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TLDR: It will take a while for me to get to the point. If you can’t handle the reading, get out of the library, in the grand scheme of things my words are of no consequence, so you’re not missing anything vital. I do not advertise my own postings on principle, I do one tweet that I posted something and that’s it, so if someone thought it worthy of your attention, and you don’t like that, blame them instead, please.

"Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." is, actually, merely a special case of a far more general rule which I wish was more widely acknowledged. I find that general rule immensely useful for just about any kind of analysis, from scientific to daily life: "Far more things in this world are because of X, rather than in order to Y."

It’s not that nobody ever does anything deliberately, but there’s less of it than everybody thinks. In any given situation, only a few courses of action are typically rational or acceptable for anyone at all, and beyond interpersonal level, deliberate choice turns into statistics of cause and effect and structured patterns. Once you look at things this way, they typically start making considerably more sense very quickly.

I have already written a lot on the subject of new player attrition in Eve. In fact, I started with it, kicked at it from different angles, and in general danced all around it. It’s a complex, multifaceted problem, which can have unpleasant consequences if not conclusively solved. It’s not just about the competition between newbies and veterans that typically results with newbies being completely unable to be anything other than fodder, but that is the hot subtopic this week.

It takes someone like Ripard Teg to point out the structural similarities to rape and slavery to get it at least commented on, however. Even then, the result is that people put up hordes of straw men and burn them in effigy. Balanced thinking on the subject is quite uncommon. There is enough stupidity in this debate,1 just as there is enough malice, but very little deliberation.

Instead of saying what others have already said, let me instead poke at it from yet another angle, which I don’t see covered well, if at all, in other people’s postings. It’s not about suicide ganking or wardec or anything so specific, it’s about the cultural mechanisms.

Culture Balalaika

Here’s a definition: Culture is positively selected social experience, expressed in semiotic systems.

To be fair, there are hundreds of definitions of "culture", but this one is the work of my PhD advisor,2 and is notable for being the one core phrase of his social anthropology textbook. You spend half the semester explaining what the phrase actually means, and the other half describing what follows from it. I can’t really repeat the whole course here, but I’ll do the very terse breakdown:

  • "positively selected" means that only experience that "works", that is, offers a survival benefit, becomes part of culture. The experience itself may be negative, but by being positively selected, it becomes a ‘known don’t’, so to speak, and as such, "works". Even a stereotype can be part of such positively selected experience, because it produces a behavioral strategy.
  • "social experience" means that only experience acquired and used socially actually matters for culture. There is very little other experience in the world,3 but the distinction is significant when philosophy enters the picture.
  • "expressed in semiotic systems" describes the process of cultural regeneration — carriers of culture transmit it to the next generation by expressing it through various languages, whether verbal or non-verbal. Culture exists intersubjectively between people, but it gets there through communication, and constantly loops between brains and words.

The interesting bits for the discussion at hand are these:

  1. There are multiple mechanisms of positive selection.
    • Conscious — you only teach others what you believe is true, or at least worth telling.
    • Competitive — individuals which employ working culture enjoy greater success than those who don’t, and serve as a living example to others when their activities are put into words and transmitted.
    • Darwinian — populations that cannot adapt their culture to changing circumstances or change their circumstances to match their culture through other resources die out or otherwise suffer.
  2. The loop can cause a certain lag between the world changing and the culture adapting to it. In Eve’s case it typically takes a few months to loop through, as it’s relatively small. Greater cultures can take generations to adapt.
  3. Something does not have to be actually true to offer a survival benefit.

Bears

Sociology’s maturation as a scientific discipline is marked by a study of suicide, and that’s not a coincidence — suicide is what happens when someone unsubscribes from reality for one reason or another, and that it happens is indicative of a problem in the society. In Eve, we get "killed" on a daily basis and are none the worse for wear, but we unsubscribe — i.e. suicide — fairly easily.

We therefore have to consider "surivial benefit" to be something that reduces a player’s chance to unsubscribe.

It is a known fact that only 5% of Eve players never solo, 16% always do, and 55% (16+39) mostly play solo, and it takes just a look at the map to see that the grand majority of Eve population is in high sec. I won’t be digging up the numbers now4 but the popular opinion seems to agree that carebears, defined here as primarily PVE, primarily solo players, primarily in NPC or small player corporations, are the majority of high sec population.

The proverbial carebear is invisible like dark matter. Carebears don’t mix with other subcultures, and don’t mix into the bigger public discourse of Eve often, so they’re kind of hard to pin down. A proverbial carebear, as one is imagined, has the following properties:

  • Avoids fighting when he can. When wardecced, carebears will turtle up until the attackers get bored.
  • Wishes to avoid putting himself in real danger in general, and therefore avoids areas of space other than high sec.
  • Is less social than PVP-oriented players, avoiding contact or playing with others.
  • Produces delicious tears. That is, treats in-game objects as things of value and does not appear to separate the game context from the rest of the world readily.
  • Wishes the game to be changed for their benefit, by positioning themselves as the victim of unjustified aggression and appealing for justice.

The criticism directed against such carebears, whether they really are like that or not, centers around the "victim" bit, attacking the carebear’s pacifistic play style (seen as resulting from cowardice or stupidity, regardless of it’s actual reason) and appeals to higher authority.

Vodka5

The stereotypical perfect carebear, if one exists at all, is clearly a rarity. That they seem less social to people who don’t associate with them is because they don’t associate with non-carebears. That they may express wishes that appear to be motivated with changing the game for their benefit is universal and not restricted to carebears, you can see shining examples from any side of any debate in Eve. The interesting quality for this particular analysis is the risk and conflict avoidance.

Tally up everything I said above and take a look at this logical chain:

  1. At least half of the entire population of Eve appear to be carebears.
  2. Therefore, they unsubscribe less often than others, otherwise their population would not grow.
  3. This means that carebear culture, it’s social practices, offer a survival benefit — depending on the levels of alt proliferation, it can be an even higher survival benefit than any other subculture of Eve.
  4. The most commonly cited characteristics of carebears are avoidance of risk (which risk mostly results from being put into contact with the PVP culture, as otherwise carebears are not commonly at risk) and being antisocial. (That is, not associating with people from the PVP side of the game.)
  5. These two are clearly connected by the counter-party, that is, the PVP subculture.
  6. It is likely that people who don’t avoid the members of PVP-subcultures are more likely to unsubscribe.
  7. Strategies other than avoidance of possible aggression, like fighting back against it, cause people to unsubscribe.

…what?

Well, actually that’s not the only possible conclusion, there are a few possible branches in here. The survival benefit that carebear subculture offers might be something else. For example, while it might not be quite as directly cooperative as the PVP subculture is, it is clearly more supportive in terms of collating and disseminating information about Eve. The biggest off-world databases about Eve are those describing optimal missioning routines, after all, not optimal PVP fittings or skill builds. I.e. carebears support each other more, and by avoiding direct conflict, they also eat each other less.

But it’s still kind of tricky to dismiss entirely and should sound worrying.6 The question one should be asking is not "why is it that people are becoming more risk averse" but "why avoiding risk is better in the long run than risking". Because if it were otherwise, it would be positively selected, the carebear stereotype wouldn’t exist, and avoiding risk would not be anywhere as popular.

It’s quite apparent that nobody deliberately wished it to be this way,7 but there have to be reasons for it.

Where to go from there?

As I mentioned above, there are multiple mechanisms of positive selection, and something doesn’t have to be true to be selected. And it can also lag behind, though in Eve, the lag is typically short enough.8 But here are some things that I suggest you meditate on:

  • Which selection mechanism is in effect? Is the risk and conflict avoidance selected because influential people say it is good, because people who do that are seen to be more successful, or because people who don’t avoid risk lose too much and unsubscribe? I.e., are we dealing with a runaway meme or an actual effect of one or multiple laws of game mechanics? Measures to take against either would be radically different.
  • What is your core value in this game? If the game is no longer about the pecking order of domination for the sake of domination, would you keep playing it? If that turns out to be required for it to continue existing, would you say it has betrayed it’s core values? Should continuing existing be a core value for a game in the first place?

If you actually got this far, have a cookie, it helps thinking.


  1. Comments on Ripard Teg’s post have quite a high proportion if you ask me.

  2. It is not unimportant to know how it came about, though probably not essential. The old man narrowly missed WWII, only getting out of flight school months after it was done, and went into science after his retirement from the military — in fact, most of his generation of social scientists are ex-military, this was a common career path — where he served in the fighter squadron that covered the Tsar Bomba test. Being so close to the biggest man-made explosion ever and actually seeing the 8km fireball does a lot of things to a person, and he kept trying to impress on his students that such horribly destructive things cannot be dignified by calling them a part of culture. By his definition, Tsar Bomba was not ‘positively selected’, which is, strictly speaking, true — on multiple stages of it’s development, even. It is not a widely known fact, but the immense 100 megaton device, with it’s yield dialed down to 50Mt as 100Mt was too dangerous to test, so big that the bomber had to fly with it’s bomb bay doors removed, was initially intended as a torpedo — the first ever geophysical weapon, that is, weapon that invokes the Earth itself to do it’s damage. A 100 Mt explosion in water at the right depth would have caused a tsunami that would wash San Francisco or New York right off the map. As far as I’ve been able to dig up, USSR abandoned this line of development for humanitarian reasons rather than any others.

  3. PVE experience in Eve, for example, is still social even when you run missions solo — you are still part of the greater market and aren’t ever truly alone.

  4. I would, were they easier to dig up. Most we get is fairly cryptic economic indices once in a blue moon, these days.

  5. What else did you expect once I mentioned balalaika and bears? In fact, here, have some.

  6. If you want to read this as me implying that carebears might be prospering only because they don’t play with jerks, feel free. Nobody reads the footnotes anyway. :)

  7. In fact, far fewer things about Eve are deliberate than I think is good for it. For example, the entire map and mineral distribution was generated randomly.

  8. Plex tactics in Faction Warfare have propagated over the course of at most two months, so while there’s a lot to say about communication barriers in Eve, it’s not completely separated into mutually inaccessible chunks.