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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[viii] See link in endnote 1.

V – Lysistrata: How a War can End

As of this post, EVE has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history.  In fact, it has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history for over half a year now, that’s how long this war has been.  Many players, who likely for some time have been scanning the horizon for an end to the war, are now beginning to grumble publicly—to predict, in hopeful or despairing terms, not a victory for their side, per se, but an actual cessation of conflict, a resumption of normalcy, however that might happen.  This is culturally notable in EVE: unlike wars in real life, players often enjoy slaughter on massive scales, to such an extent that if the Somme were fought in New Eden, it would be heralded as one of the greatest accomplishments of EVE’s single-shard design.  War fatigue has always been the most potent tool in an EVE strategist’s toolkit, as ultimately players do not have to log in; yet at the same time, peace-fatigue can be just as demoralizing.  These pressures have prompted the largest coalition in EVE’s history to announce, yesterday, that win or lose, the war will be over in six weeks.  No one knows if the current war is in fact boiling over, or has already boiled away.  But I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about one of my all-time favorite texts, a brilliantly funny and lastingly incisive comedy by Aristophanes, in which the Athenian poet imagines an end to Greece’s own sort of hell-war: Lysistrata.

In 411 BCE, the Greek world was gripped by war.  Indeed, like New Eden, they were usually gripped by some sort of war, and in fact this war, the Peloponnesian, was the fallout of the great Persian war a generation earlier, forever immortalized in 300 memes (and, to a lesser extent, Herodotus).  In the Persian War, the entirety of mainland Greece banded together to fight the invading “Persian Donut,”[1] a force comprised of the largest land empire in the world.  The mainland Greeks were huge underdogs, and after watching their farms, allies, and floodplains steadily rolled over, they finally won a decisive victory and were able to escape subjugation.  This left two blocs in the Greek world: led respectively by Athens and by Sparta.  After a few decades of abundance, war between them was inevitable. 

By 411, the Peloponnesian War had already been underway for twenty years, and Athens, after a disastrous defeat in Sicily, was on the ropes.  Athens would fight on until 404, but at this time, just as in EVE’s nullblocs now, war-weary eyes were already beginning to search for peace.  It was in this (grossly simplified) setting that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata.

Now, to be fair, EVE’s current war and the Peloponnesian war don’t map perfectly onto each other.  In the latter, neither side was clearly attacking or defending for the entire time, neither side was massively outnumbered, Athenian shitposting was so vastly superior that, indeed, I’m writing about one today.  A better, but still not perfect, comparison would be to the Persian War decades earlier, when a numerically overwhelming force fought an entirely offensive campaign against the smaller.  But in even that war, there would be subtle elements to break the parallel: the Thracians, for example, the ancient world’s equivalent of Legacy Coalition (due to their constant infighting and reputation for cannibalism[2]) were subjugated by the larger Persian Bloc, not leading it.  No, I’m not here to talk about the actual history of the great wars of the 5th Century.  Others can do that much better[3].  Aristophanes’ play, after all, imagines a fictional end to the war.

Instead, I’m here to talk about cocks.

That’s right.  Cocks.  Peos, the Greek four-letter word that no housewife with a shred of respect would be caught dead with on her tongue.[4]  As Lysistrata’s eponymous heroine suggests, cocks get us into wars, but they can also get us out;[5] and while the play’s “main theme is peace,”[6] I don’t think this blog would be complete if I followed Lysistrata’s own advice, “leaving the penis alone.”[7]

Yes, the plot of Lysistrata is as simple as it is cutting: wives on both sides of the conflict, weary of war and their husbands being away, organize possibly the first pan-Hellenic Feminist movement[8], a sex-strike, in order to get their men to quit fighting.  They swear an oath not to perform the duties of wives, including sex and other household maintenance, and occupy the Athenian Akropolis, where the war funds are kept, so the men also cannot finance their fighting.  Lysistrata suggests “If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our see-through underwear and with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle,” but refuse their husbands’ attention, “they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick.”[9]  It works.

Like just about any Classical text, this play is a keyhole into a world so complex and alien that I’m not even really qualified to summarize it.  Some of the smartest people in the world spend their whole lives trying to understand what love means in a state of gender apartheid, or how the Ancient Athenians, to take just one sub-culture as an example, conceptualized the difference between homosexual and heterosexual partnerships, both of which were integral in their society.  Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that this was a pre-Christian society, existing in a world where sex and bodies were not stigmatized in the same ways they are now: the Romans had penis windchimes[10] and the Greek Satyr Plays used giant phalluses for prop comedy.  And yet, Ancient Athenian women existed in an entirely subjugated and almost separate, parallel society to men.  It was likely far more transgressive for Lysistrata to show women taking over the city than it was to show penises on-stage.

We’ll never fully grasp the infinitely nuanced humanity of the Ancients.  In a way, that’s a beautiful thing.  In two thousand more years, I don’t expect the residents of the tropical archipelago known as Colorado to understand the battle of M2-[11] either.

But the points of tension in Lysistrata are also present in our own lives.  We also live in a patriarchal society.  We are learning a new post-Christian impudence that one day might return to the sex-positivity of the Ancients.  Domestic partners, not just husbands and wives, have to navigate their gendered roles at home, their professional roles in society, and the tension between these.  Despite our best efforts, every EVE player still exists in this real world as well.

The most likely death-knell for any corporation in EVE is when the CEO is out “kissing girls” and doesn’t log on for a long time.  Lysistrata wouldn’t have been funny to the Ancients if there wasn’t some plausibility in it: even while fictional, the play shows us that love can end even the most brutal wars, with the highest stakes, in real life.  I have often thought before that it is game-breaking when a great conflict in EVE ends because a fleet commander or other leader has to step away from the game.  Why, I would wonder, would the capsuleer just suddenly abandon their ambitions, decide to stay docked in a station for months at a time, doing whatever they do in-world when we’re not playing them?  (Knowing how capsuleers are regarded in New Eden, I imagine this is something like the toys in Toy Story plus Silence of the Lambs.)  But now I imagine it’s quite possible that the capsuleer reached the same fate as their player, led from the clutches of agonistic contest into the pursuit of see-through underwear.  Our societies today are far more similar to those of New Eden than to 5th Century Greece; if Lysistrata rings true for us, it probably would for our characters as well.  This goes beyond sex.

The women of Lysistrata also seize the Akropolis, where Athens’ war-funds are stored, so that no men can continue to finance the war effort.  As the leader of the women’s chorus puts it, “you miserable geezers … have squandered your paternal inheritance, won in the Persian Wars … we’re all headed for bankruptcy on account of you!”[12]  To anyone who’s had their credit card seized so they stop subbing more Dread alts, I apologize if this quote elicits some painful memories.  It does also draw out an interesting wrinkle in our modern gender relations, and the profoundly male-dominated world of EVE: a common saying in hype-pings ahead of a major battle in EVE is “Give your wife the credit card.”  This is often stated just so explicitly, and the joke is that if you send your wife shopping, she’ll let you play EVE all day; the implications are that the one playing EVE is a man, makes more money than his wife, and moreover that women are so shallow they can be bought off.  Even if the first two assumptions are true in some cases, Lysistrata tells us maybe your wife is sick of her good Milesian dildo[13] and just wants some of you!  And regarding those assumptions themselves, the play actually begins by placing in tension the frivolous spending of a housewife, Kalonike,[14] just to show them overturned by a desire on a surface level for her husband’s love, but on deeper levels, for female solidarity, and for peace.  While we no longer live in a state of gender apartheid, do fight most of our wars online, and like to sneer at the Ancients for what we deem primitive gender relations, perhaps the EVE Skymarshal pinging for you to give your wife the credit card ahead of a major op shows us we still have a ways to go. 

We don’t know how EVE’s greatest war will end.  In reality, the Peloponnesian War did not end the way Aristophanes imagines, but in Athens’ utter defeat, permanent loss of influence in the Ancient world.  It does seem that the stakes of EVE’s war, at least in-world, are just as existential.  It only lends further realism, further weight, to that war, that the pressures on which Lysistrata’s comedy turn also exist in the lives of players: finances, male pride, and time away from loved ones.  Though our capsuleers cannot die, many EVE players have been removed from battle just as permanently as if by a spear-thrust by these forces.  Some have been removed almost as permanently by the thrust of a toe.[15]

Likewise, the message of Aristophanes’ comic vision is clear: love conquers war, but wars, not in opposition to but in concert with love, can also bring people together.  EVE’s wars should be especially so.  Assuming Mittani’s toe recovers swiftly, and no one gets SWATed again, no one will actually die in the prosecution of this war.  But if we are to believe in the reality of New Eden, we also must believe that the casualties of boredom, of distraction, and of burnout—losses to New Eden every bit as permanent as a death—are real.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  This is, after all, a videogame, and on average probably only the second most important thing in players’ lives.  And indeed, even the capacity for the universe to be so deeply shaped by the presence of war or the presence of peace is unique to EVE.  Yet we should learn from Lysistrata that what we love in-game is the same as out-of-game.  It is who we love, and how we spend our time with them.

Works Cited

Aristophanes, and Jeffrey Henderson.  Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women.  Routledge, 2010. 

Foley, Helene P. “The ‘Female Intruder’ Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae.” Classical Philology, vol. 77, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1–21. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/269802. Accessed 25 July 2021.    

[1] Both an apocryphal epithet and what sounds like a delicious pastry, the “Persian Donut” is (not) referenced in fragments of the Boiotian shitposter Memeaides’ lyric verse.

[2] https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/mf5uw7/attn_legacy_members_with_assets_in_abandoned/

[3] My personal favorite is the amazing and very accessible history, Athens: A Portrait of the City in its Golden Age, by Christian Meier – though good translations of Thucydides and Herodotus can be really great too.

[4] Lysistrata endnote 49

[5] Lysistrata 141-144

[6] Introduction, pg. 36

[7] Lysistrata 767

[8] The Female Intruder Reconsidered, page 8

[9] Lysistrata 150-154

[10] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Lucky_flying_phallus.jpg

[11] https://www.eveonline.com/news/view/the-massacre-of-m2-xfe

[12] Lysistrata 654-657

[13] Unless the Milesians have revolted again… Lysistrata 110-113

[14] Lysistrata Prologue

[15] “Pando’s FC Chat” July 17, 2021, timestamp 3:20.  https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/pandos-fc-chat/hy-wanto-destroyer-the-mittani-DAIVP5oR0an/