The Role of Tribe in EVE


Art by Major Sniper

New Eden is a brutal place.

Scamming, theft, betrayal – a whole world of bad behavior – are part of the very fabric of this game, and because at each end of every transaction there are real people, the line between simulated bad behavior and actual sin can at least feel pretty thin some time. The loss (of time, money, or effort) is real enough.

What results is a moral tension in this game of ours, the tension between being a bad person in game while presumably trying to remain a good person outside of it. How can we hurt, and exploit, and take advantage of people inside the game without having our real life character outside the game tainted in some way?

I believe the answer lies in the concept of Tribe.

When I first arrived in EVE in 2008, as a long-time white knight RPGer, I brought my white-knight perspective with me. I wanted to be play EVE the “right” way – to be honorable, noble, and just. At the same time (perhaps because MMOs were newer to me then), I was extremely conscious that on the other end of every interaction was an actual human being who was working just as hard for his ISK and ships as I was. I wouldn’t scam a person out of their ISK any more than I would steal their real-life money. The thought horrified me. I sneered at rules of engagement like NBSI as unethical and beneath me. I dreamed of being part of a successful NRDS nullsec community and proving to myself and everyone else that that was the best way to play the game.

Then, in 2016, I was ganked by a Goon while minding my own business in my little Condor. It left me broke and furious, ready to unsub once again and quit this game I could never quite figure out. I fired off an angry EVE mail directly to The Mittani – which he promptly forwarded to his entire alliance, publicly sharing my bitter tears with thousands of players.

That was the moment in which my understanding of ethics in EVE began to turn, and my mailbox begin to fill with letters. Some were of the HTFU variety, but many more were like this: “If you join KarmaFleet hit me up and I will send you 100 Million to start. Enjoy the game we are all about fun.” Through those letters I came to understand that killing me wasn’t personal; it was simply a function of the Sararen hellcamp I knew nothing about. The Imperium was fighting for survival, and I was a neutral near Saranen station. NBSI.

The reality of EVE is this: Despite it’s high-tech, sci-fi veneer, EVE is actually a ruthless simulation of a world before civilization – a world in which there are no laws, no safety nets, no societies. There is only the land and the weather – nature red in tooth and claw – and you will either survive, or you won’t. In such an environment, survival becomes the only goal, and the key to survival is friends around you. The Tribe is the inevitable structural unit.

The moral law of the Tribe is simple and elegant: loyalty within, ruthlessness without. In a ruthless environment where weakness is always a liability, ruthlessness is the surest path to survival. The surest path to ensuring the Tribe stays strong is to ensure others stay weaker. We will scam, cheat, steal, kill; whatever helps us to survive. But, under no circumstances will we permit these things to be done to each other. A crime against the Tribe is a crime against your own survival. “Goonfucking” is (for Goons) the one unpardonable sin.

This law of the Tribe explains why I have found within the Imperium absolute warmth, camaraderie, and professionalism, and at the same time an organization that is known for scamming and ganking any and all outsiders. It’s simply the law of the Tribe. If you’re blue, you’re blue. If you’re not, you’re dirt. We’re here to survive, and if you’re not with us, you’re nothing more than competition for limited resources. (Karmafleet is recruiting!)

But there’s still that moral tension between the real world and the game. We don’t actually live in a pre-civilized world. The actual people who play the game are all part of a civilized world that attempts to operate on humane principles. What’s more, every EVE player is part of another Tribe – the Tribe of EVE players. Together, we all – regardless of which alliance, or coalition, or region in which we play – depend upon a not-invincible organism called EVE Online, the preservation of which in large part falls to us.

And the same law of the Tribe applies: “A crime against the Tribe is a crime against your own survival.”

Navigating the line between the two Tribes (the in-game Tribe and the out-of-game Tribe) is not always straightforward and simple. Not long ago, I wrote a pro-Imperium propaganda rant on Reddit. An experienced PAPI propagandist replied with good wishes and an offer of assistance. “Chart your own path, I will be your #1 cheerleader.” My reply – written in an out-of-game forum to another human being – overflowed with the loyalties of my in-game Tribe:

“Your locusts are in my house. Pardon me, but your jolly cheerleading doesn’t mean shit to me.”

Imperium to PAPI, that’s exactly how I feel. But one EVE player who likes to write to another? My message would be completely different. As we go forward with this #hellwar, my fondest wish is to see PAPI fail and Legacy, in particular, crumble in ashes. Your locusts are in my house. Survival is all that matters. But then . . . not TOO much . . .

We’re all the same Tribe after all, and a crime against you is a crime against my own survival.

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  • Gray Doc

    Yes, you hit upon the very important point of dual loyalty. Loyalty to the “Tribe-Alliance” often requires ruthlessness which can conflict with loyalty to the “Tribe-EVE Online.” This particular war has, I think, seen a shift in that duality. If this were an old-fashioned scales, the Tribe-Alliance loyalty now seems much more heavily weighted and Tribe-EVE loyalty is so lightly weighted that I was prompted to write my own article awhile back about the point of no return–the turning point where our Tribe-Alliance loyalty so outweighs our Tribe-EVE loyalty that we would gladly ruin the game to maintain the Tribe. I read one comment somewhere that went like this: “I would gladly ruin the game if I was still standing five minutes after Vily crashed and burned.” I think what has happened in EVE since last July will have ripples for many years and it may take a very long time to see the scales of loyalty rebalanced, if they ever are.

    February 25, 2021 at 3:38 PM
  • Seir Luciel

    I would also argue that people contain a social instinct inseparable from the instinct to survive. “No man is an island” as they say; people congregate into communities not only for the sake of defense and protection but also because community is a human need.

    The following passage is by the biologist Peter Kropotkin in his text Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:

    “In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life . . .The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay. . . . In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support — not mutual struggle — has the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.”

    I think the concepts of mutual aid and an inherent social instinct is vastly overlooked in discussions of EVE, and should supplement our discussion of EVE tribe formation along with the need for survival. The need to survive isn’t the only reason Goons don’t scam other Goons: they also need to feel they belong.

    February 25, 2021 at 5:22 PM
    • EVE Player #27482716 Seir Luciel

      lol, the ‘locusts’ … love it

      February 25, 2021 at 6:19 PM