EVE Online Goes to School


Art by Major Sniper.

In the past five years, EVE Online has garnered increasing attention in academic circles. As an EVE player and academic myself, I have enjoyed reading articles in scholarly journals that mention EVE Online. In this article I’ll provide a brief overview of two areas that scholars are particularly interested in, vis-à-vis EVE.

Citizen Science Gets Its Game On

First, some background. Certain scholarship requires the analysis of vast amounts of data. This leads scholars to work out best practices for how to deal the data, especially when it proves very costly to pay for such analysis. So, scholars have turned to some alternate ways to conduct research, including what has come to be known as citizen science that involves non-scholars, or people not directly related to the research program, wading through data piles.

One such way of finding people to perform such data analysis includes gaming, for gamers are notorious for being willing to “grind” mundane and repetitive tasks, which defines much data analysis. Some games have been created with citizen science in mind, such as Sea Hero Quest, which studies dementia, and EteRNA, which involves the folding of RNA molecules. The problem with such games is that there is no clear incentive for people to engage in the game other than to promote the scientific discoveries that may come from the data. To wit, the game may be boring. Playing it would be like eating Brussels sprouts—they are good for us, but who wants to eat one after the first bite? So, games built only for citizen science have limited success.

MMOS Integrates Research into the Game

In 2014, Attila Szantner and Bernard Revaz founded Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) to foster the integration of citizen science into video games. The mission of MMOS is to have gamers, who spend billions of hours collectively playing games, spend a small portion of their time, within the game, assisting with scientific pursuits. Most EVE players will be familiar with the two Project Discovery mini-games that have been embedded into EVE Online. A fine article by Paramemetic covers how much these projects have accomplished for citizen science.

Eve Online’s Contribution to the Human Protein Atlas

Subsequent to Paramemetic’s coverage, on August 20, 2018, the online academic journal Nature Biotechnology discussed EVE Online’s participation in the Human Protein Atlas in the article entitled “Deep learning is combined with massive-scale citizen science to improve large-scale image classification.” The authors’ research was geared toward determining which of two forms a data analysis worked better: a computer model or a player model, specifically the players of EVE Online.

To work through the vast amount of data in the study, a computer model was developed to analyze images of human cells, looking for proteins during classification. However, the players of EVE Online were also taught (via an in-game module) how to analyze the data. The authors found that the online gamers performed better than the computer modeling technique. EVE Online players analyzed about 33 million images. In all, 322,006 players became involved in this data analysis, with over 59,000 players having passed all the training, leading to 23.7 million high-quality classifications. Whoa! That’s a lot of grinding! The computer modeling classification, called Loc-CAT performed well, but the EVE Online community outperformed the computer modeling.

This study suggests that citizen science connected to MMOs could be highly advantageous, since it is remarkably reliable and cost-effective (the gamers received in-game currency, but no other compensation).

Project Discovery: The Search for Exoplanets

EVE players are familiar with this second Project Discovery, both through the mini-game module and coverage like Paramemetic’s, mentioned above. But these references are in-house and we expect such news to be covered by EVE Online itself and INN. What is more surprising is that this particular project has been mentioned in many news sources, including Astronomy.com, Popular Mechanics, NewScientist, and Science Focus, to name but a few. These are not gaming journals, but the science aspect of the story meant that a large readership of non-gamers heard about the project and thereby EVE Online.

EVE’s Contribution to Legal Concepts in Gaming

Another area of study in academic journals has been the legal complexities involved in MMOGs. One legal issue that has gotten the most coverage concerns in-game loot boxes. Players who don’t want to see games become pay-to-win enterprises created so much controversy that some countries, such as The Netherlands and Belgium have declared loot boxes a form of gambling and have forbidden them in games. Even U. S. lawmakers have gotten in on the act and are working to pass a variety of bills aimed at curbing loot boxes.

But loot boxes aren’t the only area of legal concern. According to Nick Webber’s article “Law, culture, and massively multiplayer online games,” the legal system has had a difficult time dealing with games, especially MMOs in which there is a lot of human interaction. In many ways, the same kind of behavior takes place within a game as outside of it, meaning that people can steal, harass, and psychologically harm those in the game, interactions which offline might be illegal and punishable. A part of the legal issue concerns freedom of speech: is a game a product, like a car, or is it a text, like a book? The distinction is an important one, because the laws governing products are much easier to enact than laws governing speech.

Webber notes that most MMO players agree upon rules of conduct. But when someone violates those rules, should there only be in-game reprisals or could the legal system actually try to govern and legalize that game space? In reference to EVE Online, the author notes that CCP has established the CSM, elected representatives that speak on behalf of player groups. The CSM consults with the developers to discuss future updates to the game, including changes in coding that might affect what occurs online.

Ultimately, the game’s coding determines what takes place in the game, so a connection get formed between “code of behavior” and computer coding, reflecting the collective desires of the players, at least to some degree. In an article published September 1, 2018 on INN, Rhom Achensa noted that CCP is changing the way couriers can drop off goods at citadels, making it harder for them to get scammed. Regardless of which side one is on in the controversy, this future patch shows the changing nature of the game, especially in regard to player conduct.

Webber suggests that game developers consult with lawyers to get a heads-up on legal issues that might be built directly into the game’s code. Further, he suggests that lawyers learn from gaming space, like that of EVE Online, to see how gamers’ feedback can be incorporated in developers’ decision making.

Contemporary academic scholarship will probably continue to reference EVE Online. The game has been around for fifteen years and has retained a very loyal core of players. Further, the game appeals to an older, more mature, group of players–the median age in 2014 was 31 years old. Some gamers are scholars themselves and know the value of research and data analysis.

Of what relevance is all this to the typical EVE player? Only this: Massive scale wars, like the recent battle of X47 bring in new players, but so does mention in the scholarly press. It’s good for the game when EVE goes to school.

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  • Whimsy Diddles

    Fantastic article. Love it!

    September 4, 2018 at 4:32 PM
  • anaisanais501

    > contemporary academic scholarship

    Forgive my cynicism but contemporary academic scholarship is mostly bollocks that never gets cited.

    September 5, 2018 at 10:52 AM
  • Alot

    I’d like to know how well players performed at exoplanet searching when put against ai. I consider myself above average at patterns but i couldnt make heads or tails of that mess. Would like to know how the greater populous performed.

    September 5, 2018 at 1:58 PM
    • Daito Endashi Alot

      I thought so too!
      Everything in the tutorial was clear but when I entered the ones right after that, it was all nonsense. The program even told me afterwards what would have been correct and how I should have seen it. But I’ve had ones where it marked “spikes” or something when there was nothing to see whatsoever. It just seemed to mark spots randomly. Thus, I quickly gave up

      September 5, 2018 at 7:02 PM