic mindset—their presence in an ostensibly Recreational setting is evidence of the struggle between the two mindsets, and perhaps foreshadows the overwhelming response and final commitment to the utterly Strategic ‘we just want you gone’ narrative.  When Dunk describes some people hanging out with standing fleet doing “space work”[ix] while others PVP, he gives the epitome of what I mean by the Strategic mindset—people’s gameplay is existing in their community, and the ones fueling structures and doing logistics are playing just as much as the ones fighting to defend their space.  That is an amazing feature in a videogame, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But Dunk also maintains that the ones on the same comms channel are practicing Recreational PVP looking for “fun per hour.”  I’m sure that is their goal, but it’s enough to make your head spin.

We’ve now got a couple layers going here, so I’m going to take a moment to sum it up before looking forward to the third part of this giant essay on PVP mindsets, next week.

Recreational PVP might use spin as a means, but the end is always to get a fight.  In Strategic PVP, the end can be to win a fight, or it can be the narrative itself, or many other things.  That means that when there’s spin[x] in local, unless it’s just someone salving their ego, there is at least the influence of a Strategic mindset at play. 

Recreational fleets and “fun per hour” can then be looped into that narrative, as in the case of Brave, so that the promise of Recreational PVP becomes a recruitment tool, and adds Strategic assets to an alliance.  Just like how Recreational PVP is very simple, and Strategic PVP very diverse, the large groups that require a Strategic mindset also have very diverse playerbases.

It is possible to be a Recreational player inside a Strategic organization.  In this case, since their Recreational PVP also serves long-term Strategic goals, it is possible to actually practice both.  But the cost of this is that the inherently contradictory mindsets will chafe and threaten to overtake each other, requiring constant attention and cultural work to keep them going.  In terms of thinking of each mindset as a different game within a continuous world, this is like playing Call of Duty within Company of Heroes: you might be interested in your K/D, but the larger structure is interested in making a base push.  We might call this noumenal metarelation, when the essence of things is enveloped by others.  That’s not a term most people would think to associate with a videogame. 

Next week, I’m going to look at what it actually means to be part of a narrative, what that gameplay feels like, and what it can mean for the way we learn to narrativize events in our real lives.  That will discuss EVE in the broadest terms, and will finally bridge the gap between narrative thinking in a simulation and narrative thinking in the real world.  Please check your “fun per word” mindset at the door.


[i] For non-EVE players: Logistics Cruisers or “logi” are the game’s healing ships.  As a rough figure, each one can heal about 2-3x the damage of an equivalently sized damage ship.  So in this instance, though they had about a dozen logi and we had about a dozen damage, they could in reality have held up against 3x our numbers.

[ii] Now, I would refer to this as a Recreational setting, but I didn’t have that terminology at the time.

[iii] Page 313.  Hume, David. “A Treatise of Human Nature,” Public Domain Edition.  Kindle.

[iv] This concept is absolutely profound, so if you want to take a moment to think about it or do some further research, go ahead!  In my opinion, understanding how this works, and having a bit of humility about our ability to control it, is one of the most important things a person can do for their community.  Here we see EVE’s immense potential as a simulation, allowing us to displace a mechanism of real-world politics into the game, and analyze it with a little less at stake.  This is a digression worthy of its own post, some time in the future.

[v] See note 9, where Dunk Dinkle explains this feeling.

[vi] Go all the way back to Post I for my understanding of mediums as what defines a work of art.

[vii] Ep 36: “They Named A Salvage Drone After This Guy”  https://www.podbean.com/site/EpisodeDownload/PBF42FAEZWEQ6   The first discussion comes at 2:00,, with a description of Strategic smallgang PVP at 35:00.

[viii] Dunk expands on these other playstyles following 35:00.

[ix] 41:40

[x] Note: in this context, “spin” is very different than “smacktalk.”  Saying ‘We are actually winning’ is part of a Strategic narrative, and indicates that mindset.  Saying ‘ur mom’ doesn’t indicate anything, besides maybe the player’s age. 

VII – “Wait, You WANT the Response Fleet?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part One

We sit in the cold beauty of a pre-war Delve, sixty kilometers off the stargate.  We have two Osprey Navy Issues, a Confessor, and a Keres—a weak but nimble force, hoping to stir up trouble in the heart of EVE’s largest empire, then fight while running away like Mongol horsemen.  We also have a Stiletto on the other side of the gate, watching the enemy form up.

At this moment, they have about thirty ships.  About half of those are battleships, any one of which would be difficult for our gang to kill.  Mixed in, they also have all sorts of electronic warfare to shut us down, hold us in place so we can’t kite away—and as they sit there, telling us to jump in, they continue to trickle in enough fast tackle to blot out the sun.  At the center of it all is Lord Jaxom’s Bhaalgorn, a battleship fit, essentially, to deny targets any chance at escaping, or even shooting back.  As we sit off the gate on the other side, they’re talking to our Stiletto in local chat, telling us to jump into them.

Our Stiletto pilot is asking why they won’t jump in with 6:1 superiority.  They tell us they won’t because we’re cowards.  This is fairly normal banter in the home regions of big nullsec alliances, where doublethink is a way of life.  Then one of them says something unusual—something so frank, honest, and yet cruel that it’s still stuck in my memory, over a year later.

“Eventually you’ll get bored and come feed to us,” they wrote.  “That feels like less of a waste of your evening than going home.”

Our Stiletto asked them why they didn’t feel the same way.

“Because if you leave, we’re still protecting our space.”

Eventually, with their numbers close to fifty, and still refusing to come in to us, we did go home.  We escaped without incident—even our Stiletto—and closed our connection to Delve.  But they were right.  It did feel like a total waste of time.  We were left wondering why we had decided to play EVE instead of another game, where we were guaranteed gameplay, with the precious few hours of free time we had that day; and I at least wondered why I’d bother to play EVE with my precious time on this Earth, when I wasn’t even guaranteed to be able to do it.  Indeed, we hadn’t failed at the game, we had failed to play the game.  Normally, when you fire up a videogame, you take that part for granted.

What I didn’t understand was that this was not the case for our opponents.  In fact, we had failed even to play EVE that night, but they had played it very well.  The difference is in the nature of our objectives—the difference between Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive PVP gameplay.

EVE Online is not one game but many.  This statement rings true when considering the game’s intense complexity: any one career path in EVE certainly has as much depth as many standalone games.  But a game is an experience in which you overcome obstacles to achieve goals, and because EVE is a sandbox game, every player has to invent their own goals.  In this sense, someone whose goal is to visit every system in the game without dying[i], someone trying to collect every titan, and someone trying to become a master fleet commander, are playing games as different as Battlefield versus Farming Simulator.  Of course, they exist together, and often cross paths.  For this reason, we might better think of EVE as one world but many games.

The biggest tradeoff of this design is that, while it allows for utterly dynamic and unbelievably meaningful gameplay outcomes, it also incentivizes players of one playstyle to deny gameplay to those of another.  In the case of the PVP player and the PVE player, both cannot be “playing their game” at the same time.  The PVE player is denied playing their game while the PVP player is nearby hunting them, and the PVP player is denied playing their game when the PVE player doesn’t respond with a fight.  This is natural, and I would never suggest the sheep should not hide from the wolves, but…

EVE’s playability revolves around a healthy ratio of content-to-content denial, across all areas of gameplay.  That is, there is a threshold at which the PVP player doesn’t get enough fights, and decides to go play another game, and a similar one in which the PVE player doesn’t get to make enough money.  Neither has to be able to get their content 100% of the time.  And they may have different thresholds.  For example, a PVE player may not tolerate being denied their gameplay more than 20% of the time, while (speaking as a PVP player myself) if I was in a fight for 20% of the time I spent at the keyboard, I probably wouldn’t do anything else in my whole life.  (Seriously.  I would starve.)

Much of this has to do with mindset and self-conception as well.  For example, if I think of myself as a “PVP player,” then any time I’m not in a fight or preparing for a fight is time I am effectively not playing the game, at least as far as I’m concerned.  But if I think of myself as a “hunter,” then suddenly all the time I spend looking for a fight is also gameplay[ii].  My expectations become different, and so does the dopamine the game releases for me.  With a shift in mindset, avoiding hunters could also be a satisfying experience for the hunted, rather than the gameplay equivalent of a power outage.  I’m going to go into much more detail on this in the future, so for now suffice it to say that the goals we set in-game also define who we are in-game, and this is an immensely powerful force.

The difference in goals and mindset can also exist within an overarching playstyle, such as “PVP.”  This post is about defining PVP into three categories, Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive—and then showing how some of EVE’s most common and confusing interactions happen when they collide.  The difference in each mindset lies in its goals.

The Competitive mindset is the simplest to define: it is what you see in tournaments and tournament preparation.  Unlike most other gameplay in EVE, it is guaranteed, but also not dynamic—there are set rules and boundaries for all matches.  I’m not going to talk any more about this one, because it’s pretty noumenally simple.  In this case, the goal is to win a tournament.

Recreational PVP, like Competitive, is also fairly simple.  This is essentially playing EVE like a game—fighting other players to have fun.  That’s it.  That’s the whole goal.  If you have fun by fighting someone, you’ve achieved your goal.  More ambitious players might say, “if you’ve won a fight and had fun…” but that is a difference of degrees, not of nature.

Strategic PVP is a pervasive mindset that can attach itself to many areas of the game. 

In the case of that scenario in Delve, in which nigh-fifty Goons wouldn’t jump into four roamers, the disconnection was in the fact that we were practicing Recreational PVP, and they—even though they weren’t on a Strategic operation—were practicing Strategic PVP. 

In Strategic PVP, most engagements are a case of maneuver warfare—that is, an objective-oriented struggle, in which it is often the best tactic to avoid direct conflict and instead focus on the objective.  This can be very commonly seen in citadel fights with doctrines such as Initiative’s Boosh Raven fleet[iii], in which the fleet bounces around the battlefield at long range, keeping damage on the target and often ignoring the actual defenders.  Moreover, since EVE is a game, and morale dictates fleet numbers, it is absolutely ubiquitous for nullbloc fleet commanders to avoid uncertain fights.  Simply put, if they lose heavily, their fleet numbers will be lower next time, and they can very easily cascade strategically; but if they simply go home, their numbers should be about the same, at least as long as this isn’t done too constantly.  So, in some scenarios, Strategic PVP encourages denying conflict to focus on the objective, and in others, it encourages giving up on the objective to fight another day.  This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of nearly two decades of intricate doctrinal development, about which one could easily write an entire book—but even on this level, the dynamics of our little standoff in Delve are clear.

We wanted to get a fight, and they wanted to achieve an objective.  That objective was securing their space, which could be done through killing us, trapping us, holding us still and shittalking us, or by boring us and sending us home.  Notice, none of these options include fighting us—just killing us.  Were we to engage 5 v 50, we would have literally lasted about 30 seconds, so their numbers alone denied the possibility of a fight.  But a drawn-out engagement, while exhilarating for both parties, would be useless for their strategic goals.  Staying on the other side of that gate left all four paths open to them, while linking any of our possible actions to a path, so that they could simply wait for us to dictate their response.  This is very good strategy.  But what was their actual goal?

I wrote in passing last week, and will write in more detail in the future, about how the “empire building” era of EVE caused strategic significance to trickle down into even the most minute actions by bloc linemembers[iv] – this was also at play in our little Delve standoff.  The standing fleet is ostensibly there to protect the vital strategic resource-action of ‘krabs,’ i.e. PVE players who generate wealth for the alliance.  Thus, all they had to do was use one of the four paths I listed above to neutralize us, and they would achieve their goal.  Moreover, since every single asset in a nullbloc is imbued with strategic value, and nullbloc members are socialized by fleet culture to focus on battle reports[v], there was potential strategic loss in every single one of those 50 ships, but no potential benefit as long as they kept us in place.

It is undeniably smart to understand these terms of engagement, and any strategist presented with potential loss and no potential benefit would not engage.  This is what I didn’t understand at the time.  And I don’t want to be misunderstood like I’m lamenting this dynamic—this is the way to win at Strategic PVP.  The blog-worthy phenomenon is how that Strategic mindset gets overlaid on other forms of PVP, such that they were winning while we weren’t even playing.  And in the words of Admiral Beatty, “When you’re winning, risk nothing.”

We can compare this scenario to another local-chat interaction I had with a nullbloc member.  We had grabbed a Rorqual[vi] and were holding it to see what else would come. Our prey wrote in local, “You’re not going to kill me before backup arrives,” to which we replied, “Good.”  He then wrote me a nice title for a future blog post: “Wait, you WANT the response fleet?”

This interaction elucidates the common misunderstanding between Strategic and Recreational mindsets.  Our prey thought that he was the objective in a game of maneuver warfare, and interpreted that we would be happy killing them and escaping.  That’s a fair guess, as indeed many, even smallgang players, have this mindset when hunting—and I’m willing to bet nearly everyone in this pilot’s bloc friend group would think the same way.  And that’s a fine way to play the game.  But we were there with a Recreational mindset, with the goal of getting a fight.  Even holding this Rorqual, we weren’t really playing our gameplay yet.  We hoped for a response fleet that we could fight—usually we’re happy to fight up to 4:1 odds, at which point it is seldom tenable to stick around—and had made preparations, such as hiding our reinforcements so that they would actually engage, to try to cause that.  For those to whom this is an alien mindset, I can’t say this next part strongly enough—and I do mean it absolutely literally:

If we had killed the Rorqual without getting a fight, it would have been just as much of a failure as if we had been chased away without a fight, or never caught it at all.

If this is hard to believe, consider how much fun it is to play basketball by yourself.  It is marginally better to sink a basket than to miss, just like it would be some minute consolation prize to kill the Rorqual without a fight, but if your goal is to beat someone at basketball, making or missing the shot doesn’t matter at all.  For us, grabbing the Rorqual was like shooting hoops until someone challenges you to a game: it was just to instigate a conflict in which we could pursue our actual goal. 

But EVE is a pickup game where there’s nothing stopping fifty people from running onto the court, pinning you to the floor, and jumping on you like a trampoline while shooting basket after basket and gloating about it.  To be honest, that’s pretty cool.  There’s probably no other virtual world where this is possible, and if these social tensions weren’t possible, I’d have nothing to write about.  In the case of our standoff with the Delve standing fleet, we were shooting hoops hoping for a challenger we could match, with the goal of beating someone at basketball; their goal was to get us off the court, and there was nothing but the physics of the universe itself limiting their response.  So they could have shown up with 50 players and a sniper sitting in the stands, just in case we were able to score outnumbered.  In the end, they decided to let us shoot our hoops, get bored, and go home.  They won their game.  We never got to play ours.

I don’t want to sound like I’m lamenting this dynamic.  I maintain that EVE is a very punishing game, and the only reason to suffer through it is to do things you can’t do in any other game.  Having been on the other side of the nullbloc-smallgang divide myself, I know that it is utterly unique, and quite exciting, for your every action to carry strategic, and thus narrative, significance on the grandest scale.  That is an awe-inspiring possibility in a videogame.  To carry my analogy a bit further, if you wanted to play basketball 5-on-5, there are plenty of better games to go do that, but only in EVE can you have a totally different challenge every time.  As much as I enjoy the actual action of fighting in EVE, it is this open world that lends such weight to it.

The only problem is when the misunderstandings between these playstyles cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are all part of the same community.  I know bloc people who hate, I mean really hate smallgangers, and smallgangers who feel the same about bloc players.  While some animosity is good to drive conflict and imbue meaning in these engagements, it does often go too far.  We all exist in the same world.  At different times, we also play the same game.  Ursula Le Guin wrote, “We think we wish to join the wild animals in the jungle but will not tolerate the wild animals in our kitchens.  There are too many ants, we think, reaching for the spray, when it is equally true that there are too many humans.”[vii]  I am usually one of the ants in the kitchen of the nullbloc players.  But sometimes they are the ants in my wormhole. 

And of course, these mindsets blend together. That’s why a definition based on mindset, rather than on something like tactics, fleet numbers, or materiel, is so useful and durable. I wrote above how Strategic fleets have less to lose by standing down than taking a risky fight – but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose. As we saw in the war that just ended, though EVE is a really weird game, it still is a game, and repeated stand-downs can cause the same loss in numbers as one big defeat. Having been a part of those wars myself, I can attest to how showing up to fleets repeatedly and getting no fight can make you think “Why am I playing this game,” just like the Goon standing fleet was able to make our little gang . Thus, when Strategic fleets don’t provide enough content, they actually shift the mindset of their participants towards more Recreational thinking. Likewise, Recreational mindsets can be diverted by various factors, such as a hatred of the enemy (wanting to deny them good fights) or a lust for loot and bragging rights. In the case of smallscale evictions or mercenary contracts, for example, small groups can easily find themselves in a Strategic mindset, practicing maneuver warfare on a set objective, that will be gone once their goal is achieved. I personally left my last small-to-medium gang group in part because I disagreed with their two-wrongs-make-a-right mentality of ‘helldunking’ nullsec response fleets as they would do to us.  But even that—a PVP mindset oriented around gaudy battle reports rather than close conflict—is a beautiful niche in the EVE PVP ecosystem.

Next week, I’ll be refracting the Strategic-Recreational divide a different way, looking at psychological warfare, narrative, and how ‘spin’ is a legitimate part of one side’s gameplay and not another’s.  Maybe I’ll have more of an actual opinion in that post, but until then, I too will refuse to engage. 


[i] A feat performed by the great explorer Katia Sae: https://www.polygon.com/2019/4/2/18286977/eve-online-explorer-10-year-journey-katia-sae

[ii] Credit to my friend Welshy RL, a great Black Ops hunter, for explaining this to me.  I once asked him how he could justify hunting for three hours to create five minutes of gameplay when he caught something, and his response was simply, “Dude, hunting is my gameplay.”

[iii] A doctrine now phased out due to mechanics changes, but once dominant in the sphere of maneuver warfare.  This fleet was famously used in the siege of Fort Knocks, in which not only were the defenders wildly outnumbered, but also the attackers’ doctrine choices were objective, not fight-oriented: https://imperium.news/attack-on-fort-knocks/

[iv] TLDR, by pushing all of nullsec into an arms race for supercapital and citadel assets, CCP realigned the ‘default’ game goals around asset accumulation, rather than the development of skills, knowledge, or achievements.  Though the assets we most commonly talk about are the ultra-expensive supercapitals, all assets, no matter how cheap, do in some way contribute to the strength of the alliance, in the same way that each grain of sand contributes to the beach.  This means that, for many, the asset is worth more than the experience of using it; thus, players become more ‘risk averse’ as a matter of strategic necessity and community habit. 

[v] For non-EVE players: a link to a third-party website that compiles all the losses from a fight to create a sort of scorecard.

[vi] For non-EVE players: the game’s largest mining vessel, the backbone of all nullsec industry, and a significant investment for most owners.

[vii] Location 78.  Le Guin, No Time to Spare.  Mariner Books, Kindle edition.

VI – If You’re Too Big to Fight, You’re Too Big to Exist

As the longest war in EVE’s history winds down, as Goons and their allies do a galaxy-sized victory lap, as PAPI fractures and does damage control, and as the families of EVE’s brave combatants rejoice at their loved ones coming home (or at least, away from their desk) we should keep one thing in perspective: for CCP, this war was an unmitigated disaster.

Yes, having such a meatgrinder down in Delve was good for chewing up minerals and (arguably) giving the Scarcity economic period a reason to exist.  I am of a mind that the war did not actually boost login numbers, but only CCP knows for sure.  And only time will tell if this war yields a healthier nullsec[i] ecosystem, or another cold war so long and stagnant it kills off another generation of players.

But one thing is clear: the best thing for EVE that comes out of its giant wars is the free publicity from giant battles, which grab headlines in broader gaming media and bring in waves of new players hoping for the next one[ii].

Somehow, in the longest war in EVE’s history, those great battles didn’t happen.  Yes, there were plenty of big battles, but only two that really breached general gaming media, and only one in a good way—indeed, the utter meltdown of the servers in the second M2- battle in many ways overshadowed the unprecedented success of the first.  I’m sure many at CCP look at this war as a massive disappointment, a huge wasted opportunity to get that free publicity that is so important for a nearly two-decade old game.  I look at it as a tragic first step for a boon of new players who joined to do something in covid, and have spent their entire EVE career in war—I expect, (and would love to be proven wrong) that many will quit now that the war is over, after being taught a degree of complacency terminal to one’s chances at success in a sandbox game.

I’m not here to talk about CCP, though.  No one knows how they really feel, and I’m sure their opinions on the war are as diverse as ours. 

But I’m also not going to shy away from a great chance at some backseat development, some I-told-you-sos and my own galactic victory lap (followed by some light vomiting… I can barely run around a constellation).  

I want to take this as an opportunity to talk about what I see as the single biggest issue facing EVE today: concentration of the population into giant nullbloc alliances.  I’ll try to keep it short and on topic, and doing this will mean only discussing a few of the myriad evils a condensed population has created.

In essence, though it comes down to this: if you’re too big to fight, you’re too big to exist.

In the “golden age of EVE,” a period generally considered to span 2009-2013, Peak Concurrent User counts on the server began to climb to levels double what they have been for the last few years, and nearly triple what they have fallen to this summer, with the lifting of COVID restrictions and (I will argue) the stagnation of the big war.  In the same “golden age” timeframe, the largest alliances in the game had 5,000-8,000 characters, about one quarter the size of the largest alliances today.  The old Northern Coalition, the then-biggest coalition in videogaming history, was about the size of the game’s largest single alliance today.

Alright, I’m done.  No, really, that is sort of my whole point.  In the period of “empire building” development from 2014-19, EVE’s concurrent users simultaneously halved, including the introduction of a free-to-play account, the Alpha, while the biggest alliances in the game quadrupled in size.  The lasting damage from the increasing concentration of a decreasing playerbase is hard to really wrap your head around, presents the single biggest challenge for EVE today, and probably won’t be fully understood for a long time.  I’ll unpack some of the key points, and then relate it all back to the war that just ended.

First, let me say that this is not entirely the fault of the players.  While I do believe nullbloc leaders have pursued the growth of their organizations to the detriment of the game as a whole (the videogame world’s equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction) most of the blame goes back to CCP for a feedback loop of changes throughout the “empire building” era[iii].  But to blame players entirely would be to misunderstand the economic and political principle of a “collective action problem.”

Essentially, a collective action problem is when what’s good for the individual is bad for their community, and therefore also bad for the individual.  A good example detailed by Vice News is the Dollar General stores popping up across the US[iv].  While these stores provide goods cheaper to the individual consumer, they are also able to operate with fewer employees and undercut local competition, strangling small businesses and depressing the local job market.  Buying something at a Dollar General is cheap, but also means you’ll make less money tomorrow.  It is therefore immediately good but ultimately bad for the consumer and their community.  This effect is also seen repeatedly in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, in which many characters echo the statement of the plowman employed by the bank to drive his neighbors out of their homes:

“I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.’’ 

“That’s right,’’ the tenant said. “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?’’ 

And the driver said, “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids.”[v]

There are many collective action problems in EVE—and the presence of them, which requires complexity and agency to develop, is further evidence that EVE is its own world, not just a game.  But the biggest collective action problem is the concentration we’ve seen in nullsec, and moreover of players moving from other areas to nullsec.  Just as Steinbeck is able to humanize both the plow driver and his victims, we can’t find ourselves demonizing the individual players who find their way to nullsec alliances.  But it works like this:

For the individual player, nullsec alliances have historically offered security, moneymaking opportunities, varying degrees of fleet PVP opportunities, and varying degrees of community.  Essentially, they are one way for the game to be taken more casually.  In one of these groups, you don’t need to build your own infrastructure or log on every day to fuel and protect it; you don’t need to generate PVP fights or really know what you’re doing in them; you don’t need to have your own goals, as you can work towards the goals of your group.  Especially for new players, this is a great deal.  CCP has abdicated responsibility for developing new players for years, allowing the nullsec blocs to scoop them up—and ask anyone who’s started EVE in the last 7 years, almost all of them will have come through one of these organizations at some point or another.  For these individuals, the big groups provide all the resources they need to have an easy start in a very hard game.

As these alliances grew and gained strength, they also sucked players out of other regions of the game, both condensing within nullsec and across the server.

Nullsec alliances, working under their own collective action problem, teach their pilots to make money, to avoid drawing attention to their space, to avoid fighting except for strategic reasons[vi] and to join fleets, which are built inherently not to develop skills but to encourage multiboxing (as I detailed in Post II).  Furthermore, for their own security, these alliances form broad coalitions and try to avoid wars.  This is the design of the “empire building” era of EVE – to create a constant cold-war scenario, in which making money and accumulating assets is the single most important factor in winning a war.  This makes every single action have some degree of strategic value, and was done because horizontal growth is simpler to monetize than a game that asks its players to get better.  Again, we can’t fault the alliances for correctly assessing how to win at the game, and doing it.

But the genius of EVE is its dynamism, its ability to generate content through the tension between spontaneous accidents and long-term planning.  When your pilots are trained to avoid fights, because this draws more hunters to the area, and to wait for fleet pings instead of trying to find their own content – and when you wind up with 2 or 3 gigantic groups instead of hundreds of little ones – the uniqueness of EVE is undermined, and the game becomes fundamentally indistinguishable from its competition.

By introducing empire building mechanics and making them tantamount to game domination, CCP created a collective action problem for individual players and alliances alike that encouraged them to concentrate and stagnate for their own benefit, thus ultimately reducing their chances at fun in the game.

To a large extent, those collective action problems still exist.  But they have also pushed a fundamental culture shift in EVE.  While game developers once famously released “Harden the Fuck Up”[vii] they also pushed for years to increase dopamine rewards, decrease skills expression, and promote horizontal growth across an ever-shrinking playerbase.  The other day, I had a 7-person fleet run from my 4-person fleet, saying in local chat that it was “not worth it” to engage us, even though their 7 Feroxes were the posterchild of trivially cheap, expendable ships.  While in a single scenario, that might have happened in 2013, played out 100 times, it would have happened much less then than it would now: more often than not, back in the day, people would have taken that fight.  That’s because the basic objective of EVE used to be achieving things, and now it is accumulating things.  Simply put, the 7 players that wouldn’t fight me last week calculated that the assets, however cheap, were worth more than a possible achievement of victory, because assets are always worth more in a world where every action, and every asset, has global strategic significance.  I wrote extensively on this in a Reddit post last year, and though I took a different tone in it, especially in the closing, than I take on this blog, I stand by it[viii].

So, CCP created collective action problems by trickling strategic significance into even the tiniest action made by a nullbloc player, thus driving a concentration of the population into a few huge alliances, and fundamentally shifting the culture of the game.  This leads us to the current problem.

In nature, populations are controlled by factors such as disease, food abundance, and competing lifeforms.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is a good example.  Whatever origin story you prefer, it is undeniable that the virus was prolonged and worsened by global overpopulation and interconnectedness.  Simply put, there are too many humans alive right now to control the spread of a novel virus.  This happens to other animals all the time, when they get overpopulated and overconcentrated to a point where a disease can spread very easily.  In the case of most plants and animals, that disease devastates the population and resets the overpopulation problem.  We’re just not used to it happening to us.

EVE presents us with a world free from disease, climate change, and nuclear apocalypse.  It is, in some ways, more stable than our world on Earth, even though the servers could shut off at any moment. 

But EVE’s servers have hard limits.  Even using military-grade hardware, and with a major game company prioritizing increasing server capacities for years, in the second battle of M2-, the defenders were nearly able to max out what the server could handle on their own, while comprising about a third of what would have engaged without server issues.  This is not because EVE is globally overpopulated, as Earth is today.  It is because nullsec is overconcentrated, to a degree the servers can’t handle.

This is the same phenomenon as deer becoming overpopulated due to a loss of predators and then starving, because there isn’t enough food to support them all.  In EVE, content is food.  Battles not only bring in new players, they sustain old ones—they give PVP players something to do, and industry players a reason to build.  And right now, at least in nullsec, a confluence of years of game design, in-game politics, and shifting culture has caused giant nullsec alliances to concentrate their populations too densely for the available sustenance.  The biggest groups in EVE are too big to fight. 

If they had quadrupled in size because the game had quadrupled in total players, this wouldn’t be such an issue.  But right now, they exist in spite of smaller groups, because they have grown while the game shrank.  That means if they’re too big to fight, they’re too big to exist.

I have a lot of opinions on how CCP could spread the population back out.  Of course, I think most of them are right.  But this blog is about the meta-sphere of EVE, so I won’t delve into them too much. 

What I will say is that in the past, when I’ve brought this up, on Discords, on Reddit, and even on voice comms, the nullbloc players I’m talking about respond with a feverish negativity, because they feel their playstyle under attack.  I hope that my long digression into collective action problems has shown I bear them no ill will and don’t ultimately hold them accountable for the issues at hand.  I also hope my analysis has made it clear that they are themselves denied content by these issues—after all, we didn’t get the big battles we all wanted out of this war.

I am also not advocating from a political position, such as saying that Goons are too big but others are alright.  Rather, I think the best solution would be to reduce the size of all nullbloc alliances relatively, so that Goons would remain the strongest, and all others would retain their relative places as well, but the players leaving these groups would start others, spread out around the map, and allow for more dynamic gameplay. 

Would the entire map still pile in on the biggest fights?  Absolutely.  But only after the fight was already ongoing, some groups were already committed, and only after themselves earning their involvement by moving across the galaxy, managing diplomatic relations, and planning ahead.

Though we have again circumvented nature and survived COVID-19 without a significant loss in population (at least so far), it doesn’t seem a safe bet that the same would happen in EVE.  After all, we have to live on Earth.  Deer have to live in their local forest.  EVE players can just go to other games. The failure of this war to provide EVE the headlines it deserves is a dire warning about the health and sustainability of the game.  That’s what you get when your game is nearly as complex as the real world: you also have to play by the world’s rules.  Let’s learn from the many times our planet has enforced those rules, and understand that denial is hubris, that a developer, like even a god, can proceed in either to their own demise through the loss of those who sustain them.


[i] For non-EVE players: the ungoverned outer ring around the map that players are free to control and fight over.  This is where 90% of the stories you hear about EVE take place, including just about all of the last war.

[ii] Let’s do something fun: instead of me linking you to articles, why don’t you Google “greatest EVE Battles” or something like that, and see what comes up.  That’ll prove my point.

[iii] I’ve got a lot of opinions on these, but this blog is about EVE’s meta-sphere, so I’ll stay away from them as much as possible.  But for the sake of clarity, for the EVE readers who know what I mean: Rorqual buffs were an obvious money-grab based around reducing skill ceilings and encouraging horizontal growth (as I detailed in Post II on this blog); citadels were the single worst MMO expansion ever, very nearly singlehandedly killed the game, and remain only half fixed now, over half a decade later; skill injectors were needed to allow new players to catch up, but were introduced in a way that heavily favored experienced players; capital and nullsec infrastructure changes made condensing into tiny areas possible, leaving much of the map fallow and reducing gate traffic.  Moreover, the game moved from an achievement-oriented culture to an accumulation-oriented one, and in doing so welded itself to designs not just predatory and addictive, but intrinsically destructive to EVE’s uniqueness.  I’ve written about the latter part in a previous Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k3xr9h/we_were_trained_to_hate_these_changes/

[iv] https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/why-dollar-general-is-putting-grocery-stores-out-of-business/5aab0f9bf1cdb37a1d02d7b3

[v] Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 1630.

[vi] Check back in next week for a long essay on Strategic versus Recreational mindsets in PVP.

[vii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgvM7av1o1Q

[viii] See link in endnote 1.