Are There Non-Combatants In EVE?


Header Art by Major Sniper

EVE Online, as we all know but sometimes forget, is an internet game.  In some ways it is very different than real life; dozens of studies over the past two decades have proven that people are meaner when anonymous online than they are in real-life and face-to-face conversations.  In other ways, though, the internet is more real than real life; many of you probably know someone who told online friends about their sexuality or their struggle with depression while they were still wearing a mask in “real life.”  Because of this juxtaposition—is online life the artifice, or is real life the artifice?—it can be interesting to look at the way certain activities play out differently in EVE and in real life.

Let’s look at one of the major differences between online and offline war, especially the attitude towards noncombatants.  In so doing, we’re going to come away with the conclusion that there is no such thing as a civilian when it comes to null-sec.

War Is Everywhere

In theory, at least, Goonswarm is not involved in any active wars, not since the peace treaty that ended this summer’s savage beating of Pandemic Legion, Northern Coalition, the now-defunct Circle of Two, and various other parties.  However, you would not reach that conclusion if you flew around Delve for a few minutes. As of the time of this writing, Goonswarm’s staging system of 1DQ1-A is third on Dotlan’s list of most violent null-sec systems; 402 player ships (not NPC rats) have been killed there in the twenty-four hours from 1700 EVE time on January 1 to 1700 on January 2.  I would go so far as to suggest that there is no system in the entire region of Delve that has not had at least one hostile ship in it during the past day, and many systems are host to permanent cloaky campers as well.  This situation is not unique to Delve; if I were a betting man, I would wager that most null-sec systems had at least one hostile ship pass through them looking for targets of opportunity.

We may draw two conclusions from this state of affairs.  First, war in New Eden is a semi-constant state of affairs, and there is really no such thing as “peace” when even “peacetime” involves solo and gang PvP sponsored by the major null-sec coalitions against each other.  Second, and related, is that you don’t have to go looking for war in New Eden; war will come to you, whether you want it to or not. Whereas in the real world there is a clearly defined distinction between peace and hostility, no such distinction exists in New Eden.

What Is a Civilian?

Similarly, international law makes a very precise differentiation between civilians and combatants; New Eden does not.  Indeed, most of the hostile intrusions into Delve specifically target ratters, miners, and haulers, the closest things the game has to civilian non-combatants.  Hostile fleets do not seek out fair fights against organized defenders; they intentionally seek out those least likely to be able to fight back.

The most obvious justification for this is that miners, refiners, haulers, and industrialists all contribute to their alliance’s military might, so that makes them legitimate targets.  This was the logic employed by Germany in World War I and World War II when it engaged in torpedo warfare against civilian vessels shipping war materials from the (theoretically) neutral United States to the United Kingdom.  It was also employed by the United States Army Air Force later in World War II when that organization engaged in “strategic bombing” not just of military targets but of factories in Germany that were producing materials for the war effort.  

The analogy breaks down in one major way: the United States/United Kingdom and Germany were at war with each other, which is why we can coherently speak of a “war effort.”  It is not logically valid for two nations—or coalitions—which are formally at peace to wreck one another’s industries while speaking of “military might” and “war effort.”  To argue that miners and haulers are valid targets for this reason during wartime does not imply that they are valid targets during peacetime. For that, we need a different line of thinking.

There Are No Civilians

The logic that makes ratters and miners into valid targets, then, is this: all players in null-sec corporations are combatants, and there is no such thing as a civilian.  Nearly every player in Goonswarm, if not literally every player, has to meet certain participation requirements in order to avoid having themselves or their corporation kicked from the alliance.  Within the past three months, every player in Goonswarm is guaranteed to have joined a fleet or done some other activity that resulted, or could have resulted, in combat against other players. The same is almost certainly true of other alliances as well.

Whether a player actually has gone on a combat fleet in the past month is immaterial.  What makes a person a combatant according to international law is not that they actually have fought against the enemy (most soldiers in most countries’ militaries have never fired a shot in combat, after all), but that they could.  At any moment they could join a fleet on behalf of their corporation or alliance and go shoot some people.  This permission to fight means that they fit the legal definition of “combatant,” not “civilian,” even if they happen to be hauling salvage at the moment they’re attacked.  Nobody is off limits.

What’s The Point?

As I said at the beginning, EVE is in some ways very similar to real life and in other ways very dissimilar.  In real life, the question of combatant versus non-combatant is a very big deal; shooting the wrong person literally means that a soldier is guilty of a war crime.  By contrast, very few if any of the readers of this article will have ever stopped to ponder the question of whether certain players in EVE should not be considered valid targets (except, perhaps, as a hostile gang warped away from the space-dust that used to be your ratting ship, and you wondered, “Why’d they come after me?”).

Some may not even see the point of such examination; an interviewer once asked George Leigh Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and he replied, “Because it is there.”  Why do we shoot other players? Because they are there. No further thought is required.

Yet I believe this misses the point.  EVE is a vast sandbox, not merely a digital location but an entire economy, political system, and military simulator all wrapped together.  When we find a disconnect like this one between real life and online life—when the question of “who is a valid target” receives such detailed attention in real life but receives no attention whatsoever or questions of “who cares” in our game—we want to pick at those cracks, because looking at the differences between the two helps us figure out whether the “true us” is the one we see in real life where we’re forced to play by other people’s rules or the one we see online where we’re free to make our own rules.

In Conclusion

The final question is, does this “everyone’s a target” philosophy actually work?  Several times in recent history, organized militaries have deliberately targeted those behind the front lines.  One such instance was the Blitz in World War II, where Nazi Germany bombed London and other English cities. Not to be outdone, the Allies later firebombed the German city of Dresden, and the United States attacked Tokyo in the Doolittle Raid as early as 1942.  In all those cases, the goal was the same: to discourage the ratters and miners (so to speak) in those societies, to demoralize ordinary people and in so doing weaken the enemy.

Is that working with regard to Goonswarm?  Considering that the Goons are still defending MER champions (with over four times more ore mined in Delve than in the second highest region and similarly impressive numbers for ratting), one would have to say no.  Did it work in real life? No, repeatedly. Unrestricted U-boat warfare didn’t keep the United States out of World War I; it dragged them in. The Blitz didn’t break the British; it strengthened their resolve (and later gave us a rocking Iron Maiden song).  There is no indication that the Doolittle Raid made a meaningful impact on Japanese morale.  Every attempt to discourage the ratters and miners of society either had no effect or accomplished the opposite.

Perhaps that’s one way that EVE and real life are not so different.

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  • As a disabled player, with heart issues, I must avoid the excitement of combat as much as possible. So, I content myself with PVE and industrial activities. For me, any day I do NOT lost a ship is a victory for me.

    In a universe where any activity in null sec means certain death, the lesson to never venture there is quickly learned. Unfortunately, that decision leads most players to simply delete their Eve client and go play another game.

    If we even had a fifty/fifty chance of surviving null sec, we might try to survive. But it is so much easier to just quit playing.

    So, why do I continue to play? Its because Eve helped me to rehab myself after my last heart attack. When real life made me feel defeated, I took some solace in surviving in the Eve universe. Eve has challenged me to learn tons of stupid, arbitrary rules (and then to UNlearn them when the capricious developers decide that after spending several years carefully honing my muscle memory, they change the game in ways that penalize older players.) In doing so, it kept my brain active as my body healed.

    Thanks, CCP. You do not know it, but you saved my life several times.

    Oh, by the way, I have played since 2004 continuously by annual subscription.

    January 17, 2019 at 5:06 PM
    • J Moravia John Masters

      That’s a really great story! At the top of this page, you’ll see “Submissions” on the navigation menu. I think you should consider writing up your story and submitting it for publication. It sounds like the sort of thing other players of the game would love to hear.

      Thanks for commenting!

      January 17, 2019 at 9:28 PM
      • Twilight Winter J Moravia

        Completely agree with this, and as a more general point, if you have an Eve story to tell please tell it. Journalism in New Eden isn’t something that has to be left to the ‘pros’. Every capsuleer probably has thoughts, opinions, and stories that could be shared wider and sites like INN (and others) are the medium for doing that.

        January 28, 2019 at 3:59 PM
  • Twilight Winter

    Would you consider Signal Cartel to be noncombatants? Their credo is about the closest thing I’ve seen to pacifism / true neutrality in Eve.

    We embrace the attitude of a true explorer: we are friendly to others in our travels, neutral and never initiating aggression, and endeavoring at all times be perceived by the New Eden community as a non-threat. Although we never intentionally seek to harm, we may defend our friends and our ships. In suffering losses, we respond with good cheer and shed no tears. In this way, we aim to be recognized and respected by all across the cluster and left in peace to do our work.

    The only contrary argument I can think of is that services like Thera scanning and Search & Rescue can be used by the enemy, but all of New Eden has access to them equally.

    January 17, 2019 at 11:13 PM
    • J Moravia Twilight Winter

      Great question! The article was concerned mainly with null-sec, which is why the thesis, as phrased in the first paragraph of the “There are no civilians” section, mentions null specifically.

      Considering that it is the authorization to conduct warfare on behalf of one’s organization (EVE corp, national military, etc) that makes one a combatant, we could consider members of a certain corporation to be noncombatants only if that corporation absolutely forbids its members to engage in PvP under any circumstances. If the members have no authorization to engage in hostilities, then they’re technically non-combatants – at least in high-sec.

      If they go blundering into null and get blapped because they were in the territory of some alliance with an NBSI policy, that’s their own fault; “sovereign” literally means that a nation/alliance/whoever has control over who enters, which gives them the right to treat all entrants (even those who might otherwise be considered non-combatants) as hostile.

      It’s interesting to follow this logic to its ends and see if there are exceptions or special cases. Thanks for the comment!

      January 19, 2019 at 2:37 AM
  • Punky260

    “Within the past three months, every
    player in Goonswarm is guaranteed to have joined a fleet or done some
    other activity that resulted”

    That’s not true. Goonswarm judges on a corporation level, it doesn’t care about the individual player. So there can be and absolutely are people who have never joined a fleet within Goonswarm.

    January 18, 2019 at 10:12 AM
    • J Moravia Punky260

      You’re correct, and if I had it to do over, I would have put a “nearly” before the word “every” just for accuracy’s sake.

      At any rate, the thing that makes them a combatant is not that they actually have joined a fleet, but that they could at any moment join a fleet; that authorization to enter combat on behalf of their corporation/alliance is what makes them a combatant under the law.

      January 19, 2019 at 2:00 AM
      • Eli J Moravia

        The participation requirements on individuals are indeed set at corporation level. Some set the bar very high, others very low. Generally the larger the corporation, the lower the minimum requirements as a general rule. The few cases where there are still renters in the coalition (e.g., Initiative Associates) it may differ.

        However, I feel the NBSI, rule, is more at work here than otherwise stated because there is no real border control. In nations in real life, a passport and visa system allows foreign citizens to enter but not break the laws of the land. In Eve, anyone entering your space that is not blue is an illegal immigrant and the measure to deal with them is, shoot them. In real life, they’re usually just sent back or detained for a time.

        January 21, 2019 at 5:00 AM
  • zamirroa

    Do not turn this into a real-life thing. This must be considered a sandbox game, not a job as many players take it

    January 21, 2019 at 12:41 AM
    • Javert En Challune zamirroa

      If many players take it as a job, whats wrong with relating it to real life?

      March 20, 2019 at 9:23 PM