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.

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.