Blurring the Lines Between Game and Life

JMoravia 2018-04-02

A collaboration by J Moravia and Paramemetic / Art by Mintaki

What happens when an internet game makes you feel real feelings?  Sure, we’ve all had those moments playing War Thunder or Team Fortress when we wanted to throw our computer through a window.  I (J Moravia) am not talking about those feelings. Those are temporary; the round ends and a new one starts and five minutes later you’re fine.  I’m talking about real feelings, the kind that stay with you after you’ve logged off. I’m talking about something in a game that makes you so proud or so furious that it affects your real life for hours afterwards.

Does it sound silly to describe a game in this way?  I’m not sure why it should. A good movie or TV show can have us thinking about it for hours if not days.  A good song keeps us singing along, and a bad song makes us progressively angrier when it gets stuck in our heads and we can’t dislodge it.  A good book can stick with us and influence us for the rest of our lives.  Yet there seems to be a popular conception that video games are unworthy of this kind of response; one can easily imagine a person who cried at the death of Albus Dumbledore but thinks it’s silly to get excited or upset over a game.  Considered logically, though, it should be more reasonable to get emotional over a game like EVE (a story you helped to create) than to get emotional over a movie (a story which someone else created and in which you had no role).  Yet how many of you, dear readers, would be more embarrassed to admit that you felt strong feelings over a game than over a movie or TV show?

These thoughts are in my head lately because my brother and I recently left our corporation, MUSE LLP, in order to go elsewhere in EVE.  It’s always impossible to explain such a big decision succinctly, but suffice it to say, it had nothing at all to do with MUSE itself; if you want to live the nullsec life in a zero-drama corp with an amazing bunch of pilots, stop what you’re doing and apply to MUSE right now.  My brother and I reached our decision on a Saturday night, and even at that time, the thought of leaving my friends was upsetting to me. I joined MUSE right before Pandemic Legion invaded Providence, launching us into a six-week fight for our home before our alliance opted to leave Providence.  We’d fought together, entosised together, done mining fleets together to keep our ADMs up, then packed up all our stuff in a weekend and moved halfway across the galaxy together.  We’d shared hours of life, laughing at each other’s jokes and making fun of people and debating ships and fittings. The thought of saying goodbye to anyone so close – even someone who only existed to me as an in-game avatar attached to a made-up name – was surprisingly upsetting to me.

Things did not get any better the following day when I logged in to find that I had been given the title of “Actual Saint” the night before because of some things I had done to help the corporation.  I had been dubbed an “Actual Saint” at the same moment my brother and I had been talking about leaving. That made me feel even worse. None of those feelings, of course, made any sense on paper. People come and go from corporations all the time; it’s just part of the game, and I’m sure everyone in that corporation has left at least one before.  MUSE is a well-run corporation, and is growing rapidly; my departure would certainly not hurt them, and I would make new friends in the corporation my brother and I would join. And besides, it’s a video game, for crying out loud. There was no reason, no excuse, for getting emotional over it.

Yet all of those facts changed nothing as I sat there reading the words “Actual Saint” and trying to swallow a lump in my throat.


A Mask, or a Window?

In February 2018, The Mittani wrote on INN about EVE Online as something more than a simple game.  “We’re playing a tremendously weird game in a tremendously weird way,” he said, pointing out that EVE’s content can often be described better as “nightmare fuel” than “wish fulfilment.”  The Mittani’s article dealt mainly with masks, with the way people act in EVE compared with the way they act in real life, and asked the question of which of those two different personalities is the “real” person.  Our question is: what if those two people are actually the same? What happens when the events of an internet spaceship game bleed over into real life, affecting a person’s mood for good or for ill? What happens when a person uses the game to build skills that translate to real-life success and confidence?  In this series, INN writers Paramemetic and J Moravia talk to players from all over New Eden and all over the real-life world, finding those stories where the game transcends pixels on a screen and becomes something more.

Player Story: “I Never Really Lived”

The first story in the series comes from a member of Goonswarm’s Corps Diplomatique, who requested to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of their experience.

“I am in my mid-thirties, but due to a good few things, I never really lived before playing EVE. I had been suffering medical problems for some years, and as a result, I was basically a shut-in. A bit under a year before joining Goonswarm, I’d had surgery to correct some stuff. I ended up having three more surgeries, so at the time I wasn’t working. I was bored, and playing EVE gave me something to do. And doing things in EVE and doing them well gave me a purpose, you know? I joined one of the smaller Goonswarm corps, and I made a place for myself there. I became a corp director within a few months. 3 max, probably more around 2, because I was active and always willing to do work. I flew logi, did fleets all the time. I had months where I had almost or more than a hundred paps. I won SRP for one month – as in, I got the most SRP in the entire alliance in that month. I was still, after about three months, mostly just a small time corp director, but I was working on the corp: working to recruit, making it welcoming to people, helping new bees.

“I applied to Corps Diplomatique sometime later, for their semiannual recruiting drive. I made it to the last stage but then was told I had been rejected. I later learned that I didn’t make it because I had not been in the alliance for a year. I was really disappointed at the time. I mean really. But I was given some other small responsibilities in helping the alliance, and some other groups we interact with. So I learned how to talk with people, you know? The diplo talk, chitchat. And my confidence grew. About six months before the CD trials where I was declined, I took a part-time job. I hadn’t had a job in years because of the medical issues, and it was a lot of hard work adjusting – to time, to stress, to having to deal with people. And kind of…growing up as well.

“I know it isn’t solely EVE that has helped, but it was definitely a strong contributing factor – real-life growth feeding off of EVE growth feeding off of personal and emotional growth feeding off of relationship growth, in this giant web of growing as a person. So… managing some small alliance jobs, managing a small real-life job, managing my health and those three extra surgeries over two years. That is something I’ve discovered about myself, you know? That I’m more capable than I realized. And when the CD trials came around again the next time, I tried again, and this time I made it.

“It was a lot of work. But I was using skills I had long forgotten about, learning about myself, building confidence in myself. It felt like a tide coming in, like I was being the person I was meant to be, in the right place and the right time, doing things that were worthy of my skills, and learning the skills to be worthy of them. In the past seven months, I’ve grown so much as a person. I’ve dusted off skills that I had buried for 18 or so years. I’ve gained confidence. I’ve worked out personal problems, worked out medical problems. I’m on the cusp of moving to a full-time job, which is scary as […], let me tell you, and dealing with the stress of job finding and learning a new job. Time management will be a big one; learning to deal with less time for myself will be difficult. But it is something I know I can do now, you know? EVE is not solely responsible for these changes in my life, but it is solidly a part and parcel of my being able to make them, of gaining the confidence in myself and in what I can do, in developing the bravery to do so.”

What if we were to tell you that this kind of story is not merely possible within EVE, but is virtually guaranteed to occur because of the way the game is set up?

While succeeding in EVE depends on some basic mechanical skills and knowledge of the game on the individual level, the broader game requires many of the same skills that we use in our real lives. Working with others, managing responsibilities, and balancing our priorities are all skills that can benefit us in the real world, but those skills also translate directly into our ability to play the game. Whereas other games serve to be escapist fantasies – worlds where we’re free from limitations and responsibilities – EVE more closely resembles an extension of our real lives. At the corporate level, this is expanded even further. The World of Warcraft player might specialize into her favorite class and focus on this, and the EVE pilot might specialize his training queue towards the kinds of ship he wants to fly, but the corporation administrator employs his or her real skills when playing the game. The ability to manage people, to handle logistical chains, to coordinate between different working groups, even to write for a space newspaper – these are all skills that belong to us, not our characters.

Especially in the case of diplomatic work, these skills must be possessed or developed in order to be successful. While fights are won or lost based on the power of the logistics, the number of capsuleers, and the leadership of the fleet commander, so much of Eve takes place outside of the client entirely. The diplomat reaches out to others, talks to them as a person to find common ground, works to determine how both sides can achieve a satisfactory outcome, negotiates an arrangement, and then sees that their own people understand and execute the plan.  No matter how many levels of Diplomatic Relations we take in the game, those skills belong to the player.

Yet the opposite is also true. The skills we bring to the game are important, but the skills we develop in the context of playing the game don’t disappear when we close the client. A negotiator can carry his or her skills over from the Discord client to the conference call and back. While the War Thunder pilot probably can’t land a plane in real life, the EVE diplomat can almost certainly seal a deal. The negotiations made between players may represent the interests of their corporations, alliances, or coalitions, but the players negotiating them are the people, not the characters. In fact, few people really “role play” in Eve in a conventional sense.  Our character may be a mask we wear that lets us behave other than we might in the real world, but nobody I play with actually takes on a separate personality or acts out a character except occasionally ironically.

Just as the alliances we forge are alliances with people, so the friendships we forge are with people, not with characters.  While researching this article, I heard from numerous people who struggled with depression or anxiety in the real world and who found sanctuary in EVE.  (Few people understand the true reach of these diseases – 1 out of every 16 adult Americans, battles major depression in any given year.  If you log in to EVE and see there are 32,000 people online, then roughly 2000 of them will fight depression sometime in 2018.)  In the real world, if you have depression, you’re forced to put on your game face, pretend nothing is wrong, and go to work and smile at the customers.  In EVE, there’s no such artifice.  Perhaps, then, our characters are not the mask – it’s real life where we have no choice but to pretend, to fake that we’re someone who has it all together, whereas we can let our guard down in New Eden.  And in the process of letting our guard down, of encountering a place where it’s okay not to be okay, we can learn that we are in fact good enough, and that confidence is not something that disappears when we log off.  This is an idea that predates EVE by several years, one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine deals with an officer in emotional turmoil from losing a leg, who subsequently regains his confidence and strength after living in a holosuite, a fictional environment, and doing things on the holosuite that remind him of his usefulness and his skills in real life.

I think you can see why I say this player’s story, and others like it, should not be regarded as something abnormal.

Outside the game, I’m a soccer and volleyball coach, often training athletes who have never played either sport competitively.  One of my most important jobs, then, is facilitating skill acquisition. A crucial thing to note about skill acquisition is that it’s always done in a controlled environment.  In practice, I control the movement of the drill (go here, then pass to him), the pace of the drill (let’s reset and try it again), the number of repetitions, and so on. I create an environment where the opportunities are numerous and the cost of failure is lower than in a competitive match, and that’s how players learn and perfect new skills.  For a player who is determined to “git gud” at diplomacy, at small talk, at comedy, or at any other kind of social skill – or even economic skill – EVE can be that controlled environment. These kinds of skills can be practiced in the game and then successfully deployed in real life.

Finally, to extend the analogy between real-life skills and EVE skills a little: if you had a real-life skill queue right now, what would be on it?  What are you working toward? Are you learning a musical instrument or a language? Are you teaching yourself to paint? The forward-looking aspect of EVE is vitally important; the important thing about our characters is not so much what they can do today as what they will be able to do next week or next month.  That sense of mission, of progression, can be incredibly helpful as we seek to achieve and better our real selves as well.

In closing

When Paramemetic and I first had the idea for this series, I didn’t know what to expect.  One person I talked to about the concept scoffed at it: “I don’t think you’ll be able to find people willing to admit a video game had that kind of effect on them.  ‘The game made me upset,’ ‘the game helped me succeed in real life,’ I don’t think people will want to talk about those things. They’ll be worried about how it will make them sound.”

That statement was absolutely, completely, totally, comprehensively wrong.

I have now lost count of how many people have told me that EVE helped them with depression, with anxiety, with insecurity – real, actual, positive life change.  People have not been unwilling to talk about these things; if anything, they’re overjoyed to share stories about how much better their lives are as a result of this game we all play together and the relationships they’ve built with their fellow pilots.  They’ve shared their real-life delight at finding friendships better than they ever thought possible, and some have even shared real-life sorrow at those relationships ending.

The Mittani concluded his article by saying, “Eve Online is ultimately a realm populated with humans doing human things.”  Building relationships and becoming better people are two of the most human things that exist. That’s why I would argue that the stories we’ve shared in this article are not unusual or exceptional.  They are not just normal, but normative.  They are to be expected by the very nature of the game.  In part two of this series, we will discuss some of the specific attributes of EVE, both in-game mechanisms and player behavior patterns, which create this state of affairs.  What is it about this game, specifically, that gives people the opportunity to become better human beings in a way that War Thunder and Destiny and Pac-Man do not?

Do you have a story like the ones you’ve read here?  Maybe something happened in the game that caused you to feel elation or disappointment in the real world in a way that surprised you.  Perhaps you have a story about how EVE helped you overcome difficulties or build skills you never knew you could have. Or maybe you went through a tough period in your real life, and you found genuine peace and comfort within EVE.  If you want to share your story, either with your name attached or anonymously, send an in-game message to J Moravia. I can’t wait to hear your stories – and I know the rest of INN’s readers can’t either.

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  • imsosly


    …. what?

    April 2, 2018 at 5:04 pm
    • Rammel Kas imsosly

      TLDR: Some of the higher level meta games require real life skills which helps you develop those real life skills a bit?

      April 2, 2018 at 6:36 pm
    • Johnny Crowe imsosly

      read it, it’s great.

      April 3, 2018 at 2:28 am