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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me break this down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, like me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like writing a blog!

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


[i] Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ix] 41:40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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