4: The Necessity of Espionage

TMC Archives 2009-03-21

There is a peculiar philosophy of ‘honor’ that crops up in internet games whenever real loss is unavoidable. When playing Counterstrike, or (god forbid) trying to PvP in World of Warcraft, you kill the other guy and he loses nothing; after a momentary delay the player respawns, good as new. While people will occasionally get pissed off, the endless loss-free killing is the whole purpose of these games and nothing is really taken away from the loser. By contrast, in games like EVE, Shadowbane, Ultima Online, or the old pvp servers of Everquest, a PvP death results in appreciable loss of assets. In these games, one inevitably witnesses the rise of a self-serving form of ‘e-honor’ or, in EVE’s case, one might call it ‘space bushido’.

In an environment where there are no rules beyond might makes right, intricate systems of mores develop which describe the socially acceptable bounds of warfare. The most ‘honorable’ kind of fight is a one-on-one duel; ‘ganking’ using multiple ships to attack a single target is frowned upon, and a pilot who loses a fight yet behaves honorably deserves ‘respect’ or ‘props.’ Certain taboos exist, such as never deliberately disconnecting from the game to avoid a fight, never using a ‘login trap’ to gain an advantage, or not using certain ‘broken’ ship setups. Among the many taboos of ‘space bushido’ is a ban on espionage, because if one uses spies correctly, one can win an engagement without ever actually fighting.

At its core, e-honor is a social construction that only benefits the loser. The winner has already won, through whatever means; the loser has lost substantial assets, and so is compelled to conceive of a number of face-saving rationalizations. What space bushido provides the loser is a way to cope with their loss: “Sure, I lost, but they ganked me/used a login trap/violated a 1v1, so they have no honor.” Another oft-encountered saying is that a lost ship has no value, but a pilot’s honor is priceless.

All of this is harmless enough. People will swallow almost any rationalization to feel better about themselves or cope with a loss; this is human nature. The problem is that some people drink the e-honor kool-aid too deeply, and begin playing EVE by a set of self-imposed rules which simply do not exist for the rest of the playerbase. It is this subset of the EVE population who often end up in an ‘elite PvP’ 0.0 alliance where the cultivation of an individual pilot’s skill and honor is exalted. Perversely, it is in 0.0 more than any other area of the game that one needs to be willing to win at all costs. So we have ended up with a galaxy full of curiously self-handicapped alliances where military might may exist but the espionage capability is either neglected or scorned openly as dishonorable. Of course, these entities have managed to hold space – so, they argue, espionage is unnecessary. Is it? Where would EVE without espionage leave us?

Two weeks ago, we in Goonswarm watched our dear enemies, Against All Authorities (-A-), spend four hours grimly defending against an invasion of their home region, Catch, an invasion which my alliance was supposed to spearhead. The only problem? There was no such invasion; it was a figment of their alliance leader’s fevered imagination, based on a deliberately misleading post he saw on a popular unofficial EVE forum. Four hundred pilots spending four hours doing nothing amounts to 1600 man-hours wasted on chasing shadows. When ‘death’ in EVE means the pixels of your internet spaceship turn into a pretty flash of light, a player’s time is often the most valuable resource, not isk or hulls. If -A- had one competent spy in Goonswarm – which is quite possibly the easiest alliance in EVE to infiltrate due to our size – the agent could have noticed the lack of any ops posted regarding Catch, or realized from time spent among his targets that Goonswarm had no territorial ambitions besides Delve and Querious. -A-‘s lack of spies resulted in an alliance-level snipe hunt – but at least it wasn’t ‘dishonorable’.

Another instance where a critical lack of espionage led to massive failures on an alliance level: During the first Great War, which pitted the RedSwarm Federation and the Northern Coalition against Band of Brothers in Delve, there was a huge capital battle to attempt to destroy a BoB Titan being built in a Capital Ship Assembly Array in the system of F-TE1T. That system had two CSAAs present, and only one of them had the target supercapital ship within; the other was empty. It was bad enough that the murderously costly assault caused the largest single loss of capital ships at that point in the game. Worse still, faulty intelligence on the part of Evil Thug of -A- (who was, at that time, fighting against BoB) poised the assault to attack the wrong CSAA – the one that was destroyed at such great cost was empty. Insult to injury, however, was the fact that there never was a Titan to begin with; the entire enterprise was completely pointless, as the ship that was building in the ‘correct’ CSAA of F-TE1T was merely a mothership. Oops. If the attacking forces had been more effective at the spy game (and this included me) there never would have been a shot fired in that system, as motherships are not a strategic threat.

Even if an alliance is philosophically opposed to spying and other nefarious tactics, oftentimes the best method to defend oneself against hostile agents is to infiltrate your enemy’s organization to begin with; hostile spies often post materials on their own forum which can be traced or ‘timestamped’ to aid in counterintelligence. One of the best examples of this came during Goonswarm’s war against Lotka Volterra (LV). Midway through the war, I discovered that LV had managed to gain director-level access on Goonswarm’s forums; I realized this not because we were looking at our server logs, but because I was reading LV’s director forums myself, and one of their higher-ups had begun posting copies of our forums there. In the subsequent bout of utter panic and the ensuing forum lockdown, we managed to close the security loophole through which LV was gaining access; if we hadn’t had our own director-level agent, we’d have remained compromised for god knows how long.

Espionage has been critical at the diplomatic and strategic level in the recent conquest of Delve, beyond the obvious coup of disbanding BoB. A significant factor in the war against KenZoku has been their level of allied support by -A-. While the invading forces have been able to easily take down KenZoku, the combined fleet of KenZoku plus -A- and all their associated vassals could have thrown the war in the opposite direction. However, because of our agents in -A-, we were able to read a lengthy private forum thread entitled “Do you care what happens to BoB?” in which most of the luminaries of -A- sounded off in the negative – far from being loyal allies, -A- essentially couldn’t care less about KenZoku/BoB’s fate; armed with this knowledge, we knew to expect no serious commitment from Evil Thug and his people. Sure enough, almost two weeks after every station in Delve had fallen, -A- did come riding to the rescue – in a system right across the border from their own territory, not in the more critical former home territory of KenZoku. Perhaps due to their lack of motivation, this counterattack has since stalled.

It might offend one’s sense of space bushido, but espionage is and always has been a critical aspect of internet spaceship wars. Ever since the creation of alliances in EVE, the more successful ones have relied on spies. If you skimp on spying, or worse decide that you’re ‘too good’ for it, you end up helpless against those who treat the craft with the attention it deserves. Whatever the views on offensive espionage, without its own spies an alliance is essentially helpless against hostile agents. Honor might provide cold comfort to the losing side of an engagement, but when entire capital fleets and the time and efforts of hundreds of pilots are on the line, there can be no substitute. Ultimately, an alliance at war without an espionage division is like a samurai trying to draw a sword against a gatling gun.

Commentary

Every time I think that the central place of espionage in EVE is a dead horse that doesn’t deserve more beating, some honor-obsessed e-samurai will pop up bleating about how spies are bad. Inevitably, said idiot will be in either a shitty nullsec alliance that rents from a real alliance, or not in nullsec at all; out here in space-Somalia, the game has long adapted to accept the necessity of a spy program.

Dumping on e-honor never gets old, but one of the consequences of the Great War is that people don’t talk about e-honor nearly as much as they did before that conflict. When I began playing in 2005, the culture of the game was absolutely riddled with e-honor. But neither side of the Great War gave a flying fuck about honor – BoB, as their more illiterate backers may forget, prided themselves on metagaming and espionage just as much as Goonswarm did. After three years of endless, dirty, backstabbing war, with no “honorable” side at all, ASCN-era e-honor was pretty much scourged from nullsec discourse. By the time I wrote this in 2009, it was pretty much gone; as I write this now in 2012, it is a relic culture, an archaeological curiosity.

The particularly annoying irony of e-bushido is that the most vocal of the ~space samurai~ were usually the quickest to bleat about Sun Tzu and try to apply the Art of War to spaceships – yet Sun Tzu loved spies.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by The Mittani.

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