Blurring the Lines – Just a game?

JMoravia 2018-04-06

A collaboration by J Moravia and Paramemetic / Art by Praetorian

In INN’s first “Blurring the Lines” article, we shared a few stories of players who were impacted in the real world by their experiences in EVE Online. Whether it was emotions from in-game events spilling over, or players learning life skills as a result of interactions in New Eden, these stories clearly resonated with INN’s readers and prompted some great discussions in-game and in out-of-game chat clients.

One of those discussions centered around the interplay between the individual and the game. I (J Moravia) have been honored to talk to a number of players from all over New Eden about their stories, and I’ve found those stories as diverse as the players who tell them. There are pilots who play to add enjoyment to their real lives, and there are pilots who play to escape their real lives. There are players who have it all together in real life but are stupid newbees in EVE, and there are players whose real life is a mess but who have it all together in the game. There are players whose emotions in real life are intimately tied to the game world, and there are players who forcibly separate their game selves from their real selves. EVE, as The Mittani said, is a realm of humans doing human things, and the stories of its pilots are as diverse as the pilots themselves.

In this article, we’ll look at two different perspectives regarding real life and the game, the first from a player whose frustration over EVE spilled over into real life and the second from a player who insists there is no spillover.

Player Story #1: All We Are Is Dust in the Wind

This story comes from Guilford Australis, a former Provi-Bloc pilot. Maybe you’ll see shades of your own personal EVE experience in his words.

I can’t explain why I log into EVE every day, even when I have no specific plans, objectives, or needs. Ultimately, I think the motivating factor is the relentless churn of New Eden – of my own alliance and corporation, endless change for better or worse – whether I’m logged in to see it or not. Sometimes, lying awake at night or daydreaming at work, I think about what’s happening in EVE at that moment, and I’m conscious that I’m powerless to affect it. I felt this most acutely during the ongoing war between Pandemic Legion and Provi-Bloc (which included my most recent alliance, Yulai Federation) over sovereignty in northern Providence. I’d log in each day to learn about all the ways our situation had worsened since I was on last, and I spent each session in the game adjusting to new, lower expectations. My corporation at the time handled things as well as could be expected, and I realized at some point that I was logging in for their sake rather than for any enjoyment I was getting watching Pandemic Legion’s favorite pastime of hot-dropping supercap fleets on entosis frigates, miners, etc.

The alliance eventually evacuated and held together remarkably well while doing so, although some corporations decided to remain in Providence. However, YF made some controversial decisions during the move, including selling Fortizars in Provi to Pandemic Legion. The alliance settled in with Legacy Coalition and became allies with TEST, and some internal changes led my corporation to leave for Razor Alliance, part of Drone Phoenix in the Oasa region. This situation rapidly led to a scenario in which I was no longer doing what I wanted to do in EVE. This feeling was confirmed when I found myself moving some assets from Oasa in an ill-fated carrier (fare ye well, faithful Nidhoggur… may you flutter in the celestial breeze until I am reunited with you one day). My medical clone activated and I thought to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing anymore?’ I felt torn…not by the loss of the carrier, although that was – shall we say – less than awesome, but by a real-life feeling of ennui, or profound weariness and detachment, resulting from the disconnect between my current circumstances and what I wanted to be doing.

It’s too soon to say whether I’m headed for resolution of that disconnect, but I decided to press on toward new goals in EVE. As with real life, sometimes you have to rebel against your circumstances or else they crush you.”

Have you ever been in a similar situation, where events within EVE were so exciting that they had you thinking about the game during all hours of the day? Or have you had the opposite happen, where in-game events were discouraging, or your own character was lacking in purpose or direction, so that you found yourself not even wanting to log in?

This story brings into focus several sharp contrasts between EVE and other online games. One is the permanence of losses in EVE. You could fly with other pilots in a WWII game like War Thunder, but at the end of a round of War Thunder, all your planes are magically resurrected (minus a negligible repair cost) and you’re ready to go again. Your actions have really affected nothing at all in the game, except that your in-game currency balance will be slightly higher if you flew well and slightly lower if you didn’t. Not so in EVE. If your squad flies poorly in EVE, your ships and your implants are permanently destroyed, removed from the game, existing only as memories and a snapshot on zkillboard. If you defend your space station poorly, it is permanently gone, and you have to find a new home.

We get emotionally attached to the things we help build. This is simple psychology, and its effects can be seen in the real world as well. Habitat For Humanity, the famous charity, builds houses for people who can’t afford them – but the recipients of the houses must contribute to the construction, because they value the house more highly if they worked hard to build it. For this reason, combat in EVE is more emotionally intense than in any other game. We are emotionally attached to our ships by virtue of spending real time on the ISK to buy them, and if that ship is lost, our toy is permanently gone. The higher the stakes, the more we’re in for. A capital ship pilot won’t think twice about welping a frigate or even a battleship, but the thought of losing a titan is painful. Meanwhile, the frigate pilot can’t even imagine a titan yet. Naturally, the emotions run higher than in other games which lack similar mechanics, simply because the stakes are real. It makes sense that flying with corp-mates in such a do-or-die setting would create a closer bond than if the consequences were lesser.

Coupled with this, not only are your assets easily lost, but they require constant protection. If an entire World of Warcraft guild decided not to log in for a month, there would be absolutely zero in-game consequences for them. They would log in at the end of the month to find all their characters exactly where they were left, wearing the items they were left with, ready to get right back to raiding. If an entire nullsec EVE alliance decided not to log in for a month, there is a serious chance they would log back in to find all their stations destroyed, all their systems lost, and all their items in asset safety.

This brings us to a third difference: games like WoW and War Thunder and Destiny are defined by what you do. You gain money or items based on how much you play the game and what you choose to do while you’re in it. However, EVE is defined just as much by what other people do to you. As Sartre famously said, “freedom is what we do with what is done to us.” Our actions have consequences, and so too do the actions of others. You can live your real life, but you know that if you spend too long away from the game, you could log in to find your fifty-billion-ISK Sotiyo floating through space in fifty billion pieces. This is the reason that so many nullsec corporations and alliances have monthly fleet participation requirements; if your pilots aren’t flying regularly, you could lose everything. EVE, then, can – indeed, must – have a hold on your brain and your life even when you’re not logged in. The question is not whether it’s reasonable for EVE to affect your thoughts and your emotions outside the game. The question is how on earth anyone would think it’s possible to separate them.

Guilford’s story illustrates the theme of our series: blurring the lines between game and life.  Whether because of making or losing in-game friends, whether because of in-game accomplishments or setbacks, most of us have probably experienced something during our time in New Eden that gave us feelings which lasted after we had logged off.  Yet is that bleed-over something inevitable, or is it something that we choose to allow?  Is it possible to turn off your feelings, even to put your conscience on the back burner, and deliberately separate your real-life self from your New Eden self?  The next player we talked to gave exactly that perspective.

Player Story #2: The Solid White Line

This story comes from an agent within the Black Hand, the Imperium’s spy agency.

“This is my story. It’s how I view Eve as one big show, where we’re making it up as we go. Wearing masks and acting viciously, in ways we would never do in real life. But in ways that make me feel empowered.

“In Eve, there are countless roles and jobs you can be: you could be a miner, a mission runner, a supplier, a trader, a production manager, an arms dealer – the list goes on. You can be people’s best friends and their worst nightmare; you can be the flickering light in the dark of night or the darkness that consume all their hope. You can be the person who steps up to support and underpin your corp, or you can be double agent who destroys it from within.

“Yes, you could say I’m a spy, and I’m not going to hide it. Apart from who I’m spying on, of course. You might be asking, ‘Why invest time to be a spy?’ Simple: it’s about building power and abusing it; it’s about being your best friend while I’m stabbing you in the back.

“One thing I’ve noticed about being a spy in-game is how I can reinvent myself to meet the needs of whoever I’m talking to. I can present what personality I want to, or what the situation demands. I discovered this a few months ago when I was running rogue drone sites in HS space. The real me, upon warping to a site, would respect that someone was already there. As the spy who doesn’t care, though? I contested that site, and I won. I stole the boss kill out from under them and looted it before they had a chance to steal the loot.

“It was weird, yet enjoyable; I got to be a rogue, and it made me feel generally happy. Now I make sure to contest every site. I study the events and prepare myself, understanding triggers and boss spawns. I study as much as I can, arming myself with the knowledge which pays off during a contest.

“Could I see myself being a rogue in real life? No; I fully understand right and wrong and the solid white line that you don’t cross. It’s helped me reinforce my understandings of human interaction, and how trust can be manipulated for personal gain.”

Just as we employ the same skills in the game as we use to function in our life, we also gain the opportunity to use, within the game, certain real-life skills in a way we otherwise could not, for ethical or legal reasons. Whiles spies and thieves exist in the real world, not everyone is in a position where practicing tradecraft would be acceptable. We may respect the personal property of others in the real world, but the game represents a world where we accept that kind of loss as a possibility.

Unlike the real world, we choose to enter into New Eden. Thus, when we’re wronged in the real world, we can feel as if something has been perpetrated against us. We didn’t ask for this! However, we cannot say that in EVE. We did ask for it, and fifteen years on, nobody installs EVE for the first time expecting a safe and caring universe that respects them personally and affords them fundamental dignity. Whereas in the real world, we can see that we are hurting others because we can easily be hurt ourselves, in EVE, we accept that we can be hurt, and so we do not hesitate to do things we would never do in the real world.

It’s been said that EVE players are all universally sociopaths, but I do not think this is the case. Instead, EVE players are people, and EVE provides a playground in which we can work through the lesser demons of our nature. It seems strange at first to include an example of someone who feels empowered to engage in what could be called misanthropic behaviors in the same analysis where we show that players can have real feelings and experience real hurt in EVE, but there is one key difference between the game and our real lives: we have chosen to play the game. And, while we may not have chosen to feel hurt, we have chosen to allow ourselves to be hurt in a situation we control. Unlike our real lives, where the traumas we experience take place in a setting we did not choose and over which we had no control, in EVE, we’ve chosen to play and we’ve chosen how we will play and with whom we will play. When we are hurt, we are hurt on our own terms, and in ways we have willfully allowed ourselves to be hurt. And when we hurt others within the game, we know we’re doing it to someone who has chosen to be there. They took the risks, they took their chances, and they made the choices. While this may not pass the moral scrutiny of some, for others it serves as a way to exorcise these demons. For someone to engage in betrayals and subterfuge in this game, the capacity must exist in their real life, and expressing it in the game provides a safe venue to do so – or safer, anyhow – one in which we know we’re not hurting anyone who didn’t choose to put themselves in risk.

The first thing a capsuleer learns is not to undock anything he or she isn’t willing to lose. We don’t have that option in life, but in EVE, we give ourselves the chance to exercise a degree of control even over our losses. It is this control, this feeling of empowerment, that we all seek, whether it’s through forging Upwell structures, diplomatic relations, and long lasting friendships, or transient and deceptive false friendships that help our tribe win.

However, it is also noteworthy that in my first ever INN article, which dealt with Jita scammers, every scammer I talked to said they felt bad the first time they scammed someone, and went on to justify their actions by saying that a person couldn’t be scammed unless he were greedy in the first place, or that he would learn his lesson and therefore not be scammed again.  How fascinating it is that even scammers, people who spend significant time enriching themselves by dishonest means at the expense of others, do not simply admit, “I am doing something which is ethically wrong and I owe you no explanation.”  No; even in EVE they do have functioning consciences, crafting elaborate webs of “Well they deserved it” in order to justify themselves.

It is perhaps disturbing that we are discussing the mitigating factors which make it okay for a person to be misanthropic: that there is a certain set of social norms in place in the game which renders barbaric behaviors acceptable, while there is a different set of social norms in real life, which renders these exact same behaviors unacceptable. This raises the uncomfortable question of when – not whether – we would be willing to engage in misanthropic behaviors in real life as well. One could easily imagine a survival setting, in the aftermath of a great disaster or some other catastrophe, where we could only survive by cheating, stealing from, or outright killing other humans. Clearly the potential to do those things is present somewhere inside our real selves because we act out those behaviors – and even enjoy them – whenever we’re in a place where the social norms permit us to do so. Would we do the same in real life if the social norms were to somehow radically change? Are we really to believe that each one of us, despite all of society’s supposed moral progress and enlightenment, is really just one good disaster, one different set of social norms, away from turning back into a savage?

In closing

Does either of these two stories remind you of your own attitude toward the game – or do you have yet a different perspective? Have you found yourself discouraged or encouraged in real life because of game events, or have you insisted that the person you are in-game is “not the real you” and that you would never act that way in the real world?

We return again to the question this entire series is based on; whether it’s silly or immature for a video game to affect a person’s emotions in real life. As we said in the first article, the question is obviously nonsense. Considered logically, it should be more reasonable to cry over a game like EVE (a story you helped to create) than to cry 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 cried over a game than to admit that you cried over a movie or TV show?

If we wanted a game that didn’t mess with our feelings, we’d all be playing Solitaire. Yet we’re here. And even though we might profess with our mouths that it’s silly to feel real emotions over an internet spaceship game, we know better in our hearts. We are humans doing human things, as The Mittani said, and perhaps the most human thing of all is to feel.

Do you have a story of how EVE has impacted you in real life? Send an in-game mail to J Moravia to arrange an interview, and your story may run in a future INN article.

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  • Daito Endashi

    This article opened my eyes towards my own naivety.

    April 7, 2018 at 10:56 am