Emotional Dysfunction and EVE Online


Header art by Cryo Huren

EVE Online’s players may be in a particularly vulnerable state right now and we should be careful not to exacerbate what might be underlying emotional issues. Becoming more aware of the way authority works, coupled with developing an understanding of emotional dysfunction, we can at least be alert that some EVE pilots can be in difficult emotional situations. We can also reach out in some positive ways to alleviate, instead of exacerbate, problems.

I’ll develop this article slowly, so let me start with a haiku TL;DR for those with little patience.

The pandemic struck.

So, we played EVE to forget.

Yet we’re still fevered.

Pandemic Blues

In early 2020, our lives changed. People had to adapt to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus, which, in the first days and weeks of the pandemic, literally trapped many people indoors for weeks, or even months. People turned to other indoor outlets for amusement and to forget the tragedies that were taking place in various countries, as death tolls mounted and fear led to increased isolation. During this time, EVE Online saw a boom in subscriptions, as older players returned and new players joined. I rejoined the EVE community myself during this time, in part as an escape from the incessant pandemic-related news. According to Dean Takahashi’s article, “How Eve Online Is Adapting to Higher Demand and Complicated Game Development During the Pandemic,” EVE has seen double the number of people logging in during the pandemic. 

This vast increase in usership coincided with the most costly and longest war in EVE Online history. As the war has gone on, month after month, the rhetoric surrounding the war has grown increasingly bitter. This acidic rhetoric hasn’t let up as we approach the 11th month of continual fighting and verbal sniping.

We should remember that the war has been fueled by an influx of returning vets and new players, the so-called ‘Pandemic generation’, and what this influx might mean for a social community that has been known for its focus on community that goes beyond the game’s parameters.

Implications of the Milgram Study

Back in the 1960s Stanley Milgram, psychologist at Yale, conducted his now infamous experiment in which he tested how far people would be willing to go in their behavior, in regard to causing perceived harm to another person. The study found that 65% of participants were willing to deliver what they believed to be a 450 volt shock to another participant, as long as they were given such instructions by someone they perceived to be an authority figure. In other words, Milgram’s study shows that if people don’t feel personally responsible, if they believe someone else will be held responsible, they will cause others harm. The study created a furor in the psychology community, and led to the creation of Internal Review Boards (IRB) in higher education. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Another study of how power can be abused took place is the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this short study, the researchers divided up male college students into two groups, “prisoners” and “guards,” placing them in a mock prison setting. Soon, the “guards” began to exorcise unreasonable power, using humiliation, name-calling, and other strong-arm tactics that are associated with abuse of power. The guards got so out of hand that the planned two week experiment was cut short and lasted only six days. While this study has been constantly debated and debunked, we can still learn from it that the old adage, “power corrupts,” proves true.

But EVE Online is a game where power differentials exist in many areas. In fleets, for example, the line member pilot is meant to follow the commands of the FC without question. They are like zerglings, there but to press F1 and not to think. The line member doesn’t question the FC; the fleet op does not begin with a philosophical debate about what’s best for the corporation, the alliance, or EVE Online as a whole. Once the line member enters into that transaction, all decision-making has been abandoned, and like the participants in the Milgram study, they become the passive executors of another’s will.

“I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.”

William Calley, Jr, after slaughtering women and children at My Lai, Vietnam.

This “follow your orders” mindset is so strong that I have had interesting discussions with fellow capsuleers who completely defended, for example, the debacle in M2 in which PAPI pilots flew their titans into M2, on grid, despite the fact that EVE history has repeatedly shown that such a move would end in disaster – which it did. “They were following orders; I admire that,” said one pilot I spoke with. “They did what they were supposed to do; even if it meant certain destruction, that’s what they were supposed to do; it’s laudable.”

I was a bit flummoxed by that response. I had suggested to my compatriots that many line members and even FCs in PAPI probably knew that the M2 move was completely doomed, and should have objected to the plan or even refused to go. My idea of refusing to follow orders was definitely objected to. Is there no place to question authority in EVE? I thought of real-life atrocities that have been committed under the justification of “following orders,” and I wonder why we haven’t learned anything from our past horrible history.

Emotional Dysfunction

It’s particularly discouraging to understand that many EVE players are already in a state that psychologists refer to as Emotion Dysregulation. According to a study by Blasi, et al (2019), some gamers have entered the world of online gaming with the express purpose of trying to escape from the complexities of the real world, in which they have found it difficult to control their emotions. According to the abstract of the article, “A positive relationship between problematic gaming and escapism motivation to play video games has been well established, suggesting that problematic gaming may result from attempts to deal with negative emotions.”

In other words, some people who cannot control their emotional outbursts in real life enter the online gaming world and proceed to demonstrate the exact same emotional dysfunctions. Except in the gaming world, there are almost no checks and balances. No partner to say, “Settle down and stop screaming.” No disincentive not to lie, cheat, steal, name-call, bully, shame, or carry on in ways that, in the real world, might get one sent to a psych ward for some evaluation. 

The EVE community has tended to “police” itself to some degree. It has been a remarkably generous community, establishing in-game memorials for beloved players who have passed away, devoting time and energy to Project Discovery, donating PLEX for good causes including research into the pandemic. 

I trust that as this war grinds forward, we can remember to keep our moral headlights on and not drive mindlessly into deeper darkness. This hope applies to game play as well as the rhetoric that accompanies our gameplay.  Not only “fly safe” out there, but be decent people.

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  • Frankie

    WOW! Beautiful article!

    New capsuleer myself, have noticed some of my fellows are, shall we say, somewhat disturbed. Not that I’m a paragon of virtue but, talk about Chariots of Wrath! EVE’s rules don’t help much (you can scam, you’re a target out of dock, etc) but, hey, it’s the game.

    Hope something can be implemented in-game by the capsuleers themselves in order to calm this raging sea. Can’t count with the devs for this; they’re making currency hand-over-fist (can’t blame them, either).

    Thank you for this article. I’ll see what I can do.

    April 20, 2021 at 12:24 PM
    • Rammel Kas Frankie

      It usually appears in top-down initiatives from leaders in their public adresses, then down to corp directors and fleet commanders who chat with the people more directly. Reinforced by internal affairs type people and personnel people. It can and has been done with some success. Refer to the 1’st and 2’nd “Cultural Revolutions” in Imperium where they successfully got rid of a lot of internal causes of toxicity and strife and questionable political or social behavior and commentary.

      So it can be done. Some groups are just not taking responsibility.

      It should also be pointed out that this is a continual control process.

      April 20, 2021 at 2:16 PM
  • Guilford Australis

    There’s a bit of irony here in that the players who do the most misanthropic activities in the game, such as scamming and suicide ganking – I’ve done both and have gotten to know many others who do likewise – typically strike me as some of the most balanced and normal people in real life. They just see EVE as a set of rules in which they should be able to do whatever the rules allow. That is normal, linear ideation. It’s nothing personal, it’s just leveraging the rules of EVE for maximum benefit.

    The people who strike me as emotionally unbalanced – teetering on the edge of mental stability, even – are always the random line members who come to despise the players their alliance opposes in the game and truly think they are terrible people in real life. Although Vily now claims he didn’t mean any of that talk about Goons being “bad for EVE” and needing to be driven out of the game, his coalition and allies sure are chock full of rage-monkeys who pass up few opportunities to remind Goons that we are mean, awful people who shouldn’t be allowed to play the game.

    That basic failure to separate in-game from out-of-game is a hallmark of emotional instability in multiplayer gamers.

    April 20, 2021 at 1:08 PM
    • And it’s the second group of players I had in mind in writing the article. The first group, the gankers and scammers I see as you do (that those activities are part of the game). The second group take the game personally, as is evidenced in the comments we often receive here at INN and on reddit everywhere. Clearly, some people are playing the game as a form of emotional escapism, but this game provides almost no opportunities to “escape” everyday problems.

      April 20, 2021 at 1:26 PM
  • Alaric Faelen

    You want to see emotional investment into a game, go pop some miner’s 2 mil isk barge and watch local explode with some of the most creative and depraved jabbering ever sperged upon a keyboard.

    I normally try not to extrapolate real life information about someone based on their character in a video game. As Guilford mentions in a comment below- people often choose an in game persona opposite of their real life. But when you see the torrent of anger cascade into a full blown text meltdown, that isn’t role playing- that is a raw look at the person behind the keyboard.

    Some of the stuff I’ve seen vomited into local after blowing up a random care bear would make a mother weep that they raised such a degenerate. Any yet, none of it is very original- there seems to be a set list of awful things that occupy the care bear mind common to the species. Given the sheer lack of conflict these people face in the game as it is- it leaves one baffled as to how they manage to navigate virtually any obstacle in their path without absolutely crumbling.

    April 20, 2021 at 2:23 PM
  • Zaand

    The Stanford Prison Experiment is highly questioned based on lacking an actual “study” and having never been reproduced, but the Milgrim Experiments are pretty well cemented in the foundations of social psychology and have been reproduced quite consistently multiple times. What is questioned about Milgrim is how reliably you can extrapolate the results to explain the actions of Nazi Germany.

    And obviously both have raised serious questions about ethics in human studies.

    April 20, 2021 at 7:40 PM
    • Seir Luciel Zaand

      This is a thoughtful, considerate, level-headed response Zaand. Why don’t you ever reply like this to me? 😛 (jk jk)

      There is a really great podcast called “Your Wrong About” that has a great episode on the Stanford Prison Experiment. One of the things they mention is simply, if you want to learn about the Holocaust, go study the Holocaust; don’t try and force up some kind of student simulation in a California dorm basement, or wherever they did it.

      What the Stanford Prison Experiment does show, though, is what people are willing to do when an authority figure (in this case the lead guy doing the study) encourages problematic behavior. There are still valuable things to infer from the experiment, just nothing like what the study was trying to say could be learned from it.

      April 22, 2021 at 7:45 PM
  • Lrrp

    if a FC goes ballistic, I generally leave the fleet and go back to 1DQ or where-ever home station is. No sense getting as riled as someone else

    April 20, 2021 at 11:57 PM
  • Deni'z von Meanace

    I rather say that modern Eve leads to emotional destruction. Peeps get crazy and hate each other like they never would in real life. Something not right over here.

    April 21, 2021 at 12:11 AM
    • William Doe Deni'z von Meanace

      Are you new to the internet or something? That’s applicable to anything people put enough emotional investment into.

      April 21, 2021 at 3:08 AM
      • Seir Luciel William Doe

        Yes and no. I think you are right to say that emotional investment happens anywhere, and videogames generally are not new to emotionally disturbed people.

        However, at the start of this war Mittani announced an end to its vengeance campaign lasting (was it seven?) many years, “longer than some marriages” I believe he said. It’s a long time to hold a grudge, especially in videogame time. I’m not judging, or saying Goons were wrong to hold a grudge that long; but EVE does seem to bring out something in its players that feels unique in gaming. As Gray Doc notes, whatever that something is, its probably being exacerbated by the stresses of the pandemic.

        April 22, 2021 at 7:43 PM
  • Susurrus Synaesthesia

    I’m with Sirhan on this one. The Stanford study gets spoken about often because it was provocative, not because the science was good. Milgram, as Zaand points out, is better substantiated.

    I love the inclusion of more psychology in EVE discussion! Of course, I’m biased. The pandemic has been devastating to mental health in the US and our system is feeling the effects. Thanks for the discussion Gray Doc, hopefully we can continue it going forward.

    April 22, 2021 at 2:50 PM