Sergey Pereslegin, whom I mentioned previously and who’s a military history and literary criticism personality of some notability in Russia, defines war as ‘an attempt to create a world better than current, if only for your own side’. Which nicely applies to wars both inside and outside Eve, with a ‘but’ the size of a few titans:

Far more things that happen in Eve are called a war than actually are one in any reasonable way.

All of them will be found somewhere on the long continuum that results as a game walks the steps from sport and into war, usually quite far from the war end. To put it in very simple terms, sport is when you lose, but say ‘gf’, if only to be polite, and maybe come back to play again. War is when you want your opponent to stop forever, because that will create a better world for you. And you hate their guts.

It’s not really quite as simple as that, but that’s as concise as I can put it. Which is obviously not enough for me, because the interesting part is unpacking this statement to get at the consequences.

And alas, I’m ending up with one of my longest posts yet.

Game, War and Inbetween

While you can write tomes upon tomes describing what a ‘game’ really is, it is sufficient to note that every game, when taken as an abstract rule system dealing with game elements, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As long as it becomes a matter of skill, there is room for contest of skill. Where there is room for contest of skill, even something as apparently scholarly and innocent as karuta, where you need to recall verses of poetry faster than your opponent does, can turn into a fiercely competitive and dramatic sport.1

But sport, no matter how competitive it is, is still an insulated context. It exists within and separately from the greater social reality, with it’s own rules that only apply within. Striving to be a good sportsman, following the rules of the context, it’s prescribed goals and means of achieving them, might make you a better person. Being a good sportsman might be the foundation of your sense of self-worth. But even then it typically has no direct bearing on your life and death.2 The goals of a sport are intimately connected to victory, but the positive effects of sport, which are what makes it socially acceptable as an insulated context, are derived from the process itself, not victory as such.

War is different. All is fair in love and war, there are no real rules, it’s them or you. You wish to remove them from the world because that will make it better, it’s as simple as that. You might stop short, if your more immediate goals are achieved, but that’s what you feel while you actually are at war.

Both of these edges of the continuum are obviously ideals, rarely seen in practice. Sports hug the end of the scale closer to the ‘sport’ end. Wars hug the end of the scale closer to the ‘war’ end. But just like few sports really do end up as sportsmanlike as people engaging in them would strive to be, so few wars are all out total wars, and civilization has sought to pull them off that end of the scale for centuries — actually eradicating each other simply costs too much. Conflicts will sometimes snap back to that end when one of the sides has a crushing advantage over the other — either the side with the crushing advantage will use it to cut costs3, or the side without the advantage will get so desperate that they believe anything they can possibly do to be justified, as the world hopelessly sucks anyway.4 Or, as it happens, both.

But most conflicts crawl off that edge of the scale towards ‘sport’ when they can. Feudal societies had the rules of chivalry, breaking which would seriously hamper being invited to parties. Modern wars are fought observing the Geneva conventions and Hague Conventions, and breaking them, even though everybody does it to a certain degree, invites scorn from other players. All of these are rule systems, called "rules of engagement" quite literally. They are important not so much because they always work — they don’t, at least not always — but because they provide beacons for judging other participants and determining what to expect from them in the future, whether coexistence with them is possible at all.

Meanwhile, in New Eden…

One interesting feature of Eve Online that differentiates it from most other MMOs is that it never actually determines where it stands on the game-war continuum, leaving it to the players, all in the name of the Holy Sandbox. Most other examples in the industry make a point to define their position sharply — they give players predefined "factions" to join and attempt to balance them against each other to maintain competition in perpetuity,5 they maintain mechanics like arenas, zones where PVP is possible or impossible, etc, etc. This is not exactly unique, and while Eve is not the most extreme example of the quest for the Holy Sandbox ever, it’s much further off on that path than the competition in it’s production values bracket.

One interesting feature of a constructed world striving towards the ideal sandbox is that people don’t come there from a vacuum either and aren’t spontaneously generated in there like mice from the mud of the Nile. The context(s) that forms in there and the social norms that eventually evolve are determined by three factors:

  1. Values brought in by the participants. The wider the pools the participants are drawn from, the more national cultures and personal backgrounds are involved, the more complicated and varied mess it might create.
  2. Goals the participants seek to reach inside the sandbox. I actually wrote about those quite a bit already. — they can also be affected by the culture of origin, but are more affected by the social strata of origin, and also create a mess.
  3. Imperfections in the sandbox itself, which hinder or allow behaviours.

Factor #3 is particularly interesting, because unless the game design takes it into account very deliberately, it’s invisible. There is no such thing as a perfect constructed world — no such thing as a perfect simulation of a physical reality, for simple technological reasons you have to give it at least some direction.6 If a direction is not designed for, the evolutionary process of social life emerging from the primal soup might take too long for the project to survive economically. In Eve’s case, such a direction is that it’s a "spaceship game", which determines it’s basic mechanics — the way space works, the way motion in space works, topography of the world, means of affecting each other within this world, etc, etc, etc.

Eve deliberately stops at generating mechanical means at a certain point and ostensibly leaves it all for players to determine. That point, however, is placed a bit too early, and as a result, beyond the values and goals brought in by the players, the shape of the society is strongly affected by things as random as quirks of the game’s interface7 or unanticipated effects of fundamental mechanics.8 To reiterate an analogy, what kind of sand castle you can build in a sandbox depends on how deep the sandbox goes, how sticky the sand is, where are it’s walls, where are you within it’s walls, and if you get a pit of gravel instead of sand, you need to import your own cement to build a sand castle, which might prevent others from building another one.

But I write a lot about those things already, and this post was supposed to be about war, so let’s not get sidetracked too much.

A Long Long Time Ago…

When I wrote about conflict drivers in Eve, one of the things I mentioned were wars of the Red Alliance of old. If you want to know more about those, you can read a forum thread — it more or less survives Google Translate and contains some interesting discourse, both in the opening post, which is a propaganda text in style, and it’s criticism — but to make it easier I’ll sum up a few points:

  • Russians in pre-2004 Eve had a particularly hard time getting in. The language barrier is strong, Russians rarely speak English well, and even those who can passably read it typically have problems writing it, so even the fragmentary gameplay lore that was available at the time was only accessible to a small minority. Russians did not trust their money to Internet (still often don’t) and as a result, had problems paying. Only a handful big Russian cities at the time had broadband at all, much of the country still lived on dialup. As a result, the Russian-speaking minority of early Eve was harshly filtered from a large base of potential players interested in spaceships down into a small minority of highly dedicated hardcore players who were there because they really wanted to be, and more experienced players commanded great influence in the diaspora, if only because of having information others did not.
  • Historically, most Russian-speaking corps ended up in the East of the map, and mostly in Curse Alliance. When it fell apart due to one of the early alliance wallet thefts, it spawned numerous new alliances, and Russian minority split off naturally, having been semi-organised previously.
  • The name "Red Alliance" was picked very deliberately, to play on the Cold War image of Russia9 and provide a unifying idea for the Russian players, many of them post-Soviet youth yearning for the return of the imperial glory of Russia, a sentiment very common in the generation born in the 70s.
  • This alliance peacefully coexisted with it’s neighbours for a time, up until The Five declared war, and trampled RA, capturing all of it’s territory and all outposts, with overwhelming numeric superiority, using the same Cold War image to unite the entire map against RA.
  • RA bounced back on the power of it’s idea itself, continually engaging in battles against superior forces and eventually winning back it’s territory and getting everyone else to back down.

This particular conflict might have started for a petty reason, but it clearly grew into a war, as much as such a thing can exist in Eve — Russians were united because they were universally hated by the rest of the map, which wanted them off that map. And at the same time, the Russian minority of hardcore players felt that any sacrifice for the victory was justified, including a sacrifice of sportsmanship — a time-honored cultural memory. As far as I can see, the word "logoffski" dates specifically to that period, and the Russian’s reputation for alarm clock operations also does. Relaxing the pressure that forced the Russians together and relaxing the heavy filtering also caused them to naturally splinter, and now that they aren’t that much of a minority, you can meet them more or less everywhere. Even though the ghost of the Cold War blinks up every once in a while,10 the name "Red Alliance" is now commonly seen as bankrupt despite numerous relaunches.

Fight-seeking Behaviour

Going back to the conflict drivers once again, you will notice a few things if you think deeper about the idea of resource-based conflict:

  • Conflict over resources directly affects the ability to live — that is, continue playing the game. Taking away sufficient resources pushes the state of conflict towards the war end of the scale.
  • Social norms arise out of competition for limited resources, and over the process of settling into a routine arrangement, they push the state of conflict towards the sport end of the scale, and eventually off the scale itself.

Eve’s apparent design concerns itself a lot with resources as conflict drivers — making a region have special resources not available anywhere else and therefore desirable, in particular. But what concerns players in practice is actually getting a fight at all, not necessarily over something. People go on roams, the sole purpose of which is to find someone to fight against — a behaviour very characteristic of a sport, and something you would never do in a war. And you don’t just need any fight, do you, you also need to find a fight your size. One you can expect, if not necessarily to win, then at least to have a sporting chance in. People expect their fleet commander to be artful in finding fights they can probably win, rather than in advanced fleet tactics.11

And it goes on. One of the attraction points of a nullsec region is not it’s resources, but availability of a playground within a reasonable travel distance in which to go roam. The worth of a titan bridge to an alliance is not just in invading and taking space, it’s in quickly getting to a location where a fight can be obtained. Capitals are mobilised just at a chance to blap something. Alliances actually create arrangements of the "We’re not blue but we don’t shoot each other’s structures." kind, something very structurally similar to the concept of a limited conventional war, but even closer to the sport end of the scale. Faction Warfare, which is explicitly a conventional war with rules of engagement, is more and more often seen as a no-nonsense way to get fights preferable to other activities, at least, if Reddit comments are any indication.

At the same time, unlike in a wider social context where people actually fight over survival, in Eve, there is always the option of retreating back to the Empire, or stopping playing the game altogether, which naturally displaces war off the table — if you fight too hard… you will win for good. They won’t play with you anymore.

Remember how I said that it’s an interesting question why Eve players express such discontent at the playing habits of other people? Particularly, why do miners invite such scorn? My best theory is quite simple: What annoys them is not so much "They play wrong." — there is no ‘wrong’ in a sandbox, really — but "They won’t play with me." While this has been highlighted time and time again, this is usually scornfully summed up in "You just want more soft targets." But it’s not the soft targets that are really desired, but an abundance of opponents with a sporting chance to beat them. Clearly, it’s incredibly annoying to have spent the day roaming, come up with nothing whatsoever, or worse, ran from a blob three times your size, and then see all those people flying around in highsec under CONCORD protection, as if deliberately trolling you. Every victory against such an opponent is seen as a victory against the ‘oppressive’ regime of the untouchable gods that is seen as perpetuating it, no matter the reasons it really exists. But this can’t be presented as in any way objective, and when appealing to the higher authority, the self-same gods, which is what this conflict is really about, you are expected to make yourself sound objective, and eventually start believing it yourself.

The above suggests both the players and the developers are thinking of what they wish of Eve too much in terms of ‘war’, while what players really approach it as is far more of a ‘sport’. The atmosphere of paranoia and distrust it has accumulated does make it more natural, but this does not reflect in the actual player habits.12

Kingmaker posted a very insightful comment to my previous post about mining:

Activities which force you to sit in space and wait for your fellow belligerents to make an appearance are liable to involve spending a lot of time to no result, unless there is some way of sending a “come at me, bro” to potential adversaries (you see this with reinforcement timers on structures and overview beacons in FW). To further confound the issue, that is the exact opposite of what the miners want, since, to them, the point of the operation is mine, not to get a fight. So one group getting what it wants results in the other group having a bad day. Either the miners are uninterrupted, and the escorts spent several hours sitting around for no payoff (to them), or the escorts get a fight and the miners are irritated because they can’t mine if they explode or hostiles are hanging around in system. We either need another way to make running escorts fun or interesting, or we need a way to substitute that functionality some other way that doesn’t necessarily impede the gameplay of either the miners or the pvpers.

That actually neatly exposes the contradiction here. Peaceful industrial activity is normally a focal point of conflict in a war, something you have the conflict over. But war is not something that can or does go on forever — it hinders the industrial activity. Players instead want sport, and sport never stops, but prevents industrial activity just the same. Trying to tie sport to the protection of industrial activity beats aimlessly roaming, when it can actually be done, but is still suboptimal.

I’m not sure where to go from here, and if that contradiction is solvable at it’s root. There are faint ideas floating around in my head of hardcoding a reputation system, something of an equivalent of chivalry — rules of engagement that don’t really stop anyone, but at least give you the idea of what to expect. Who’s a noble knight and who’s a dirty pirate, literally if you have to. Security status doesn’t cut it at all.

But knowing Eve players, they’ll exploit the hell out of it in a week, and I’m not sure it’s possible to beat the metagaming in the long term, just like it’s not practical to completely eradicate botting.

  1. This anime/manga series might not be your taste, but it certainly perfectly illustrates the point.

  2. And when it does through the nature of the sport itself, there are rules to guard those, to reduce casualties to a minimum the rest of the society considers acceptable.

  3. Modern justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings is exactly that — "it ended the war sooner". Which I suppose it did, but in a deal-with-the-devil fashion.

  4. Battle of Okinawa actually had the Japanese throw women with spears against the invaders.

  5. Which Eve only did with the introduction of Faction Warfare, which came with Empyrean Age in 2008, while nullsec sov has been there since Exodus, of winter 2004.

  6. Second Life actually comes far closer than Eve, and yet the influence of imperfections is very plainly visible — there are things you can create, and there are things you can’t create, and there are things you can create only by repeatedly jumping hoops, and once someone jumps a hoop and writes a tutorial, everyone rushes in. The more hoops there are to jump, the higher is the chance nobody tried it yet.

  7. Corporation interface and corporation support features, being woefully inadequate to actually do what people ended up wanting them to do, are a prime example.

  8. I’ll have a special post on the subject of space and motion one day, but I already wrote about the self-defense problem, prosopagnosia, mining, effects of space topography, economic effects, etc, etc, etc… I’m writing more about these influences than about anything else.

  9. A tidbit for a fuller picture. My German friend once told me, "I was raised in fear of "the Russian", who stood heavily armed along the border ready to rape my mother and kill my father. You guys don’t have a good image over here." Russians were offended at that back in the 70s, but didn’t fear or hate the rest of the world. The early 90s changed that a lot, and now, many Russians feel it’s better to be feared and despised than simply ignored.

  10. For example, Gallente Faction Warfare members often fall back on it when they talk about the pirates of Old Man Star.

  11. Which I myself would love to see more of.

  12. Here’s one of the problems of research by survey for you — what the people actually want and what they say they want when asked are not the same.