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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ix] 41:40

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

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.