The Failure and Success of Democracy in Eve Online


Given the success of democracy in the real world, you might expect to see democratic organizations replicated in an open sandbox like Eve Online, a place where the largest player groups operate more like small states rather than a simple MMO guild. In theory at least, democratic control provides each individual with an equal ability to control how the organization operates. If each member uses their power to direct the organization in a way they believe to be most beneficial for them or the group, then decisions should be made that maximize utility for the most people. Again, in theory.

However, nearly every organization of any importance in Eve, including the Imperium, operates as a strict autocracy, with one or multiple directors making all the decisions for their membership base. Attempts at democratic Eve alliances have always seemed to collapse under their own weight once they reach any size. But if it is so successful in the real world, why does it seem to fail in game?

Fixed Goals

Democracies succeed in the real world because they serve not only as a way of organising the state, but as a way of deciding what the state is for. What is defined as the end goal of society fundamentally shapes the best way to organise it. In Eve Online, the end goal of these large organisations is already defined by the metagame. They are for survival. The destruction of other player groups. Amassing military members, power, and influence. They exist to create enjoyable content for their players.

In this way, large player alliances are more like self-sufficient militaries in a constant state of war or cold-war, rather than a state. Democratic control fails in Eve for the same reason experiments in democratic control of militaries have failed. Firstly, groups in Eve need to be able to make swift, decisive decisions about how to best deal with threats or plan future goals. There isn’t time for a player council meeting when the marauding hordes of the enemy turn up on your doorstep.

You also need everyone on page with the war-plan once it is set out to make it successful, something democratic control and culture doesn’t lend itself to. At a time of war, it is better to have 100% of the membership undertaking a suboptimal plan than the paralysis of multiple different factions all arguing about how to respond.

Expertise and Time Investment

But that may explain why democratic control fails when conflict starts in Eve, but why does it also seem to fail during peacetime?

Given the incredibly complex and broad mechanics of the game, all of which interconnect at multiple different levels to keep the system running, it would be nearly impossible to consider yourself an “expert” in every facet of Eve. Also, unlike real-life, we don’t all spend an equal time living and experiencing this alternative world. Some casual players might log in for a few hours a week, while the most dedicated players might spend dozens of hours a week enjoying the game. (I shudder to think at the amount of time any alliance director must spend on Eve, both inside and outside the game). As such, it is hugely valuable to the playstyle of most players to let them defer to an expert directorate who are willing to put in the time.

As an industrialist, I spend maybe a few hours a week taking part in the strategic operations that are the bread and butter of large alliances in Eve Online. It is in my interest to listen to a fleet commander who spends dozens of hours a week thinking about and flying different fleet compositions when they tell the group what to bring for that particular operation; they have the expertise which I simply lack. When you look at the vast infrastructure network that makes the Imperium the most efficient player organization in New Eden, how many people could really say they were qualified to make a meaningful contribution to drawing up the huge network of jump bridges, citadels, engineering complexes, market hubs, moons, and planets? Directors of large alliances are much closer to civil servants or officers in their role of using their expertise to implement extremely complex plans. Up until now I’ve mostly spoken in a context of direct democracy, but this is why even attempts at representative democracies tend to fail in Eve. Winning an election, and being an effective director in Eve are two completely different skill sets.

But more fundamental to the failure of democratic alliances than a lack of qualification is a lack of time or interest. While players might like the idea of democratic control of their organization in some theoretical sense, this opinion often fatigues when actually experiencing it in game. When I play Eve, I do it as a hobby. I want to be able to log in, hang out with some cool people, and achieve my goals on my timeframe. I don’t want to have to be engaged in constant decision making about where to place the next jump bridge or what the market tax rate should be. I don’t want to have to log in at a specific fixed time every week for another player council meeting, and I suspect most alliance line-members feel the same way. Most players, even ones quite deeply immersed in the game, are more than willing to pass these decisions off to a third party. People who are able to dedicate those hundreds of hours a month to the alliance, as long as the organization produces the results they are looking for. A lack of decision making in all arenas allows people to spend more time on the facet of the game they enjoy, and actually facilitates rather than harms most play styles. While the data isn’t available, I would not be surprised if the burnout and attrition rate of line members in democratic organizations was far higher than ones where the directorate makes all high level decisions.

A More Radical Form of Democracy.

Well, with all this doom and gloom, what hope is there for democracy in Eve? While all the major alliances may function as autocracies, Eve might actually provide for a much more radical form of democracy than is ever possible in real life. In Eve, I am not bound to any particular organization. I might stay with a group because I have made real friends there, because it is run in a way I find beneficial or because it is dedicated to a certain niche playstyle I enjoy. But there is nothing stopping me from simply loading all my assets up and setting off for greener pastures if I disagree with the way things are being run.

In Eve, it isn’t a cliche to say “any playstyle is viable.” Some of the richest individuals in the game operate completely alone or as part of a very small corporation. The average line member of a 50-player wormhole corporation will likely be as rich as the average Imperium member with its over 10,000 players. In Eve, the ideal of the individualist, able to not only operate but to succeed alone in the world is perfectly achievable. It is a player-driven sandbox; there are no “20 man raids” that require you to work with anyone else.

Thanks to the quick and easy ability for anyone to simply liquidate all their assets or load them up in a freighter and leave; combined with scalable playstyles from one player to 10,000 player mega-alliances, I can simply hit the road if I disagree with my directors. I may even go create my own corporation and try to recruit other players to it. This fact means there is almost certainly a corporation that will work for your playstyle, with the right culture, focus and size. Individual players may not vote in the traditional sense, but they do vote with their feet by joining or leaving whatever group they feel like, and those groups that work in the interest of their players will survive and thrive. This opportunity to attach your in game future to whatever organization you wish may actually represent the most radical form of self-organization possible.

Are you now, or have you been a member of a democratic corporation or alliance in EVE? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

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  • Daito Endashi

    I got a joke for you:
    Communism in Eve

    Now that might be interesting…

    Good article. When I read the headline I just had to click it, it’s a very interesting topic

    July 9, 2017 at 8:46 AM
  • Bryan Frye

    So basically every alliance in eve is a democratic institution. You could have left out the first couple headings! I feel bamboozled here I was thinking ‘RAGE COMMENT SECTION INBOUND’, I even had a 420 word response, then I got to the actual MEAT of presentation and was very pleasantly surprised.
    It was a well written article, and very well thought out and honest, though if you can clear up the first paragraph in fixed goals that would be cool.

    July 9, 2017 at 11:37 AM
  • Alot

    Lost you at “Democracy works” – unless your definition of “work” is fail less horribly then all other alternatives.

    The main difference between Eve and reality is that living requires a reliable and constant source of complex services, the failure of which results in death. When you reliably need things like water, electricity, food, shelter and medical services, you land up with structures which are not optimised because their existence is more important then their efficiency (and from a historical perspective, sales men who claim they can make those inefficient-yet-necessary-systems great again for sacrificed rights are either dangerous conmen or dangerous individuals who’s plans need to be slowed down and watched with great scrutiny).

    If people could spend their lives naked, running around grass fields with underwear on their heads without any concern for their ability to support themselves for the rest of their lives and with no fear of un-coverable costs or unnatural causes of death, I’m sure people would behave much like they do in Eve.

    If on the other hand, Eve players did not receive a free ship whenever killed, were charged exorbitant upkeep fees for keeping their clone transference subs active, would automatically forfeit their remaining sub if killed outside the range of their alliance maintained conscience transference infrastructure and would suffer death if their clones were not fed cookies at regular intervals, I’d expect to see most of the free roaming entities die off and the denizens which remain amalgamating to fairly democratic structures.

    July 9, 2017 at 2:52 PM
  • Anaan

    It is indeed a matter of goals, but also how to approach to them. The objective of any political organization IRL is to make its members happy (Be it in short or in long term), the approach since the XVIII century is not to make people happy but to offer them an enviroment where they can archieve happiness, where they can develop themselves. Corporations, or companies have a different goal, thus they have a different political system.

    July 9, 2017 at 3:21 PM
  • Imigo

    The biggest difference is that EVE participation is entirely optional, and reality isn’t. In one, you participate or don’t, in the other you participate or die.

    We don’t really have a contemporary example of a functional “government by the people” either, certainly not in the US as shown by the Princeton study (Testing Theories of American Politics). Any comparison between EVE and real organisations should be made between autocracy and oligarchy/plutocracy.

    Also, the Durruti column was very successful at stopping the military coup in Barcelona. Egalitarian military organisations have few examples, but they are generally quite successful. The idea that self rule is incompatible with military organisation is demonstrably false.

    July 9, 2017 at 10:17 PM
  • Dan Conia

    We have been a proper Capitalist corporation a la Ayn Rand since the beginning of EVE. As Alot alludes to, democracy is merely “less worse”. A proper Constitutional Republic is where it’s at! 🙂

    July 9, 2017 at 11:05 PM
  • Yzy Andedare

    I think you missed the main point: security.
    When you access to power in Eve you access to all the belongings of the community. You don’t have all the safeguards that exist irl. Therefore a small group of directors dedicated to the community, knowing each other irl and lasting in time is much safer than a group of politicians with short terms objectives replaced regularily.

    July 10, 2017 at 5:54 AM
  • Proxymal

    Yes there is democracy in the world. But the true power is held by those who control the money. And that is rarely controlled by any democratic countries’ president. Especially in the US.

    July 10, 2017 at 6:48 AM
  • Xenuria

    You seem uncommonly perceptive. I would like to smell you.

    July 11, 2017 at 10:49 AM