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?
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.