Sins of a Solar Spymaster #65 - The Dark Side of the Sandbox

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Space makes you bitter. The freedom and impunity of EVEÂ’s sandbox has a dark side; remain too long and youÂ’ll find your worldview permanently warped. A year in EVE will teach you more about human nature than a decade in any other MMO, but what you learn may scar you.

Cold of Space

Most flee before that point. They love the game, but they canÂ’t handle it; they play until theyÂ’re confronted with the inescapable truths of New Eden, and they punch out leaving a trail of excuses in their wake. They go crying to an easier game where they wonÂ’t be confronted by their fellow humans, unconstrained by law or culture, wallowing in greed and cruelty and deathlust. Other games have logical, predictable foes, something safe like an orc, a demon lord or a rogue elephant. Other games, police your fellow humans, keeping them tightly chained in a web of custom and mechanics that keeps them from behaving like the vicious animals they really are. Not so, here.

By the time they discover EVE, those who are obsessed with spaceships have been raised for decades on a steady diet of utopian sc-fi drivel. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Iain Banks. Heinlein, Pohl, Lucas. Even the grittier narratives have a kind of uplift to them, expressing a hope for the future, the triumph of good over evil - and a change in human nature for the better through technology.

EVE posits a post-scarcity world full of immortal capsuleers. You canÂ’t truly die, you can only lose what you choose to put at risk, and your avatar requires no sustenance or maintenance. Our fictions tell us that in such an environment people will flourish into compassionate individualistic beings that are beyond hierarchy. Yet the reality of the sandbox provides a sneer-inducing carnival of cruelty, folly and subjugation, dizzying in its shameful permutations.

The above sentiment is easily dismissed by a new player. The internet plus anonymity, we are told, results in a certain Penny Arcade comic being linked into the ground - you know the one. Yet what makes EVE unique is that its players, like rats trapped in a single-sharded cage, go far beyond the understood norms of expected internet misbehavior. Given unrestrained freedom, we do not behave like Jedi or Sith, dueling in some quaint ritual dance like our sci-fi fictive forebears would suggest, nor the more risqué Reavers of WhedonÂ’s Firefly.  We behave like dupes - or we behave like brownshirts. In an environment of near-absolute freedom, we rush headlong off a cliff due to sheer blind stupidity, or we gleefully pursue the loving embrace of violent autocracy.

Fire Away

Empire is safe from the siren song of totalitarianism. In the one environment where EVE most closely resembles other MMOs, Concord keeps the vast bulk of the EVE playerbase safe and secure. The biggest risk in hisec is becoming a victim of oneÂ’s own stupidity - falling for a scam or getting suicide ganked. Even these minor encounters are enough to send many running for the exits, writing off their experience as some quirk specific to EVE or just a run of bad luck rather than a lesson. The banal unpleasantness of Empire is the naivete and folly, a never-ending stream of dupes repeatedly getting conned by the same old tricks. Exposure to profound stupidity is certainly wearying in the long run, but not ruinous or unique to EVE.

It’s what happens outside of Concord’s jurisdiction where EVE gets ugly and the hard bitterness envelops you. EVE is a game, a voluntary activity undertaken for the amusement of the player. With even a small sum of isk - harvested easily enough off those dupes in hisec - a pilot can fly and lose innumerable ships with impunity. A pilot only risks what he chooses, knowing when he undocks that his ship is forfeit. His character cannot be ruined, he cannot ‘die’, and he cannot starve, and thus he needs to tolerate no master. A pilot in New Eden can always ‘vote with his feet’ and cannot be truly coerced. Given that, it’s no surprise that this game attracts Libertarians like a family in foreclosure attracts shysters.

Yet we appear to be so geared towards loss aversion that even in an environment with no true risk, filled with those eager Libertarians, players outside of safe space overwhelmingly opt for security over freedom. This choice isnÂ’t even borne of grudging necessity, but one made with a smile. The alliances with the highest morale and strongest cultures are uniformly the most autocratic and warlike; representative governments and democracies in this game have become a standalone punchline that requires no setup - much like “The Pilgrim” or “boot.ini”.

Authority - and the hierarchies which accrete around it - are so problematic in modern society that they are intellectually repellent to most people. Yet unlike the reluctant victims of MilgramÂ’s experiments, the exercise of authority in nullsec attracts recruits in New Eden en masse, perhaps because it promotes a sense of group belonging so quickly. These structures are by nature violent, constantly seeking outgroups to demonize or consume. With no laws, mechanics or regulations in the sandbox to act as a mediating force like in other games, the scope and vehemence of conflict between player societies in EVE rapidly erodes any confidence in quaint enlightenment values such as liberty and free will.

Ship Fight

If these ideals were truly close to our hearts, EVE would look much more like the visions of the Star Fraction, a tiny roleplaying group who have achieved mild notoriety for writing lengthy expositions on their anarchist ideology. Their argument is simple enough: people who cannot die that can travel at light speed in fantastic starships don’t need to squabble over territories or obey feudal-style pecking orders. If there ever was a place where “No Gods, No Masters” should catch on, it’s a place like New Eden. Instead, fear and conformity rules the outer galaxy; the players choose Stalin over Bakunin every time, and have done so consistently since the servers opened.

One of the most disturbing comics IÂ’ve encountered suggests that HuxleyÂ’s dystopia is far more real than OrwellÂ’s. Yet the worrying lesson of EVE is that both may be correct. Not only might we devolve into the reckless and coddled ignorance of Brave New World in hisec, many of us in nullsec have already gleefully opted for 1984.

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