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.
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.
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.