Intro – What are EVE Biographies?

Virginia Woolf wrote that “Few poets and novelists are capable of that high degree of tension which gives us reality. But almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”[i]  Commercially speaking, she’s not wrong.  Biographies are in most cases just as popular and influential as works of fiction and certainly more so than poetry—works that we more commonly consider ‘art,’ (though if you’ve read Post I you know how I feel about that).  Yet, it’s hard to find remotely as much scholarship about biographies as there is about fiction and poetry, and it’s even harder to find someone to teach you how to write them.  My own college had majors in fiction, poetry, and “creative nonfiction,” a mysterious form that no one could explain besides to say that it is not memoir-writing.  This is particularly strange, because the modern biography is written much like a novel, with cinematic moments, symbolic through-lines, and even dialogue.  Technically speaking, the writing process is almost identical whether you’re a “free” novelist or a biographer “tied” to the facts.[ii]  Yet Woolf wrote this essay to claim what should be obvious: biographies can be art, just as much as anything else.  So why the stigma? 

Just about every human culture has made some form of biography, be it literary, musical, oral, visual, or media that we moderns might struggle to identify.  But cultures both influence the mediums they use in their art and are also influenced by the mediums they use in their art.  In other words, the famous marriage of “form and function” that makes art really work actually lies between its design and reception; and the reception of one work influences the design of the next.  We are, in this way, tied inextricably into the work that we make.  In the case of biography, this means that the way we chronicle lives shows how our culture understands what a life is, and then also informs how we interpret our own lives going forward.

Through much of human history, biographies looked very different than they do today.  They focused much less on individual scenes, and more on the physical characteristics, notable achievements, and family heritage of an individual.  Rather than making up plausible dialogue around a moment that we know happened, as many biographers do today, creative license might be used to deify characters, or hyperbolize their achievements; and of course, ancient biographies were almost never written about common people.

While to us, having the first third of a biography trace someone’s family history might seem off-topic, to many ancients it was predictive, or even prophecy, of the main character’s life.  This is perhaps due to the simple fact that the world changed much more slowly before the industrial revolution, so that one might live and die in the exact same world as one’s ancestors and children: in this setting, the fact that we appear just to feed ourselves for a while and then die becomes much clearer, forcing biographers—and possibly individual people too—to spread out the meaning of their lives on much broader scales.  Thinking of yourself as a product of your entire family history, your life is not just a few indistinguishable decades of struggle before death, but one more humble brick in a construct too great to see from a mortal perspective.  Seeing the world this way as a spiritual and motivational necessity, one’s own personality then also becomes a product of that lineage, so that in talking about distant ancestors, a biographer is actually describing you.  This is entirely different from how we view our lives now, how we see the world change massively in just one generation, how we believe each generation makes their own path in the world.

The trend towards explaining a life through lineage and prophecy is general, across almost all pre-industrial cultures.  For a specific cultural example, we can turn to the Ancient Greek notion that beauty and ugliness were synonymous with good and evil, even to such an extent that the words kalos and kakos could be used interchangeably to mean good/beautiful or evil/ugly.[iii]  In the famous story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, an Ancient Greek reader would not be surprised that the hunchback is the one who betrays the Spartans, because to them his ugliness is synonymous with a wicked, treacherous nature.  Thus, in describing the physical features of an individual, an ancient biographer might be discussing them just as directly as with their heritage.  To us, this is separate from their character, but to them, it is both predictive and representative. 

These are just a few examples of how biographies are representative both of their time and specific culture.  But, just as much as biographies can tell us about these cultures, they open just as many questions.  That’s because of the simple fact that we, too, live in a culture that deeply affects the ways we think, act, and make meaning in our lives.  In the scandal of Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography, in which she was lambasted by the global media for claiming things happened to her that really happened to others, we see a global culture of liberal, capitalist individualism projecting onto an indigenous Mayan culture that—like many indigenous cultures—was much more collective and community-oriented.  When Menchu wrote her book, she was telling the story of her people, a community that understood the trauma of one as shared by many.  When she wrote in the first-person, she wasn’t just trying to capture herself as an individual but something like the Mayan individual experience.  It was the global press that failed to grasp the features of biography I’ve laid out above, and (mis)read her text through their own cultural lens, thinking it dishonest.  Thus, even the notion of factual honesty is ultimately subject to the cultural understanding of meaning-making.

Of course, we know plenty about the Maya because there still are some.  We know a good bit about Medieval biographies because we have so much material surrounding them.  The further back you go, though, the more mysterious things become.  Perhaps my favorite expression of the biographical impulse is in prehistoric cave paintings, in which a person drew their hand on the wall—but in many cases, they didn’t lather the hand in dye and print that, as most of us would, but rather placed their hand on the wall and then rubbed dye all around it, so the hand was in relief.  Why do so many cave-paintings do this?  What was it about that world, or those early communities, and the inchoate human minds that moved through them, that made it more obvious or natural to depict oneself in relief?  In much prehistoric cave art, we see far more animals than humans, if any humans at all, and the drawings themselves are done in places almost entirely inaccessible.  About these, I don’t even know how to draw up a clear question.  We might wonder endlessly about how these early people saw themselves not as a dominant species, not yet, but as part of all of the others; we might wonder about the hand-in-relief, if it is a sort of signature, a story, a mark of presence.  We like to think that these drawings done in such discreet places makes them religious, or spiritual, adding to their mystique, but this in turn only opens up more questions about why humans have always had this impulse to make representations and meditations on our world, and ourselves.  Perhaps the hand is itself Woolf’s “suggestive fact,” immortalized long past everything it suggests.

Biographies from the global, post-industrial, Westernized culture that covers most of the world today are just as mysterious.  When we construct the lives of real people in the same form as our characters, we’re showing how we understand life not as part of some greater narrative but as a sequence of scenes, of discreet moments, that we ourselves grasp and shape into lives, and then our biographers shape into narratives.  I have no doubt this leads us to live more narratively as well, though trying to see exactly how is like trying to see how a fishbowl distorts an image from within it.  Our cultures and societies are at once condensing beneath a global cultural economy and refracting through new media.  The ‘bragging rites’ of hip-hop are one example of a countercultural biography, one that rejects the Christian notion of humility and (in the strangest comparison ever) echoes the notion from Graeco-Roman poetry that bragging is not just fine, but a means of attaining immortality.  This crosscurrent then connects with social media, and the fact that, for the first time ever, almost every single person in our society is their own biographer.  Just as an Ancient writer might tell their life story through family histories, omens, and great deeds, and post-industrial biographers told our lives like novels, we now tell our own lives as strings of vacation photos, birthday messages, and political propaganda.  Would someone in the future look back on this and say that, because we go on so many vacations, we were never sad?  Or would they glean something closer to the truth—that we perform ourselves so carefully it’s hard to let anyone in?  Just because it’s happening all around us doesn’t mean it’s any easier to figure out.

One thing this discussion begins to tease apart—and something I can’t order coffee without talking about—is the difference between storytelling and storymaking.  This is a distinction commonly used around something like fan fiction, in which first a story is told from a primary source, then it is enacted, enriched, and produced collaboratively by the fan community.  But there are also cases where the order is flipped.  In sports, players, coaches, and fans first do things that create what Woolf calls “the creative” or “fertile fact,” then later, storytellers come along and string those facts into a narrative.[iv]  In some videogames, this wouldn’t really be possible, because the entire game happens within guiderails, like a ride at a theme park.  But, as I’ve written extensively,[v],EVE Online is really more of a world with many games within it, and flimsy borders between those games.  So what would it mean to write biographies in EVE?

We do have plenty of examples.  On the one hand, we have the fictional biographies roleplayers make of their characters to live in the game.  In roleplaying biographies, there is a reversal of the normal order of things, such that character traits are (usually)[vi] installed first and then used to inform actions, rather than a biographer retroactively deducing character traits from actions (as in a modern biography) or foreshadowing them with family history or physical features (as in many ancient biographies).  That, on its own, is a new development in human media culture: possibly for the first time ever, we are able to divide ourselves into entirely new characters, and to play them in their own worlds.

A totally different example would be the very moving memorials (which is a type of biography) of Vile Rat/Sean Smith, a famous EVE player who was killed in the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi.  One of the most prominent obituaries leans heavily on the theme that he was the same person in-game as out of game, such as the phrase, “He had the vision and the understanding to see three steps ahead of everyone else – in the game, on the CSM, and when giving real-world advice.”[vii]  How a community praises its dead is one of the clearest examples of what it values—yet, being the same person in and out of game seems contradictory to the practice of roleplaying biographies I just explained.  So clearly, the way we biographize ourselves in roleplaying is broken when both the character and person behind it leave us, forcing biographers to decide whether to tell the story of their life in New Eden, on Earth, or both. 

Clearly, there is no consensus about how biographies work in EVE.  Perhaps roleplaying biographies and obituaries are just different genres—and indeed, if EVE is to be a world, it would make sense for that world to have a diversity of biographical cultures too.  We might then also ask, are battle reports biographies?  Are podcast interviews biographies?  Are our characters’ killboards biographies?  If so, who is making them? 

And how much of your Earth-life should a biography include?  Where’s the line between character and player?  How do these biographies grow out of the culture that creates them—and is that culture EVE’s, the internet’s, or the modern world’s?

I quite blissfully have no idea.  That’s why I’m devoting an entire section of this blog to an ongoing series of biographies in and around EVE, starting with my own, and then working off of interviews and collaboration with others.  Hopefully, this will be a way to make sense—or even more beautiful confusion—out of these things together.


[i] Woolf, “Art of the Biography,” pg. 7

[ii] ibid. pg. 1

[iii] Thus our word “cacophony” could mean ugly noise or evil noise.  This is one philosophical foundation for the idea in Medieval music that beauty and order was approaching God, such that one dissonant interval, the “Devil’s tritone” was actually outlawed as being literally evil.

[iv] This is, in most cases, a type of biography.  In my opinion, this is also one of the most insidious effects of social media: it leads us to think of everything we do in our life as part of our own storytelling, how we cultivate our personal narratives online, making it so much harder to just live.

[v] Posts 7-9 dive into this as one aspect of Strategic vs Recreational PVP.  Post 11 gets into some aspects of the game really being a world.

[vi] Many roleplayers will tell you that the beginning biography is itself just a set of guideline traits, but the rest is filled out by interactions in the world.  Indeed, enacting the biography of your character can be the main event in roleplaying, whether designed ahead of time or not.  But this is a whole other topic!

[vii] “RIP: Vile Rat” by Alexander “The Mittani” Gianturco, INN.  https://imperium.news/rip-vile-rat/

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

XI – Speaking EVE: Specialized Language as a Way to Define Fleet Size

The first time I met up a friend from EVE was at a restaurant in Manhattan, near his hotel.  He and his soon-to-be fiancée had flown up from Texas, and my partner and I had taken the train two hours down the banks of the Hudson from where we went to school.  As most EVE players who’ve met their space-friends in real life will tell you, it was surreal to hear that familiar voice coming out of a stranger’s body.[i]  It was almost less confusing to meet his partner, who was just a perfect stranger in the traditional sense.  But, also as anyone who’s met their space-friends in real life will tell you, you get over it pretty quickly.  We ordered lunch, and after they wondered charmingly touristy things like “Why are there so many cars everywhere?” and charmingly Texan things like “How does everyone honk their horn without getting shot?” we started to catch up as old friends.

We oscillated between our EVE and real-life names.  We joked about their airplane jumping to a cyno at JFK.  We talked about our studies and careers.  We explained some things to our two bemused partners.

We met in Black Rise, when their corp was a local powerhouse based out of Nennamaila, with three dreadnoughts (kind of a big deal in 2009) and ours was looking for a new home after the most recent fall of Providence, where we had been CVA vassals holding down the border system of Y-MPWL.  We helped each other siege an enemy POS in Black Rise, with all three of theirs and our one dreadnought on field, amidst palpable anxiety that everything we own should be lost.  After a joint roam in which capitals were dropped on us and we managed to kill them all, we decided to form an alliance, begin gatecamping together, and try to take sovereignty out in Cloud Ring.  When my corp joined the old Northern Coalition and was then killed by its cascade, I joined theirs and we fled together.  Over the next few years, we would play lots of games, forming our own little clan and even competing (unsuccessfully) in some Battlefield tournaments, while always returning to EVE as both the basis of our friendship and something that made us feel just a little more hardcore than all the non-EVE gamers we played with.

We had known each other almost a decade when we met in Manhattan, had lunch, walked around Central Park, had dinner, and said goodbye so my partner and I could catch a late train home.  While hanging out in the city, we made constant jokes about EVE: we called the police “CONCORD,” caught aggro from the belligerent pigeons in Central Park, and shouted “Gate green!” when a crosswalk signal turned.  A week later, when they were home and we started roaming again, we called gate rats “pigeons” and logi “ambulances,” much to the confusion of our other EVE friends.

On that train home, with the morning’s verdant mountains turned to strings of faint and floating lights, and the river into their smeared reflections, I asked my partner what she thought of the day.  “It was funny to hear you speak EVE so much,” she said.  I asked her what she meant.

“We had almost no idea what you were saying sometimes,” she laughed.  “It’s like you two could navigate the whole city without using normal words.”

I realized dimly at the time that she was right—EVE gives us such a depth of terms that what begins as an inside joke is actually communicating viable information.  She had said something similar a year or two before, when we met my music teacher from high school.  “It’s funny to hear you actually talk music with someone who speaks it too,” she had said at the time.  In that case, we were discussing music we liked, or that we were playing, in the same way my EVE friend and I would talk about fittings, or good places to hunt.

Music is an apt comparison to EVE in this regard.  Both have an intricate vocabulary of what we might call “specialized language.”  This is a fairly common phrase, and it gets thrown around a lot, sometimes accurately and sometimes not.  In theoretical terms, specialized language relies on the existence of a specific community that practices something together, and is comprised of all the terms and combinations of terms they use amongst each other for this activity.  This can include aspects of common language that are repurposed—such as the word “jump” or “heat” having acutely specific meanings in EVE, but also being common words—and new, invented language.[ii]  It’s not actually that much of an exaggeration to say someone can “speak EVE” like they can speak any other language.

The mechanics of specialized language go back to the origin of symbolic thought itself.  Here, “symbolic thought” refers to our ability to compress concepts and notions and package them behind symbols.  In most cases, those symbols are words or numbers, such as how the English sound dog is a sound-symbol, and the letters d-o-g are a visual symbol for the animal itself; or how when you hold up three fingers, this is three, but you might assign the English sound-symbol of three to it, or the Spanish sound-symbol tres, and so on.  The power of this process is what has really allowed humans to take over the world, doing everything from expressing our feelings in language, coming up with philosophy, and doing math.  Its limitations are still our limitations, such that a language with multiple words for love, like Arabic, actually has more power to express those things than a language like English which only has one.

Language has progressed from what might have started as a few-dozen distinct sounds, akin to how we communicate with our dogs now, and has woven into the very chemistry of how we think.  While indeed having the word dog rather than a loose pre-linguistic sentiment like “those medium-sized pack carnivores that we can domesticate”[iii] does allow for increased processing power, we really notice the effect of symbolic thought when we get to more abstract concepts, where having distinct terms to wrap up these sentiments is absolutely vital to the process.  It is clunky at best to try to translate how you would think about a dog without the word dog, but it’s absolutely impossible to do this with philosophical terms like hermeneutics, noumenal affection, or even a common musical term like crescendo.  This is the real reason—the right reason, in my opinion—to try to increase your vocabulary: not to impress people with your fancy words, but to increase the processing power of your mind by learning the symbols for complex notions, so that they can then be processed into even more complex thoughts.  Of course, in a technical discipline like music, a lot of specialized language appears for just this reason—it’s easier to ask someone to “push that crescendo” than it is to say “use more urgency during that time when you get louder.” 

Specialized language, then, is just what happens when a community starts using symbolic thought to create its own symbols and reassign the meaning behind existing ones. 

But look at all of the words on this page.  A few of them are specialized terms with very compressed meanings.  But most of them are words with a much broader possibility of uses, like but, most, of, and them.  In diversifying our language, we have also created this non-specialized language, making it important to re-specialize terms for crafts like medicine, music, or mechanics.  In this way, language development is in a constant push-pull, as new words pop up for specific things, then sometimes become generalized, and then can be focused again.

EVE is one of those things that requires an unbelievable amount of specialized language.  Not only are there terms installed in the game—“Assault Damage Control,” or “Cynosural Field”—there are also both the ways we shorten those terms—respectively, “ADC” and “Cyno”—and terms we invent entirely of our own, such as “booshing” for the use of a micro-jump field generator (or MJD).  If you don’t play EVE, or don’t know much about it, your head is probably already spinning.  That’s because you don’t speak EVE in the same way most non-doctors don’t speak medicine.  If you do know these terms, you probably don’t even notice how niche they are, because EVE’s specialized language is so second-nature to you.  That’s how it is for me.  I didn’t realize just how much EVE is like another language until my partner was joking about it on the way home from the city.

There’s one key difference between specialized language in EVE and specialized language in fields like medicine or music: that language in EVE is not from a discipline and applied to the world, it is from another world and then applied to this one.

That is, while my old bass teacher and I probably could have used some music terms to navigate the city, we would have been doing so metaphorically.  If I see someone slide down a stairway banister and call it a glissando, I’m practicing a form of synesthesia, using a term for a sound to describe a motion.  This might make perfect sense to a musician,[iv] and it might be a good inside joke, but I am only at best making a comparison.

The use of a metaphor as an inside joke could definitely be done with EVE as well, and I’m sure my friend and I used plenty of these too.  But there were two ways in which our specialized language was fundamentally different that the metaphorical, comparative usages you might find from reapplying any other specialized language.

The first difference is that some of the EVE terms we used for navigating the world actually originated from navigating a different world.  When we compare a plane flight to jumping to a cyno, we aren’t practicing synesthesia—we are using a movement term to describe a movement.  When we describe getting “aggro” from pigeons, we are using an action term for an action.  While there is still comedic effect behind each example (which I have utterly ruined by explaining it, sorry) they are not metaphorical relationships but just colorful rephrasings.  Saying his plane jumped to a cyno is like saying someone “galloped” instead of “ran.”  The only difference is that one of the terms—the cyno—comes from another world.

This allows for the literary practice of metonymy, or “changing of names.”  We do this every day when we refer to a car as “my wheels” or champagne as “bubbly” [v]—all it really means is the poetic transformation of one term into something else.  A popular use of this in Classical literature is showing off how much you know about geography by referring to something by where it comes from, such as the Latin trope of calling wax “Hymetia,” after a region with a lot of bees.  In this case, both the region of Hymetia and beeswax exist in the real world, just like wheels and cars.  But if I say someone “went to Heaven,” what I mean is that they died, or even more literally, went into a grave; from a secular perspective, this is using figurative metonymy, since “Heaven” is an idea.[vi]  In this way, we can distinguish between the degrees of realism in different metonymies, such that I am literally getting my “wheels” as well as the car, but I might not be literally going to heaven, or writing on the region of Hymetia.

So, while comparing someone sliding on a banister to a glissando would be a figurative use of metonymy—relating a sound to a motion—calling the police “CONCORD” would be a much more literal one.  Indeed, the police exist, and arguably so does CONCORD.  In different places in the world, I can interact with both—at a protest, or at my computer.  In a typical day at home, my life might be more affected by CONCORD than the state troopers.  This means that, because EVE is not just a technical vocabulary but a technical vocabulary for a world where things exist, using its specialized language in other settings challenges our traditional understanding of just how figurative or literal metonymy can be.  The way we answer this question is profound: if CONCORD is figurative, then we have created another world for EVE, but the closer we define it to literal, the closer we come to arguing that New Eden and planet Earth are one. 

This is problem we couldn’t really raise, and a set of insights we couldn’t really make, without the existence of an open-world videogame, and couldn’t make clearly without one complex enough to require so much of its own language.  It’s very likely that two people who fluently speak EVE could navigate the real world—or any other, for that matter—with almost total use of repurposing their specialized language.  This wouldn’t be all that different than how we use both common and specialized language from the real world to navigate EVE.  As technology continues to give us subdivisions of subdivisions of our reality, it will be interesting to see this constant push-pull of specialized language ebbing and flowing not just from one discipline but from one world to another.  Perhaps with the rise of DAOs and metaverse polities, we will even see other common languages—that is, languages as diverse and distinct as English and French—spring up from this process.  But that’s a topic for another week.

Does every videogame present an alternate world?  Arguably.  Does every videogame use specialized language? Certainly.  Videogames in general have specialized language—terms such as “power creep” or “tank” that cross between myriad games—and then almost always develop at least a few of their own terms as well.

The difference is in how, just like with the dynamics between Strategic and Recreational PVP, the layered complexity and social environment of EVE creates not only an incomparable depth of specialized language, but also countless shades of gray.  I’d like to wrap up this essay by applying these thoughts about specialized and common language to different size PVP fleets and the voice comms they use.  My hypothesis is simple:

The best way to define fleet size is by the culture of voice comms, and the structure of specialized language, that they use.

Let me break this down.

Many people define “smallgang” as either not having a centralized FC, or having a certain number of people (“Less than Ten,”[vii] for example).  “Microgang” or the apocryphal “picogang” are even harder to define.  I would look at it this way:

Microgang is a comms culture in which decisions are made democratically, and a great deal of personal piloting information is shared by everyone.  By giving the entire fleet so much personal information, it’s almost like everyone is flying in one ship together.  This allows people to weigh in on decisions, such as when to dive in or run away.  This much talking from each person means it can only work with a very small number of voices.

Smallgang is a comms culture in which decisions are made more or less democratically, but a few voices stand out, while vital personal information (such as “I’m caught!” or “I’ve got him!”) is shared by anyone.  Because there are more voices, each person has to say less, and because ten people can’t efficiently weigh in on major decisions, some rapid calls have to be made by a few leaders.  Still, everybody flies their own ship, and anyone can speak up.  Who the “leaders” are is usually very loose—it might be the first ones into the fight, the ones piloting key ships, the most experienced pilots, or, as Maynard James Keenan said of why he became the lead singer for TOOL, “just the loudest asshole in the room.”

Medium gang is a comms culture in which there is a designated leader or leaders, and most pilots relate almost zero information about their own ship, but might call out if something is happening to the whole fleet.  (This is, of course, different for pilots in key roles, who might have to give the FC some more steady information.)  Often, these fleets anchor[viii] on the FC, further reducing the amount of information that needs to be shared because only one person is making all the decisions, and everyone is in the same place.  This is the largest level of FCing I’ve done, because with my eye condition (Post X) I need to rely on some information flowing up from the fleet.  With a good relay, I can be a very effective medium gang FC.

Large gang is a comms culture in which about 90% of the fleet never talks at all, whether they’re dying, lost, or doing something great.  The reason for this is that the FC is usually in a command channel with several other FCs and higher-ups, sharing a constant flow of information within that channel and then only relaying direct orders to the main fleet.  Being in the main fleet might mean long stretches of total silence—sometimes 15 or 20 minutes—followed by sudden and frantic commands.  During this time, the main FC is effectively practicing small or microgang comms in a separate channel.  This type of fleet asks the least of fleetmembers, as they not only have almost zero agency, but also don’t even get to hear the decisions being made.  This is another angle on why large fleets ask members to scale their skills horizontally across multiple accounts rather than getting better at new ones.  Indeed, even the skill of good comms is completely removed for most members.

Realistically, defining these fleets based on comms culture rather than objective size or tactics will probably result in the same definitions.  But, just like with my Strategic-Recreational framework, making a definition based on something other than objective numbers allows for much greater flexibility.  A gang of 20 might break down because it’s trying to use smallgang comms, for example, and everything is too chaotic to follow; a gang of 5 might lose a key ship because people are used to not talking on big fleets and don’t share what’s happening to them.  Fitting the comms culture to the fleet, the composition of ships, the goal, and then being flexible about it, is one of the key ways to succeed as a group.  When I was in Odin’s Call, we frequently used smallgang comms to go out and start a fight, then had to efficiently shift into medium gang comms as more people logged in and we reformed into a medium gang composition.  If we did this effectively, an FC could seamlessly take over and kill everything on field.  If we did it poorly, the medium gang would be chaos, and would likely end in frustration.  In fact, I originally wrote part of this post for our corp Slack, so I could say “medium gang comms” and have everyone on the same page, but I never shared it.

As we increase from micro to large gang comms, the relationship with specialized language also changes. 

A common microgang communication might be “Do we want to make a play here?”  This contains no specialized language whatsoever.  Another communication, “I can make a play with my Bifrost,” contains some specialized language—“Bifrost,” which compresses a lot of knowledge about the ship’s capabilities into two syllables—but also some common language as well. 

Because a medium gang FC can micromanage their pilots’ movements and personal piloting more, they might introduce statements like “take warp, gate green,” or “primary is (pilot’s name),” both of which are 100% specialized language.  Much of the fleet might be conducted in these short, efficient commands of incredibly compressed information.  However, the FC might also pause at some points and ask their group, “Do you want to go for this?” or caution, “We’ll take the fight if we can catch them here,” so that the (albeit reduced, but still important) agency that their pilots have can be better informed. 

At the large level, an entire, hours-long fleet might be conducted completely with terse “take warp, gate green,” commands or long strings of information compressed as efficiently as possible, such as “preheat hardeners, logi anchor on me, dreads undock, primary is (pilot’s name), boosh one go, dictors to outgate,” and so on.  Now, I just delivered essentially an entire sentence of completely specialized language.  If I was to try to deliver the same information to a totally new player, it would take me a whole paragraph.  And indeed, most experienced pilots can probably paint a pretty good picture of what’s going on, just from this.[ix]

In this way, as gang size increases, so does the percentage of specialized language in fleet communications.  In addition, the total amount of fleet communication probably drops, as in a large gang, comms are often silent for fleetmembers while awaiting orders.  The democratic nature of micro and small gang means that a lot of common language is used to describe scenarios, ask questions, and make decisions; the same is true for the isolated command channel in a large fleet. 

In micro and small gangs, there is so much crosstalk that every communication has to be as efficient as possible, without compromising meaning.  Specialized language is a great way to compress concepts into fewer words and syllables so that the information flow can be steady, efficient, and lead to good decisions.  In large gangs, there are so many people to coordinate, and with such attention to detail, that specialized language allows one voice to organize hundreds of people as quickly as possible.  After I FC a fight, or before if I have time, I often go over in my mind what the sequence of initial commands should be—what’s most important, what’s implied, what sets up what else—because even with this powerful lexicon and a talented fleet that understands it, there is still such a rush to get everyone organized and doing their job cohesively, and such minute details that can totally change the course of a fight.[x]  In either case, specialized language compresses information into smaller packages, allowing vast amounts of information to be shared in the heat of battle.  One side’s edge in specialized language, and in comms more generally, is perhaps the single most vital indicator of their success in a fight.

So maybe you really can “speak EVE” to get around, not just EVE’s, but any world.  (Especially in a place where everyone wants to kill each other as much as they do in EVE, like Manhattan.)  Our ability to do that comes from the fundamental way that symbolic thought empowers our brains to work together, solving anything from the bewilderingly complex order of operations in a large fleet fight, to the probably unsolvable mysteries of the NYC subway system.  This essay is, to some extent, doing what it’s talking about: just like how installing Recreational and Strategic PVP as symbols, as tools for your brain, allows us to move to more intricate thoughts, and to think more quickly and elegantly, I hope that defining gang size based on comms does some of the same.  This essay in particular has left a lot of loose ends for me—like what symbolic thought even means in a world in which everything perceptible is itself a symbol for the code underlying it.  Maybe in the future I’ll write about how the image of a Muninn is as much a symbol as the word, and that the real thing would be a few lines of code.  But for now, I’ve already been speaking EVE, speaking literature, and speaking philosophy for long enough, so I’m going to go back to pondering how, if a gunfight breaks out every time someone honks their horn, there are any people left alive in Texas. 


[i] This is no doubt further complicated for EVE players because we don’t even really see each other’s characters in-game, like you do in other games.  He had been at times a Drake, an Abaddon, a Nyx, and now was a six-foot white guy.  Weird.

[ii] For this reason, specialized language is also much more stable.  In Christianity, and in Western science and medicine, Latin is still used.  Once upon a time, these Latin terms were borrowed from the common language, which was also Latin.  Over time, the common languages have developed and diversified, but the specialized languages—pinned in place by their ultra-specific meanings—have stayed much the same.  Imagine a world in which EVE really does last forever, and in a thousand years, modern English has transformed into something else, but pilots are still using terms like “boosh” or “cyno” all the same!

[iii] Obviously, this is using words too.  The only way to feel this without approximating it would be to think of something—not describe it, but just think of it—that you don’t have a word for.  You might also notice this in deep Zen meditation, when brainwaves slow from 20-24 Hz to 10-12 Hz, at which point most people report that they stop thinking in language at all.  The few Zen masters who can get all the way down to 5 Hz – five brainwaves per second – describe a state of thinking beyond even concepts.

[iv] For whom sounds and motions are already connected, through their technique.

[v] Technically, these are cases of “synecdoche,” which is a specific type of metonymy that refers to taking part of something, in this case the wheels or bubbles, and using it to refer to the whole.  Another good example from our daily lives is “screen time” really meaning “computer time,” taking one part of the larger object to refer to it.  Metonymy and synecdoche are respectively like a rectangle and a square.

[vi] I don’t mean to exclude readers for whom Heaven is not just an idea.  In fact, I think it’s beautiful how this device can draw into contrast the different ways we view the world, so that what’s a figurative expression for one person is a literal one for another.  If this is a literal expression for you, try to think of another figurative form of metonymy!

[vii] Shoutout! https://lessthan10.podbean.com/

[viii] For non-EVE players: a process by which everyone in the fleet sets their ship to automatically approach the FC, so that one person can pilot the entire fleet, while everyone else just manages their guns, defenses, etc.

[ix] Not to burden the main text with this, but just for fun: a fleet is jumping into superior numbers, so the FC reminds everyone to heat their hardeners for more HP, then wants everyone on the boosher so they can jump out if need be; they are trying to bait an escalation, and so undock dreads while calling first primaries; they take too much damage, so the FC wants them to boosh out, but then the enemy runs, and the FC wants dictors to go catch them.  If you had ten FCs describe what they think is happening, just from these commands, they would probably all describe almost the same scenario.  If you don’t play EVE, or don’t know what a lot of this means, that’s the flipside of my point!

[x] For example, If I say “dictors to outgate” as soon as we jump in, that might be the difference between catching the enemy or not, but if I push it back behind my other commands, we might lose them.  If I tell dreads to undock too early, a spy might relay this and wind up scaring the enemy off.  So, in my above example, I would probably do better by sending dictors before undocking dreads.  In either case, I might be trying to coordinate 20, 30, or 100 human beings all over the world with absolute precision.  It really is that specific sometimes.

X – I Don’t See the Point: Playing EVE While Blind

In EVE Online, your entire experience of New Eden comes through prostheses that are both enabling and disabling.  You almost never see your actual character itself, outside of the portrait in the corner of your screen, and the default male or female corpse floating in space after you are killed.  In the game’s lore, you float in a goo-filled escape pod at the center of your spaceship, controlling everything with your mind.  That’s how a drug you take can enhance technical aspects like missile velocity or the power of your shields.  Your ship is not a prosthesis like a cane or eyepatch, that only augments the body—this is a prosthesis that does that, but is also augmented by the body, as an extension of the mind.  This might seem pretty far out there, but it’s happening in real life all around you.  Canes and eyepatches are not the only kind of prosthesis.

Socrates feared in Plato’s Phaedrus that writing would make us forgetful.  Anyone who pre-dates cellphones will tell you they used to remember hundreds of phone numbers, and now only know a few.  So, Socrates was clearly on to something—we invented writing, which then changed how our minds work, which then changed how writing works, and so on, from the tablets of Gilgamesh to Twitter.  This is looking at writing as a prosthesis—a tool that becomes so integral to the being that uses it that the being becomes a ‘cyborg’[i] and the two are inseparable.  Because they are inseparable, changing one changes the other, such that our increasing modernization has led us toward shorter and shorter pieces of writing (a reality in the face of which this blog commits ritual suicide) but then a form like Twitter has also fundamentally changed how we interact with each other as community members. 

Out of EVE’s lore, we interact with this world through the necessary skeuomorphisms of the buttons you press to turn on modules, the visual panels that display things like cargo, and scan results, and of course, the omnipotent Overview.  These are design features that admit—yes, an actual human is still piloting the ship, and yes, they still need to press buttons.  (Also, who doesn’t love pressing buttons.)  Yet this is another prosthesis, now for us as players: the UI of the actual videogame becomes inseparable from our ability to exist and interact with the game world.  In this way, the ship is a prosthesis for the capsuleer in-world, and the UI is a prosthesis for us.  Each prosthesis allows profound power, but also limits that power, like how the only bridge to an island both allows and controls access to it.  CCP balances their game less often by manipulating its rules, as most real-life sports are balanced, but rather by the prosthetics we use to interact with it.  Thus, our vessels, and our game UIs, are both enabling and disabling.

So what happens when the player, in real life, is also disabled?

You know, like me.

I grew up in a dense and winding suburb of central New Jersey, half a mile from my elementary school and about three miles from the grocery.  The neighborhood was built in the 1950s, with originally three models of house—the ambitiously-named A, B and C units—repeated several thousand times across what once was farmland.  It was designed not as one of those dehumanizing grids, but with winding and inter-looping streets that hugged the sides of gentle hills, making it famously labyrinthine to anyone who didn’t live there.  By the time I was born in 1997, many of the houses had received some sort of addition or augmentation, and many remained the same.  My dad personally installed three skylights in our little unit, as well as a bow window across the dining room, and built a large greenhouse out back, in which he grew, let’s say, both legal and illegal vegetables, in the patented aeroponic system he had invented and then failed to make into a business.  Like most neighborhoods in central NJ, mine was extremely diverse, with the highest density of Indian families anywhere in the country.  Walking to and from school, or the grocery, or a friend’s house, on streets concealed beneath the interlocking canopies of 50-year old oaks and ashes, over sidewalks cracked by their roots and dappled by the shadows of their leaves, one might pass just as many women in vibrant saris as they would White yoga-moms on a power walk. 

But my mom didn’t walk for exercise.  She walked because she couldn’t drive.

In her early thirties, she developed a rare genetic form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s Disease.  Essentially, the cells of her macula—the part right at the center of the retina that handles detail vision, like reading and recognizing faces—stopped discarding their waste, and clouded up.  Her condition progressed very rapidly, and while the disease being limited to one part of the eye means, at its worst, it still can’t make you totally blind, hers got about as bad as it can get within a year or so.  She had to quit her job, stop driving, and reorganize her life.  A few years later, assured that she wouldn’t pass it on to her kids, they had me. 

So I grew up with a role model who handled her condition with all the grace and aplomb in the world.  Or at least, in suburbia.  (I still don’t totally know the difference.)  She walked me ten minutes to and from school, when friends on my street got rides in the car.  She and I walked to the doctor’s office on the other side of the neighborhood, or to one of several parks, or all the way out to the grocery store, when needed.  She was in terrific shape, and when my brother was born, would strap him into his walker, march an hour over to Stop-n-Shop, load forty pounds of groceries in around the cheerful baby, and troop on back.  Sometimes she would be accompanied by our two extraordinarily well-trained Labradors, who went off-leash the whole way, and sometimes she’d be accompanied by me.  I knew my friends’ moms drove everywhere, as my dad did, and to be honest—I felt sorry for them.  I liked walking.  I got to know the Minoan tangles of our neighborhood better than any of them, and came to disregard snow, ice, rain, heat, and all the other hazards they would never experience from the candy-coated interiors of their minivans.  Of course, when we had to go somewhere outside of the neighborhood, and both my dad and grandparents were busy, one of those minivans would get us there.

Then, in the summer before 8th grade—one year exactly after I first downloaded EVE: Apocrypha—I was diagnosed with the same condition.  It wasn’t as bad as my mom’s—and still isn’t—but it obscured my ability to read and recognize faces enough for me to become legally disabled.

I won’t go into my reaction to this, in part because I’m not trying to tell my life story in this blog post, and in part because I really don’t know what it was.  Unlike my mom, who had no role model, I took it in stride.  I already walked or biked everywhere.  It was good conversation fodder in school.  I joked about it, used my accommodations, and didn’t give it much thought at all.  To this day, I don’t really identify with being blind, to such an extent that it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to write about it at all.  As my mom always said, being blind is as much a handicap as being really short or really tall, we just apply a lot of legal and social definitions to it.  Everybody has different abilities and limitations, and sometimes your great abilities—like fitness gained from walking everywhere, or an archival suburban cartography—grow out of those limitations.  Or, as my dad put it, with characteristic diplomacy, “I’d rather be blind than stupid.”

The way your eye works is sort of like the rings of a bullseye, such that the outer rings are really good at detecting motion, the middle rings really good at recognizing patterns, and the center at making out details.  This center part of my eyes is mostly ineffective, and my mom’s is totally destroyed.  That means I have a blind spot smack in the center of my vision, about the relative size of a dinner plate at the center of a round four-seat table.  That is, it’s not a significant part of my total field of view: I don’t bump into things or have any trouble navigating the world, besides reading signs.  But it is almost all of the part of my eye that recognizes people’s faces and reads characters.  If you want to see how I read, fix your eyes on the line above the one you’re reading, and without moving them, try to read the line above or below it.  Your eyes will naturally want to move.  Hold them in place, and try to make out the words you’re not looking directly at.  It’s really strange to experience—though you can see the other words perfectly well, you can’t make them out as well.  You know they’re there, but it takes an extra moment to actually read it.

Anyone who has been trained in game tracking is already good at this.  The center part of the eye is a distraction in tracking, because you’re looking for patterns.  Good trackers can unfocus their eyes, relax their gaze, and let the middle section detect minute disturbances in the leaves, or the dust.  When an old hunter friend taught me this technique, he said I learned it faster than anyone he had ever seen—because that’s the only way my eyes can work.  This proved my mom right, yet again—another case of what made math class impossible giving me a superpower somewhere else.

Despite these limitations, I still do lots of visual things.  I’m a musician, a writer, and a writing teacher.  I still drive, perfectly safely—because you only need your ‘reading vision’ for reading street names, which thankfully our phones do now.  And yet, I need large print, or to read digitally; I play music mostly by ear, because I can’t sight-read; though I’m usually the first to spot deer on the side of the road, I also often park at the wrong building when ‘the destination is on your right’ could mean any one of several, and then spend a few minutes either reading mailboxes with my binoculars, or doing the “honeybee,” flitting awkwardly from door to door until I find the right one.  Just like if I was short, or had severe allergies, or bad motor skills, I am better at some things and worse at others. 

This topic hadn’t actually crossed my mind at all when compiling a grand list of blog ideas earlier in the summer—yet, whenever I mention my eyesight to other EVE players, I usually get a lot of questions, like how in the cinnamon toast fuck do you play such a visual game?  Indeed, the running joke “wait, EVE has sound?” does remind us that New Eden is a world we never touch, taste, or smell, and very seldom hear.  So to play this game, and to attempt to play it at a very high level, with vision legally recognized as 20:800, is probably kind of shocking, if not pathetically Quixotic.  But I have known quadriplegic people who played EVE very well with a mouthpiece controller, and they are no doubt far more disabled, in most circumstances, than I am.  Maybe one day I’ll interview one of them, or write something more broadly about the disabling and enabling spaces of the internet, and how EVE fits in that.  But for now, and as a respite from a month of intricately wrought and theoretically dense essays, I’m going to take this moment just to write an elegy of my experience as a blind man playing EVE.

I once lost a Curse because, when a hunter uncloaked and appeared on my Overview, I thought it said “8,000km” but instead it said “8,000m”[ii] so I just sat there through the precious five seconds I had to get away.  If you’ve tried reading the way I do, as I described above, you’ll notice immediately that you can only read by the general shape of the word.  ‘Mountain’ and ‘Momentum’ are difficult for me to distinguish, for example.  So while the Curse was the most extreme example, I have no doubt lost plenty of ships due to the importance of single characters, be it the ‘k’ for kilometers, or anything else.  This is probably the most common failure of my real body to use the prostheses EVE gives us.

Of course, I play with UI scaling at 150%, on a large 5k monitor.  I color-code everything I possibly can.  I use control-scroll as a magnifier to do everything on my computer, and will often rapidly zoom in to read a target’s angular velocity, then zoom back out before I miss something in the fight.  In other words, I use the prosthesis of my computer to interact with the prosthesis of EVE’s UI, to interact with the in-lore prosthesis of my spaceship.  There’s a lot of filters there.

While I often multibox,[iii] and have for years, I can’t use two monitors, because even with these aids I still need to lean very close to the screen.  Leaning from one screen to another rapidly is a quick way to get spasms in your neck and back; likewise, 27” is big enough for me to use a large UI, but not so big I’m craning my neck to see something at the topmost corner of the screen.  So, to multibox, I simply tab very rapidly between clients, and assemble my game UI to make that easier: I assiduously set up identical overviews, watch-lists, and hotkeys, and set a different UI color on each character so that I know, for example, red tint means one and green means another.[iv]  But these are things most experienced pilots do anyway, whether they use multiple monitors or not.  That middle prosthesis of EVE’s UI does not come very well optimized, and needs a lot of tweaking to be effective, while the default is more like a game UI from Ikea.

Last week, I wrote about how I played in bloc warfare while in very busy parts of my life.  That certainly had something to do with it.  But though I’ve always enjoyed smallgang PVP the most I enjoy anything in any videogame, I also shied away from it for years because I thought my eyes were just not good enough to be really great at it.  While in a bloc, I was able to have a lot of the visual awareness handled by my fleet commanders, so that I was able to be helpful by scaling the few skills of executing commands across many different accounts.  It finally struck me that this was like how I handed over my job as quarterback in 8th grade to someone with a much worse arm just because—what, I thought I should?  Then, newly diagnosed and trying to interpret my place in the world, I thought the right leadership decision was to ask our coach to switch to tight end, before the season even started.  He didn’t want me to, and I even argued with him, I know now because I was trying on an interpretation of a disabled identity, the way 8th graders try and discard all sorts of identities.  Yet here I was, at 22, still holding myself back from the gameplay I really enjoyed for the same reason. 

At the start of the pandemic, I joined the amazing smallgang community of Odin’s Call, and finally began playing the game the way I wanted to.  I promptly lost a Zealot the same way I lost that Curse years before, but in the utterly warm and loving atmosphere of my new corp, it didn’t matter, and I probably didn’t even mention my eyes for the better part of a year. 

Throughout this period, I optimized my protheses, both in and out of game.  Just like how you don’t know the limitations of a cane, or of writing, until you meet them, I realized that my time holding myself back from harder gameplay had also been holding myself back from the solutions that would let me do it.  This is a humbling lesson I learned, and something I can’t stress enough to anyone with any sort of disability—you only develop solutions from meeting problems.  Don’t shy away from problems until you’ve tried.  For me, while I no doubt would have had an easier time at EVE with perfect eyes, my gameplay then became a quest to see how far I could go with my body.

Emotionally, this is a tricky thing to juggle, and I have lightyears of a head start because of my mom.  On the one hand, fuck my eyes, I now want to see how good I can get at EVE.  On the other hand, I’m at peace with the fact that my ceiling is probably lower as a result of my vision.  If I ever come to a point where my quest of essentially self-discovery disturbs that peace, I need to quit.  But for now, and since March, 2020, my goal is to get a little better at EVE every day.

At first this was in my piloting, my communication, my fitting.  This last part was familiar—I had always tried to win on the drawing board, aware of my limitations in actual execution.  For a long time, it had worked well enough.  Though I couldn’t react as fast, I was able to win fights by knowing the meta, guessing their fitting, and countering it perfectly. 

But communication was new.  You don’t talk ever on big bloc fleets, and in smallgang you talk all the time, collaborating and sharing information with others.  (In this way, smallgangers maybe do play EVE with their ears.)  I was still slow at reading details like target velocities and angles, but I was able to get this information from my fleet.  I was one of the more experienced and knowledgeable players in my group, so I also started to play to my strengths: instead of trying to relay the information I couldn’t read quickly, I tried to share helpful thoughts about how an opponent would likely be fit, or how many people they usually flew with, or where we could engage. 

I would also teach our newer pilots before and after fights what details to look for, and when to relay them over comms.  While this is something all smallgangers do, and all smallgangers benefit from when done well, this was my way of adding another prosthesis to my toolkit: my friends.  I now was able to offset my visual limitations by relying on my fleetmates, most of whom didn’t even know I had a condition.  Certainly this was only possible in such a great atmosphere as Odin’s.

Now, sharing meta knowledge, tactics suggestions, and teaching fleetmembers, are three of the big points of actually commanding a fleet.  I had always wanted to be a fleet commander, as it is, in many ways, the pinnacle of gaming, but after some early experiences losing fights due to my vision, I had given up on it.  Just like how I only optimized my UI in response to the new challenges of smallgang, I found that the amazing teamwork and respect in Odin’s had allowed me to start commanding fleets without even knowing it.  At this point I was consciously on a quest to see how good I could get at the game, so with a sense of disbelief at myself, I embraced the fleet commander role. 

For several months, I often played the role of ‘number two’ to my friend and fellow FC, Jon B Fletcher.  Jon was very assertive and decisive, and did things like calling targets and anchoring[v] our fleet very well.  But I had better knowledge of game mechanics, fittings, opponents, and geography.  Most fleets in the medium-and-up scale run with multiple FCs for exactly this reason, so they can split roles, and each do a smaller job much better.  For me, this was a perfect way to be helpful without challenging my eyes.

But, as with any skills, once I had this down, I continued to branch out.  Soon I was running fleets solo, or doing the primary job while Jon or someone else backed me up.  (I would sometimes mention right before a fight that I’m blind, just like I sometimes tell a new passenger in my car that I’m blind while already hurtling through the mountains.  That’s always fun.)  Where I spent my first few months in corp pushing myself to get better as a pilot, I now spent several more months pushing myself as an FC.  Of course, I did lose ships because of vision—the extra delay looking back to my overview from my modules, or being slow calling a target’s name.  But at some points in this timeframe, I was probably the alliance’s main FC.  If you had told me 10 years ago about this, though even then I handled my limitations with aplomb, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

Over time, Odin’s culture became diluted, likely due to the combination of burnout at the higher levels and continued recruitment at the bottom.  Our comms became more cluttered, more full of ‘I told you so’ and ‘well actually’ than it ever had been before.  While this was much discussed in leadership, actively worked against, and problematic for everyone’s combat effectiveness and sense of community, I think it made it especially hard on me.  Even commanding a fleet, I had come to rely on the stream of information from helpful fleet members.  I would dialogue often with the fleet about what was helpful for me, and what wasn’t—something most good FCs do.  But now, running fleets was often a process of shouting people down, and I became not just frustrated that we were losing stupid fights, but really upset that the vital prosthesis of my teammates was dissolving before my eyes.  After six months of trying in vain to fix the issue, I left, with nothing but love and goodwill for Odin’s and the good people there.  I just wasn’t getting better anymore.  I was dying because I didn’t see stuff again, and my team wasn’t helping me.  As a result, I wasn’t helping my team either.  It was time to move on, to try to develop that teamwork elsewhere, and to try to get better at new skills.

Like writing a blog!

But also old skills, like grid awareness, communication, fitting, meta knowledge, and all those others whose true limitlessness obscures the vast ether between master and virtuoso.  Who knows where it’s going to go.  And who knows, if I wasn’t blind, maybe I wouldn’t be so interested in the self-discovery of self-improvement.  Though the very same issues that impeded our tactics also made it less fun to be on comms, maybe I would still be in Odin’s if stagnation didn’t deny such a personal quest.  There are lots of people in New Eden who play specifically for community and mediocrity, and I admire them—really, there are few other games in which you can be really content at any level of gameplay.  But I don’t feel like I’ve hit my ceiling yet, and so while I could just tread water and push the limits of my body elsewhere, at least right now—just like those few times I’ve gotten caught because of my blind spots—I don’t see the point.


[i] Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto

[ii] Killmail or it didn’t happen: https://zkillboard.com/kill/66931581/

[iii] A general MMO term for running multiple accounts at the same time.

 

[v] For non-EVE players and non-PVPers: when you right-click and ‘approach’ another ship in your UI-prosthesis, your vessel will automatically follow them at top speed.  In major fleets, everyone does this on the FC, so that only one person actually has to click in space, and the whole fleet just follows.  This is perhaps the epitome of fleet combat reducing the skills needed for members so that they can fly more accounts at the same time.

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.

III – Well-Endowed: The Language of Ownership and EVE’s “Death Popup”

“Can I bring my Griffin?”

Imagine you hear this on comms.  Odds are, you immediately have an image of the player who’s saying it.  I’m willing to bet that image is of a wide-eyed newbro trying to be helpful.

At first glance, you might say this is because of the ship choice.  In most new player groups, Griffins are one of the staple force-multiplier ships.  They are dirt cheap, flyable from day one, can sit at maximum range and survey the battle, and can sometimes swing the tide.  Indeed, ranged electronic warfare is a good way for new players to learn the game.

But I don’t think it is actually the ship choice that conjures such a distinct image of a newbro.  Griffins pack an extremely high ratio of power-to-fear factor, and are used all over the game, even by endgame pvp groups like Goryn Clade or Tuskers.  But try to picture someone in one of those groups saying “Can I bring my Griffin” and it just doesn’t seem right.  No, they’re happy to fly the ship, but they would say “Can I bring a Griffin.”  The difference is subtle, but it speaks volumes.

The academic practice of “close-reading,” the basis of literary studies, is based on the idea that we mean what we say; that is, that the difference between my Griffin and a Griffin is also a difference in meaning.  I think this is a really cool place where we can stop and close-read some of our language around EVE Online.

We see this same phrasing in the “Can I bring my Drake”[i] meme.  That phrase simply is not as funny if it’s “a Drake.”  Why?  Because, simply put, the use of the word my implies that the pilot only has one of that ship, whereas the use of a implies that they have many.  The use of my denotes a new player with regards to a Drake or a Griffin because both of those ships are relatively cheap, and anybody past their first few months would likely 1) understand that ships are ammo in EVE, and 2) have several of their cheaper ships.  We imagine that the Tuskers pilot who wants to bring “a Griffin” has a hangar full of them, and happily burns through them like Juul pods.  (In my research for this piece, I found that Griffins are also known to cause strokes, but usually in the people they’re used on.)  In contrast, the newbro who wants to bring “my Griffin” sounds like they only have one – a level of poverty comparable to having to share a single Solo cup at a dinner party, only really possible in the earliest part of a pilot’s career.

If you’re like me, once you notice this vocal pattern, you’ll start hearing it everywhere.  (That is, if you play EVE.  If you’re one of my valued non-EVE readers, and you hear someone in real life ask if they can bring their Drake, please immediately pull the nearest fire alarm.)  Once you start hearing it, you’ll notice that my and a also overlap, forming a sort of gradient that makes the terms quiet indicators of a pilot’s wealth.  For example, if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Deimos,” they sound squarely within EVE’s middle-class: able to expend medium-priced combat cruisers.  But if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Redeemer,” they at least sound like they’re quite in-game wealthy: able to consider ships expendable that would take a new player months just to afford.  Conversely, the same pilot who says they’ll bring “a Deimos” might also say “my Redeemer,” without seeming inconsistent at all – for most of us, ships like the Deimos are expendable, but Black Ops battleships are prized assets.  If a pilot says “my titan,” you imagine that they only have one, but also know that they’re quite wealthy.  If someone says “I’ll drop a titan on them,” you should definitely try to get in their will. 

This simple wrinkle in the way we talk about our ships also affects how we think about them.  One of the key learning moments in EVE is when a player loses a ship early on (maybe their first, maybe not) and comes to conceptualize that ships in EVE are more like shoes than like a house: even if you spend a lot of money on them, you don’t imagine having them forever.  In this sense, the word a before a ship also indicates a willingness to lose it, whereas my might indicate more reservation, just like saying “I’ll wear a pair of sneakers because it’s muddy,” versus “I’ll wear my Gucci loafers because it’s muddy.”  One of those statements sounds a lot more realistic than the other.

Close-reading tells us that the way we talk and think is a feedback loop: we pack hidden meaning into what we say (as I’ve explained so far) but what we say also imparts meaning back to us.  This is the original logic behind political correctness, which suggests that when I call someone something dehumanizing, I am first putting bad out towards them, but I am also reinforcing my own belief in that reality, reinforcing my biases and putting bad into myself.  In the case of EVE and our assets, maybe saying “my Griffin” indicates outward that I only have one of this very expendable ship, but it might also reinforce my attachment with the ship, and make me more averse to losing it.  If you don’t believe me, try putting “Griffin” into the first line of the US Marine Corps’ Rifleman’s Creed – “This is my Griffin.  There are many like it but this one is mine.”  Still feel like you can throw that ship away?

Of course, one day the Rifleman will die, and the rifle will no longer be his.  The world is funny that way.  We use language, not just fancy legalisms but simple words like my and a, to make us feel like we own our car, our land, or even our ideas, while yet knowing that we are mortal and cannot possibly have these things forever.  Our assets in EVE are the same way.  Everything in New Eden can die and be permanently lost, and even if it isn’t lost in-game, every single EVE player will also die one day and lose their virtual assets just like their real ones.  At some point, the servers will shut down too.

These latter features, of server apocalypse and players’ own mortality, are shared by every online videogame.  But the first part, the permanent death of assets, is intentionally built into EVE and affects every player’s experience of the game even while still… alive.

So, maybe the use of the phrasing my Griffin, my Drake, or even my titan, is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE, just like how my property is fundamentally at odds with the nature of reality.  That’s not necessarily a problem for us, as long as we can keep our heads straight about the actual value of those assets, and not let the Endowment Effect keep us from actually enjoying the game.

The Endowment Effect[ii] is a psychological and economic principle that suggests that we ascribe more value to things that we own than those we do not.  The Rifleman’s Creed is attempting to trigger this reaction with its first line, getting a Marine to think of their weapon as more important that someone else’s identical copy.  We’ve all felt it before.  For example, I used to hate on iPhones until I got one, and then suddenly wanted to believe that iPhones are great, and moreover that mine was great; I used to sneer at everyone and their cat having a blog and a Youtube channel, and now I’ve lived long enough to become the bad guy.  This effect is used in videogame monetization[iii], which is an entire industry devoted to the science of getting people to place value on legally valueless things[iv].  They’ve gotten very good at it.  This is the exact tactic behind CCP’s latest scandal, the new player death popup[v].

The idea behind the Death Popup is not just to get the player thinking forward rather than back (arguably good for retention but also priming them for monetization) but also to trigger the Endowment Effect with their ship.  Three different times in the popup it refers to “your” ship, clearly reinforcing that that ship was somehow special because it was owned.  Just look at that popup and imagine it says “Lost a ship?” and so on, replacing the word “your” with “a”.  That is just not as strong of an incentive to spend money.

Yet, as we’ve seen, the Endowment Effect is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE’s world.  While it might make certain things easier to monetize, such as EVE’s “magic moment” of first death, that is a gimmick that can only occur early on in a player’s career.  Imagine the advanced player who just lost “a Drake” getting this popup – the phrasing your ship would seem utterly alien to them.  In fact, I would argue that EVE does a fantastic job at blunting the Endowment Effect and letting people learn to take more risks.

I have posted on Reddit[vi] about how the Scarcity Era’s real challenge is in reducing players’ dopamine rewards after years of Pavlovian training towards risk-aversion and asset-hoarding.  I have also planned a post on this blog[vii] about how skills-based games are harder to monetize, explaining why CCP pushed for half a decade towards the horizontal skills-growth[viii] that allowed for years of increasing dopamine from cheap sources.  Those are two profoundly bad business decisions for CCP long-term, as both made EVE less unique compared to its competition, while also making players’ attachment shallower and more chemical. 

I also think that the real issue with the new-player death popup is how it promotes the illusion of ownership in a world of permanent loss.  This, too, is a short-sighted mechanism that only trains new players into misconceptions about the game.  Let me be clear about this: advanced players learn to refer to their assets with the word “a” as a method of survival.  Simply put, that emotional detachment from assets is the only way for this game not to be emotional torture, because you will die.  A lot.  CCP teaching new players to feel attached to their assets might be a way to snag a quick five dollars, but it is also priming players to be more upset the next time.  As players repeatedly die and get monetized, many will quit out of frustration, and a few “whales” will hang around.  However, turning the new player pipeline into a few risk-averse, emotionally abused, cash-cows is at once irresponsible and unhealthy for the game. 

If CCP changed the popup to say “Lost a ship,” it would not be nearly as bad.  That’s how powerful language can be.

It is also incumbent upon existing players to fight back against the language of permanent ownership, and the Endowment Effect that comes with it.  Their success in getting new players to ask if they can bring “a Griffin,” even on their first day in EVE, ironically might determine how long all of their assets might live until the servers shut down.


[i] A ubiquitous meme from the 2012 era of EVE, when the flexible and easy-to-fly Drake was by far the most common ship in the pvp metagame.  Because just about every group ran Drake fleets, just about every pilot owned one, even if it was the only pvp ship they owned.  The nucleus of the meme developed as these pilots would routinely ask “Can I bring my Drake?” on non-Drake fleets, because it was the only pvp ship they had.

[ii] Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/romantically-attached/201608/how-will-the-endowment-effect-affect-you

[iii] Unfair Play? Section 4, “Discussion”

[iv] Unfair Play? Section 3.3, “In-game purchases and consumer protection”

[v] A change in June 2021 that caused massive uproar in the community, the “Death Popup” prompts new players to spend real-world currency to replace their ship after first loss.  My favorite take on it is from Ashterothi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f6lp_mYxQA

[vi] https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k3xr9h/we_were_trained_to_hate_these_changes/

[vii] Check in next week!  Post III in the main blog will be about some other sections of the Unfair Play? article, and how companies want you to solve problems with money, not skill.

[viii] Check out Post II on the main blog for more on vertical versus horizontal skills growth, and why one is good and one is… lucrative.

II – The Real Skillpoints: Vertical vs. Horizontal Learning in EVE Online

EVE Online has a development problem.  No, not from the developer, CCP Games, but in how its players are asked and encouraged to develop their skills in-game: specifically… they’re not.  This both makes the Day One experience of a new player more like the opening of “Predators”[1] than your average kindergarten, and also limits the possibilities for advanced players to keep getting better at the game.  This problem of skills development is responsible for the challenges in developing new Fleet Commanders, in switching in-game careers, and creates a feedback loop in large alliances, where players don’t grow new skills an are not asked to grow new skills.  The problem, in short, is that EVE usually asks us to scale the skills we already have horizontally—across more accounts and assets—rather than learning vertically, getting better and better at the game.

This framework could be applied all over the game and the community.  I’ve planned several posts about this, including one next week on how this affects EVE’s monetization – but because I plan to get my money’s worth out of this concept, I first want you to have a strong foundation of what I’m talking about.

In real life, I work as a teacher, and use a teaching style known as “metacognitive skills pedagogy.”  That’s a term worth quite a bit in student loans, which essentially refers to the current trend in teaching.  Basically, it puts two branches of teaching together, for an exponentially greater effect. 

The term “skills pedagogy” refers to how most sports and musical instruments are taught.  Essentially, it means breaking down complex processes into the individual skills it takes to accomplish them, then designing exercises to strengthen those skills, then putting it all back together.  The teacher’s primary job is to keep breaking processes down into the most granular skills possible, then scaffold the process of practicing them and building back up.  This can also be referred to as “vertical pedagogy” – that is, learning new skills on top of old ones.

The word “metacognitive,” or thinking about thinking refers to a practice of asking reflective questions, so the student learns how they learn, and can become their own teacher.  This is commonly used in English classrooms, such as a journaling exercise at the end of a class that asks “How do you think about this book differently than you did an hour ago?”  The teacher’s job in this case is just to hold these conversations.

Commonly, sports and music education lack the metacognitive reflection, limiting students’ ability to see the big picture and teach themselves.  Humanities classrooms often lack an attention for individual skills, instead asking students to scale their current skills horizontally, just like EVE Online.

Let’s take a few examples, one from EVE and one from the real world, side by side:

Let’s think about playing a certain drum beat as a complex skill.  You can break it down into smaller skills, such as expression, reading, and coordination between the limbs.  You can then break these down into even smaller skills: coordination includes independence of the limbs, counting, and possibly moving between different drums quickly.  Expression includes dynamics (volume level), where you hit the drum, and counting.  Reading includes counting, multitasking, and knowing the notation.  As you see, when we break it down to this granular level, the basic skill of counting time helps in every area.  This is why music teachers often focus on that so heavily.

The complex process of Fleet Commanding (FCing) in EVE is similar to playing drums, in that it is a quintessential expression of multitasking and muscle-memory.  We might break FCing down into a few smaller skills: grid awareness, decision-making, clear communication.  We can then break each of these into smaller skills.  Grid awareness includes manual piloting skill, knowledge of the meta and of fittings, and an ability to use advanced overview tabs, such as angular velocity.  Decision-making includes knowledge of meta and fittings, knowledge of fleet-members’ competency, and understanding fleet goals.  Clear communication involves regulating your own emotions, filtering useful and useless information, and perhaps also the complex process of decision-making. 

If you were to teach someone to FC, you would start by isolating the smallest level of skills.  For example, you might take manual piloting and design a racetrack where a pilot has to focus on only that one skill with their full attention.  Once they are performing that task successfully, layer in an element that requires them to read angular velocity, then layer in asking them to communicate that velocity to someone else, and so on.  This is how you would vertically develop someone’s skills into being a Fleet Commander, bit by bit.

EVE doesn’t do this.

Yes, I know, it’s a sandbox game.  The problem is that in many parts of EVE, there is no natural bridge towards more complex skills.  Beginning players are asked to scale their current skills across more accounts, and more assets, not learn new skills, and wind up like Nick Andopolis and the giant drumset he can’t play[2]

Let’s keep rolling with the example of FCing.  It would appear that the natural step below FCing is being a linemember in a fleet, just as the natural progression to a more advanced drumbeat would be a simpler version of the same beat[3].  A natural process would be for linemembers to learn some, but not all, of the skills of an FC, so that when they take the leap, they have fewer skills left to learn.  But in reality, the linemember isn’t actually asked to learn most of the skills of an FC. 

Clear communication?  Linemembers are told to keep comms clear.  Decision-making? Linemembers, by definition, are given orders.  Grid-awareness?  Not really, as most linemembers set ships to automatically follow the FC and follow broadcasts either for friendlies who need help or targets to shoot. 

Linemembers are given a checklist, not a scenario to interpret, and just need to react efficiently and quickly to orders.  The only way to become a better linemember is, once able to comfortably check these boxes on one character, to start doing it on two, or three.  Thus, there is a way for a linemember to do more but not actually do better.  The linemember is asked to scale a rudimentary set of skills horizontally, not learn new ones.

This is the exact same trap most essay-based classes fall into: in a three-paper semester, the first paper might be 5 pages, the second 7, and the final 10.  In most cases, students are not asked to write a better paper each time, but are asked to write a longer paper at the same level.  (That’s right—multiboxing logi[4] on a strat op is the same as writing a 10 instead of a 5 page paper!  Quick, print this out and give it to your mom!)  This standard course plan is also horizontal skills development.  A vertical skills approach would be to ask for three 5-page papers, each one at a higher level, or using new skills.

Thus, the path to becoming a Fleet Commander does not naturally run through being a fleet member.  From a teaching perspective, this makes about as much sense as if the path to painting professionally required you first learn baseball.

This also means that for a linemember to volunteer to FC, they have to take a blind leap into a whole new set of skills, all at once.  Given that FCing also happens in front of a whole crowd, this is like asking an amateur guitarist who likes to play at the campfire to volunteer to play an extremely hard piano solo in a packed Carnegie Hall.

Put in these terms, it seems pretty reasonable that a lot of people don’t want to do that in their hobby time. 

So what would the path be?

I’m not here to be an armchair developer, and thankfully I don’t have to be.  There is actually a playstyle that teaches many of the skills of a bloc FC at a more granular level: smallgang[5] pvp.

In a small gang, you have to manually pilot your own ship, pay attention to advanced overview metrics, communicate with fleetmates (there usually is no single FC), and know what to engage.  (There are also skills that don’t map as vitally onto big-fleet FCing, such as managing heat damage on your own modules.)  Broadly speaking, one could learn many of the skills involved in bloc FCing by doing smallgang pvp.  These skills include those involved in a more complex fleet role such as the logi anchor—communication, manual piloting—but also build on them. 

Thus, the natural vertical progression to being a bloc FC, if designed by a teacher, would be:

Linemember -> logi anchor -> smallgang pilot -> bloc FC

In this case, three levels of the vertical development could occur in large fleets, but a huge amount of skills would need to be learned in that missing link of smallgang pvp.  In this sense, I think it would be advantageous for more blocs to encourage their pilots to do smallgang pvp, as they would be able to help more junior FCs take that leap.

Whereas the progression for the smallgang player would be:

Damage role -> support role -> tackle role -> multiboxing roles

In this case, the progression is simply from simpler (note: not easier) to more complex roles within the same progression.  Contrary to popular belief, smallgang is thus actually more helpful to new and developing players who want to get better at the game—it more resembles how a teacher would build a game.  However, whereas horizontal branching into more accounts in the big-fleet career path can occur at the first step, “linemember,” horizontal branching in smallgang can only occur at the final step, as piloting an individual ship is so much harder and requires so many more skills.  That’s not for everyone, and that’s ok.  The game also needs good linemembers!

So, what’s the problem?

I’m just going to say it: EVE would have more players if it was designed in part by a teacher.  EVE would be a better game if it was designed in part by a teacher.

FCing is one example.  Is it a problem that the game only encourages linemembers to do more not better?  Arguably, no.  That’s how many of us want to play the game, and that’s great.  Is it a problem that the game doesn’t naturally develop FCs?  Many current FCs think it is.  Fewer FCs means more burnout, less content for linemembers, and less activity in the game overall.

We can also apply this framework to many other areas of the game, and see how some are issues and some are working just fine.  I’ll do that in later posts.

But there are definitely places where, in my opinion, the game is hurt very badly by promoting horizontal over vertical skills development.  For instance, broadly speaking, ships get easier to fly the bigger they get.  The natural progression to flying an interceptor well would actually be:

Titan -> Carrier (sirens) -> Lachesis -> Interceptor

Obviously, this makes the game hard to get into for new players, as proper piloting of the ships they can fly first includes more skills—knowledge of the meta, angular vs transversal vs radial velocity, heat control, etc.—than most ships that come after them.  It hurts on the other end as well, such that Titans are extremely easy to scale and run simultaneously.  Titan pilots are not asked to grow new skills, but to expand their asset base horizontally; and moreover, expanding their assets doesn’t usually require new skills either.  CCP Falcon once made a brilliant suggestion[6] for how to make Titans harder to fly—making them worse for bad titan pilots and better for good ones, neither a nerf nor a buff but an expansion of the skills needed to fly them—and I think everyone should check it out.

This also creates a Catch-22 for blocs, such that what is best for them today is to get everybody multiboxing DPS ships, and to protect their moneymaking space so people can afford more DPS ships, but what is best for them (and the game) tomorrow would be to invite smallgang conflict in their space and encourage pilots to grow, so that some can make an easier leap to FCing. 

Also, new player missions are a pedagogical disaster[7].  There’s a lot to discuss here, and in future posts I’ll apply this framework elsewhere in the game.  Between this, and the framework I set up in the first post for defining what makes art, we’ve got a lot to work with – and, probably, most of our readers on life support.

But for now, this post is already too long.  (Sorry.  I learned that habit from all those classes that asked me to write longer papers every time.)


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO32-jqYdq8

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CqOtEz6PfA

[3] Here’s a good example of layering skills on other skills, and a really damn entertaining video even if you don’t know anything about music!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1j1_aeK6WA

[4] For non-EVE players: “Multiboxing” refers to playing several game clients at once, a common practice in EVE.  “Logi” refers to Logistics ships, the game’s term for healers.

[5] For non-EVE players: “smallgang” refers both to fleets of usually less than 10-20 pilots, and the tactics used by those fleets.  Commonly, with fewer people, everyone is encouraged to share information during fights, and decisions are made much more collaboratively than in larger fleets, where communication would be too cluttered with everyone talking, so members are asked to stay quiet while one person (the FC) calls all the shots.

[6] The comment has since been deleted (or I can’t find it) but the essence was: remove guns from titans and let them fire a lance every minute.  In addition to the changes to the skill ceiling mentioned above, this would also implement a diminishing return on dropping mass numbers of titans.

[7] Among many, many others, but perhaps the most thorough: https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/hcpfnu/an_analysis_of_eves_new_player_experience_by_a/

I – EVE Online is a Work of Art

If you’ve ever hung around a Liberal Arts college long enough for paint to dry, or to catch an experimental art show (maybe it is watching paint dry) then you’ve probably heard some formulation of the question, “What is the difference between Art and Artifice?”  (Yes, capitalizing the word Art does capture he way people tend to ask this.) 

Here, “artifice” is taken to mean anything made by human hands, such as a jacket or a pot, while “art” is generally accepted as common media, such as music, literature, film, and so on.  To put it another way, this question asks, What’s the difference between a toilet and an opera?  Both are made by people, used by people, and enhance our lives.  Both are usually all-white and get shit on by the general public.  But more importantly for artistic professions, what’s the difference between a TED Talk and a play, or a novel and a work of nonfiction? 

I was posed this question on the first day of college, and I spent much of the next few years pursuing a suitable answer to it.  The most common definition I heard was that art “goes beyond itself,” to some deeper experience or understanding, while artifice is simply anything else.  I won’t get into the thorny philosophical issues with this definition: suffice it to say, this would allow a tree or a toilet to be art for one person and not for another—it means art is defined only by its reception.  I wanted a more objective definition that was more useful to my work.  I settled on defining art based on the objective qualities of its medium—the words on the page, the placement of the sculpture—rather than the experience it aimed to curate.

Here’s what I came up with:

Art is something that has to exist in its medium—sound, writing, visuals, as a few examples—in order to create an experience; artifice is either something not designed to create an experience, or something that does not fully make use of its medium.

I’ll explain this more in a moment, but since this is a blog, and an essay, about EVE Online, I first want to point out the most important difference between my definition and all the others I heard in school: in my definition, videogames can be works of art, and as more than just visuals[1].  This is important to me.  It means we don’t have to wait for high society to recognize videogames as a legitimate new form, but can legitimize it ourselves, with our own actions.

Now, let’s unpack this medium-based definition a little bit.

Every medium does something uniquely well.  Prose fiction can move through time, consciousness, and perspective with more freedom than any other form, because language is how we think, and one word can turn everything inside out; music gives us the most immediate emotional response of any medium, probably before we even know we’re feeling it; film gives us the best multimedia input, allowing for sound, visuals, and language, seamlessly and simultaneously; cuisine gives us the best heart disease.

The best works in any medium always use what the medium does best and lean away from what makes it struggle.  A sculpture becomes art when it demands we view it from multiple angles, or from a certain position; theater becomes art when it must be done before a live audience for full effect.  A song becomes artifice when it ignores the emotional directness of music; a book becomes artifice when it ignores its ability to manipulate consciousness.

This understanding lets us do a bunch of different things.  As an artist, it lets you look at mediums not as definitions, but as a toolbox, and it lets you pick which tool for which job.  As a viewer, it lets you appreciate not just the experience something gives you but how it achieves that experience through its very existence in that form.  As a scholar, it lets you dismantle that thorny problem of whether or not art can even be ‘good,’ and why people like art that you deem ‘bad.’  The answer to this last problem, under my framework, is quite simple: something that uses its form innately is not better art, but is more art.  I cannot say this strongly enough—everybody likes what they like, and the terms good and bad are completely useless.  The goal of this framework is to allow us to assess how something does what it does without judgement, hopefully opening up the discussion to include more forms than you’d encounter in a traditional education.  That includes videogames.

So, what does a videogame do best as a medium?  We need to answer this before we can assess whether a game is using that or not, which in turn defines when it becomes a work of art.

Like film, videogames are multimedia projects.  Games use creative writing, sound, acting, coding, and multiple aspects of visual art.  What they do uniquely, however, is engage with the viewer.  While certain aspects of Postmodernism in any medium are built by the viewer[2], videogames are designed around this principle.  From an artist’s perspective, you would pick the videogame out of your toolbox if you wanted your viewer to build the experience with you.  No other form can do that so well.

This means that some videogames are “more art” and others are less.  One of my favorite examples of a videogame that exemplifies the use of viewer interaction is Mass Effect 3.  (SPOILER ALERT – I might be about to ruin one of the greatest games ever made.)

In the ending of Mass Effect 3, you are presented with a 3-way choice: kill the bad guys, control the bad guys, or find a compromise.  In the famous “Indoctrination Theory,”[3] fans proposed that, in fact, the final battle had been taking place in the main character’s mind, with them fighting off mind control from the bad guys, and that if you chose anything other than to kill the bad guys, they had actually won.  The implications of this are utterly profound: because the one making the decision is both Commander Shepherd (in-world) and you the gamer, if you choose anything other than to kill the bad guys, you in real life have been indoctrinated as well.

(END SPOILER)

While novels can write in the second-person (as in Calvino’s famous line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel…”[4]) they are only fusing the perspective of the reader and character.  In the ending of ME3, the actual volition, the actual consciousness of the character and player become one. 

You could only achieve that in a videogame.  In my opinion, this could be a moment in human art as important as when the first words were set on a page.  It is certainly as theoretically significant; what we do with videogames in the next 3,000 years will determine if its outcome.

So what about EVE?

I promise I’ll get to the actual game you’re here to read about much quicker in future posts.  But if you’re still with me, I’m about to make you feel much better about all those hours you’ve spent in New Eden.

One of the other cool wrinkles in my definition is that it allows us to define the quintessential works in a medium—that is, works whose effect is so interwoven with their medium, they could be called the most novel, or the most song.  (Again, I can’t stress this enough, there is no such thing as a “best” work of art in any form – just some that objectively use their form more than others.)  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is my example for literature, as it is literally a novel about storymaking, and uses every trick in the book to weave the reader’s consciousness into the story.  Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is my example of a quintessential sculpture, as it has to be appreciated in person, to be walked around—and as one walks around it, the tension and empty space between the characters becomes powerful in a way you could never capture in a photograph. 

In the same way, EVE Online is the quintessential videogame.  It is the most videogame that a videogame could ever be.  The reasoning is pretty simple: if a videogame becomes art by using viewer interaction to the fullest, EVE is the most a videogame could ever be art, because in EVE, viewer actions matter more than in any other game.  Frankly, if you can have literal history books[5] about player actions in your universe, you have maximized the interaction of their agency and the world.

The ways EVE does this are well documented.  Permanent loss of assets, a player-run economy, and a single-shard world are, for most, the calling card for the game.  Go read any other article about EVE if you want to see how these features make it a great, historic, and famously Sisyphean game.  I’m here to tell you, those features, which work together to make every action important, and to preserve the result of those actions, thus allowing for history to be made, also make EVE as a whole—not just its visuals or music, but the whole experience—a work of art.

Finally, the real genius of EVE is how it allows for such player freedom, but also protects itself from moments of immersion-breaking.  The problem a lot of games face is that, even if player actions matter, many of them are world-breaking.  That is, if you name your character after a real-world celebrity, there’s no way to explain it away.  Many roleplaying communities have rules about in-character and out-of-character communication, but if a dwarf named Beyoncé waddles through, you’ve just got to look the other way.  EVE is actually able to account for this.

To paraphrase a really important part of EVE’s worldbuilding – capsuleers are driven to the point of madness by the training they have to go through in order to become immortal; thus, they say lots of kooky things that one can just discount for roleplaying purposes.  When NCdot named their staging Keepstar “Trump’s Wall,” anyone who wanted to be in-world could just say this was a nonsense name dreamed up by a mentally unstable capsuleer.  When Vile Rat was killed[6], his very touching memorials all across New Eden, some of which continued for years[7], still did not break world; he was able to be memorialized as a person and as a capsuleer, and indeed, like all of us, he was both.  That is due to the simple fact that, like in the ending of Mass Effect 3, the consciousness of the human player and the character are fused, and this fusion conversely brings clarity to the differences between them.

So this is not just a blog about EVE Online, its players, its history, and its development.  This is my attempt to document and elevate a quintessential artifact in the brand-new medium of videogames.  In the last two millenia, our species has only invented a handful of fundamentally new mediums – arguably, just film and videogames.  Every other artistic achievement we’ve made in that time has been a new form in older mediums, such as music, dance, theater, and… maybe whatever fireworks are. 

The actions of EVE players therefore, to me, have the potential to be as important in our history as the actions of the scribes who first wrote down Gilgamesh.  Only time will tell.  But for now, we’re making history and art and explosions together – and it’s my honor to write about it.  


[1] EVE Online in MOMA: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/162462

[2] Think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch.

[3] For a general overview: https://www.ign.com/wikis/mass-effect-3/Indoctrination_Theory

[4] If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, page 1.

[5] Empires of EVE series by Andrew Groen.

[6]Memorial post by his in-game organization, though this story is well-documented across broader gaming media as well: https://imperium.news/rip-vile-rat/

[7] https://kotaku.com/warring-eve-factions-take-a-break-to-remember-a-fallen-1827249191

Intro: Who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-spaceships?

For over a decade now, I’ve watched real-life programmers make professional-quality apps for EVE, real-life economists produce analyses that (probably) teach CCP a thing or two about their world, and real-life statesmen shape this historic single-shard server, all while I continued to study writing, music, teaching, and, most importantly, PVP. Maybe I internalized what all those older family members said, that I was wasting my life in the Humanities. (Well, now I have a blog, so I’ve shown them!) It took me a long time to realize that I could also contribute to the community, in my own way. So here it is. This is not going to be your asteroid belt-variety EVE blog.

So it’s fair for you to wonder, Who are you, and what have you done with my spaceships?

The short answer is, I used discursive methods to whittle them into ontological insignifigance.

The longer answer is, nothing.

Nope, I’m not interested in your spaceships.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, If this blog isn’t about spaceships, is it at least about explosions?  Well, duh.  What about EVE’s stories?  Forever and always.  What about rage, salt, and other trendy condiments?  Reluctantly.  Will you have opinions about EVE’s direction, culture, or gameplay?  Who doesn’t?  So, that would involve some back-seat development?  I have already slashed the tires.  Will you care about my opinions?  Nope.  But I may do some interviews.  Can I bring my drake?  My representatives have advised me not to comment.  Also, I think you mean ‘Risk Averse.’  That’s not a question, but I’ll answer it anyway.

The name of this blog is a nod towards one of my all-time favorite comments from the r/eve subreddit: in response to someone asking ‘Why do you lurk here if you don’t even play the game?’ some wise soul replied, ‘For the same reason people go to the zoo.’  Using this pithy yet catastrophic smackdown as a metaphor, I can say that Isk Averse is something of an all-in-one zoo tour guide, conservation initiative, emergency veterinary clinic, nature documentary, and taxidermist. 

Ok I’ll bite.  So, who the hell are you?

I’ve been a sci-fi writer, literature student, and EVE player not only for all of my adult life, but for much of my earlier life as well.  I probably started EVE first of all these, back in 2008, as a precocious young nerd with a passion for explosions.  In 2012, no doubt influenced by EVE’s world of New Eden, I began developing my own world of speculative fiction, a project that continues to this day.  This blog is a way for me to keep up my essay-writing chops while trying to question the answers that this game, world, and community have left with me for years. 

Yawn.  TLDR?

Well, my inability to keep even this intro short enough you don’t want a TLDR doesn’t bode well.  (Maybe in a future post we’ll get to intersections of EVE and the modern attention span, if I can remember to.)  But if you’ll allow me to wax somniferous for one more moment, I think we can get it done: Isk Averse is a series of social, literary, and political essays about EVE Online that promises to be empathetic but unapologetic, unbiased but opinionated, intelligent but accessible.  One week we might be using EVE players’ mourning rituals to look at how we view death as an online society; the next week we might take a deep dive into the ways EVE develops fleet commanders, or what can make a videogame a work of art.  If, after reading, you appreciate the game more, appreciate life more, come to doubt everything you thought you knew about both, love me, hate me, block me, subscribe, or just want to start playing with us, I’ll consider it a job well done.