EVE: Online: politics, spaceships and psychological warfare
For the last month or so I have become addicted to a videogame that I don’t play. If that seems a strange thing to read, believe me, it felt strange typing it.
I’ve been playing games for over 35 years now and my engagement with them has, up until now, always been immediate. When I’m sucked into a game it’s usually through an engrossing story, a fascinating mechanic or scenes on a monitor that blow my mind. The act of play is what draws me to games.
This isn’t the case with EVE: Online. Mechanically, CCP’s space opera MMO holds very little interest for me. I have an account, I’ve downloaded the client and I’ve logged a bit of time hurtling through space, but I just can’t get into it.
The interface is a series of menus and spreadsheets. The narrative is glacial. The tutorial does a very poor job of explaining things to a noob (although according to EVE: Online veterans it’s a vast improvement on the mess that preceded it). The controls don’t feel immediate; you issue commands to your ship through a menu option and then watch it zoom through the cosmos. To my mind, EVE: Online doesn’t feel so much like a game as it does an app to do your accounts with.
But while I don’t find the game all that much fun to play, I’m utterly fascinated by those that play it. The fansites, reddit threads, forums, Twitterfeeds and Facebook groups that EVE players frequent and post on are now part of my daily news digest. They’ve scratched the itch I’ve had since I binge-watched my last favourite TV Show and are likely to continue doing so after the credits on the last episode of Game Of Thrones’ season 6.
There’s a war currently raging in EVE: Online. This state of affairs isn’t unheard of in EVE; the various player factions in the game have waged wars in the past, running extended campaigns involving espionage, resource capture and epic space battles that have even made the mainstream news. The reason being is that when guns start blazing in EVE: Online, the damage they cause can be permanent; players can see highly expensive ships – that represent huge investments in both time and real-world money – reduced to atoms in the blink of an eye.
While, EVE: Online may look simply like World Of Warcraft with elves and trolls swapped out for spaceships, the truth is a little more complex. WOW is kindergarten compared to EVE; the universe, in which players from corporations and alliances as they vie for territory and resources, is positively Darwinian.
Not only that, the stakes are real, which means that every clash can create bitter rivalries – which sometimes spill over the sides of the game and into the players’ day-to-day lives. Cast an eye over the EVE: Online Facebook group and you’ll see players trolling each other using gifs, images and even the odd photoshopped poster promoting their faction in the war and denigrating their enemies. A lot of it is in good fun, though, and considered part of EVE’s metagame.
However, there have been rumours of players taking the metagame to rather exrteme levels. Some players I’ve spoken to – on condition that they remain anonymous – have told me that harassment and other outside game activity can take on a rather nasty edge. There have been reports of players sending one another pictures of each other’s houses, phoning one another at ungodly hours of the night and there have even been instances of DDoS attacks aimed at knocking out comms in the middle of a battle.
The trolling that takes place in the game may be, by and large, due to boredom. While the massive battles in EVE certainly look impressive, a lot of activity in a war involves moving ships around and spending hours of time in space safeguarding assets. While there are skirmishes and dogfights, there are also long passages of quiet. If the study published in the Journal of Language, Aggression and Conflict holds true, a lot of the trolling could simply be players blowing off steam.
The progression of the war is almost as hard to follow as the instances of harassment. Aside from the massive battles and metagame, wars in EVE are fought with misinformation and propaganda. Talk to any number of players and you’ll hear any number of accounts about how each side in the conflict is faring; in the current war players from both sides involved – The Money Badger Coaltion and The Imperium – issue articles, maps, graphs and data on an almost daily basis, showing that they’re on the winning team.
How much of that is propaganda? It’s hard to say. But it’s important to bear two things in mind. First, anyone looking to claim victory early in this conflict hasn’t done their homework. Wars can rage for months, even years in EVE: Online, long after the dust settle on a massive battle like the Bloodbath of B-R5RB.
Second, in order to gain an idea of what’s really going on, one needs to deep dive into the game’s community – even if it’s as a lurker. This may be why after a month I can’t look away. Once you plunge into the player-driven lore that provides the backbone of EVE – and which is still being written in blood right now – the game becomes impossible to look away from. Even if you don’t find it all that interesting to play…