“There are a bunch of crazy fanatics inside, but don’t worry, they’re all very friendly,” a young man tells me as I stand in front of the Nordica hotel one Saturday in November. “Myself? Well, I’ve been playing six hours a day for the last two years, so I guess I’m a fanatic,” he adds.
Feeling like a fish on dry land as I stood in the entrance hall of the high-class hotel, I really couldn’t understand what makes 400 people from countries as far as New Zealand fly all the way to Iceland and attend a computer game convention to talk about spaceships, 3D environment, role-play and graphics for three days. After leaving the festival seven glorious hours later, with a promise of billions of ISK and a membership in a couple of corporations, I understood it all too well.
This year’s event was the third annual EVE Fanfest. Due to the steadily growing fan base the convention sold out three weeks before the event. Roughly 400 foreign players, along with 100 Icelandic players and 170 staff members occupied the ground floor of Nordica for the purpose of celebrating the success of the multiplayer online game created by Icelandic Company CCP. The game was launched in 2003 and today it boasts the largest virtual universe in the world. It has its own currency, ISK, and a unique relationship between the EVE staff and the players. Together they keep the game on the front line and interact in real time with each other. During these three days, they all finally got the chance to bond in the real world and the Devs (developers) had the opportunity to tell the enthusiastic attendees about the cool new stuff being added to the game as well as announcing CCP’s merger with Atlanta-based role-play-game company White Wolf (greeted with booming applause and multiple questions). With this entire event, CCP has proved it self as an established company, with the goal of conquering the world.
EVE’s social experiment
Set in a galaxy tens of thousands of years in the future, the persistent world of EVE is a capitalist society featuring a massive player-controlled economy. When you start as a newbie, you choose a character, race and looks, get a spaceship and minimum equipment to start the journey through the giant universe. There you can interact in multiple ways, build companies and space stations and gather resources. You bond with other players and form ties with people from around the world by taking part in PvP combats or forming alliances with various groups. To satisfy the need for action your alliance can go to war with other corporations while trying to gain sovereignty over colonies, fight for recourse or seek revenge, whether the other group likes it or not. Just like in reality.
Today, this large virtual universe has roughly 150,000 active subscribers logged onto the same Tranquility server and EVE has been breaking world records in number of players playing simultaneously in the same game world. Over 90 percent of players are male although the rate between male and female characters is quite even. Since we’re on the subject of statistics, it’s interesting to note that the man-years that have been spent playing EVE are around 121,000, which is half of the man-years it took 20,000 workers to build the pyramid of Giza for example. And that pyramid is huge!
To become a good player takes time. You have to earn money to buy basic skills, weapons, bigger ships and form alliances, so you can get bigger, richer, more powerful and most important of all, earn respect. It takes stamina and strategic thinking. It takes money spent on monthly subscriptions and buying ISK from other players, risking losing everything in a world that is constantly evolving and renewing. Empires go to war and relationships are just waiting to explode with devastating consequences for ill-protected players who collide with the more ruthless ones. Moral principles are disregarded, trust is taken advantage of, friendship is betrayed and scams have become a regular thing to avoid where not only common sense but drastic measures have to be taken to survive. It is a world where you can let your more devious sides can break loose. And once you log on, there’s no turning back.
“Yes, I’m a certified nerd”
Nordica was crowded with some of the most hardcore players of them all. I was even told that there were some celebrities present, although there were no gala dresses, red carpet or paparazzi mania. I wouldn’t have been able to spot the major general in the group, unless he had had some spaced-out uniform on.
The majority of guests were male, late 20s, and nerdy looking. Some were buying t-shirts, cards and limited addition posters at the EVE store, others smoking, chatting and drinking beer in the lounge room. The biggest fanatics were busy playing in the Second Genesis Tournament and the round table sessions or cheering their friends on in the competition. Most of the people who came to the Fanfest were there to meet their friends though, see what they look like, hug their alliances, and backbite the enemies. What united them all was the excitement of being there, the discourse awaiting them and of obviously the EVE Online party later that night. By then, the amount of empty beer bottles was enormous.
I soon learned that the players proudly call themselves nerds. Daniela Bregman (Netherlands) even described her husband as one. They were first timers at the Fanfest, but had long dreamt of attending.
“Yes, I’m a certified nerd,” said Mr. Bregman, playing by the name of Zaior Teilong and a director in DarkStar1 (a corporation within the biggest alliance in EVE). “It’s a corporation, with a little over 120 accounts, which has a primary goal to build the big stuff. The biggest dive ships in EVE Online for example,” he proudly adds.
But what’s so fascinating about EVE? “The game has so many aspects of real life. It’s not like you’re playing against a computer. You are playing with and against thousands of people from all over the world. And there is so much freedom,” he added, a statement I would be hearing over and over from various players.
As the EVE developers realised, the player’s freedom creates incredible dynamics within the game, so they granted players near total freedom (some basic rules are enforced) to let every player to influence the game and create opportunities for the other players. In EVE, you have the freedom to choose what you want to be. You can be a spaceship pilot cruising around solar systems, exploring the galaxy and enjoying the graphics along the way, you can be a corporate spy, a manager in a company, or a scared little rat who never has the courage to leave the secure space. You can seek fame and fortune in an aggressive solar system, become the leader of a giant corporation, bossing thousands of people around who are willing to risk their life for the sake of some awards and respect in the virtual world. In EVE, you can fulfil all the dreams that never came true in reality. And as you get closer to the ultimate goal, the addiction grows bigger and it becomes harder to let go of the mouse.
“Sometimes it is scary to see players, which you know, being online 8-16 hours a day. Some players who are unemployed have the time to do that. Then it is just EVE and sleep. EVE becomes their real life. Most of the people I play with actually have a real life though, which sometimes can be a problem because you make a commitment and then something in real life comes up. You can feel guilty,” Bregman tells me. His wife Daniela is not an EVE player herself, not yet at least. “I don’t play but I am going to. It’s much about self-control. Not playing all day and I have been a little scared of becoming addicted to it,” she says. Her man has been hooked on EVE for two and a half years now, spending too much time in front of the computer, Daniela says, adding “Indeed you have to put a lot of time in it to get somewhere. I understand that, as I play other online games as well.”
Does it affect your social life?
“Well, sometimes we sit side by side in the same room, playing online games. Then we start talking together through the game’s chat-rooms, and not face-to-face. That’s a bit silly, I guess.”
“In this game you are actually making friends,” I heard repeatedly at the Fanfest. Playing and friendship gets intertwined and some players even meet their real life friends mostly through in-game chatting and message boards, even if the friend only lives two blocks away. You also meet people from different countries although you’ve never seen them, and that is what the Fanfest is all about, putting a face to months of plotting and chatting.
“We talk with people form Brazil or Denmark,” Bregman explains. Daniela adds: “In my opinion, online games expand your social life because you can get to know people from the other side of the world. These guys over there are for example from his corp!” she says and points to the table behind us, where three 30-something guys sit, engaged in what seems to be a very serious conversation. “We’ve never met them before the festival. I just recognised them from their voices!”
“In the game, you get to know the players better than many of your friends and family. When you are on a three-hour mission, transporting cargo for example, you start chatting with someone to kill time. After a while you even know the name of the other guys’ high school sweetheart!” a Brit explained to me before excusing himself as he spotted a corp member he desperately needed to talk to.
“There have even been online weddings,” another player said.
Not all messages are friendly though. Assaulting comments and online threats are common. One player told me about sexual messages he had received and even offers of erotic online chat in exchange for money.
How people see the game also varies quite a bit. Some are playing to mine asteroids in their nice little vessels, others aspire to build the biggest corporation possible while more spend most of their time completing missions, trading and transporting cargo. Then there is the group that gets high by ruining it all for the aforementioned. They love nothing more than fighting, going to war and serving as pirates or bounty hunters in the galaxy, with the aim of the highest success ratio.
Steini, a.k.a djammz and Kári, a.k.a Radiogaga belong to that group. Playing since the beta-tests started, months before the game first launched, they’ve been to all the Fanfests yet. The lectures, finding out what will happen in the future and meeting other players, is the reason, they attend. “My corporation has even met up in London two times, to grab some beers and chat,” Steini says.
“I’m a mercenary at the moment but usually a pirate. I kill everyone that I see. For the last couple of months we’ve just been killing everything we can,” Steini says.
“Same here. I categorise as a fighter,” Kári adds
“We’re not the bad guys though. We just want to have the most fun. Too bad for other players who end up getting killed in the meantime,” Steini says: “Our entertainment in the game is to kill people and our political answer to all stupid political debates in the game is ‘Fuck off!!!’”
Are there any enemies here at the Fanfest?
Sure. You can see people in t-shirts with their name or corporation on it and I have spotted a couple I have killed,” Steini says. “Some more than once,” Kári adds but explains that you have to show some respect in the game. If a player pays to get off, you better respect that, as the only thing you have in the game is your reputation. People warn other players if someone bombs his ship up after getting the money and puts the pirate on the Name and Shame list. And that, apparently, sucks.
Are you being scammed?
Although some see the pirates as a group of cold-hearted bastards who attack innocent miners, multiple other threats face EVE players. Devious scams and deliberate stunts are an unavoidable part of the game. Some dodgy players have even been known to spend many, many months working their way up the corporation ladder, gaining the trust of the corp members, only to eventually destroy the whole thing, steal the money and sometimes even killing the CEO.
“In big wars you have people spying. You have to be careful to keep secrets so your enemies can’t build up forces against you. It is currently very hard for the large alliances to work because of spies, people getting into chats and forums. Sometimes it is even players that have gotten into the corporation, flying by our sides but relaying everything to our enemies,” Bregman explains quite seriously.
The biggest scam to date has nothing to do with spying though, but everything to do with trust. The so-called EIB scam, where one player established the EVE Intergalactic Bank and got players to deposit their money in the bank. The bank turned out to be a fraud, and the player made off with a reported 700 billion ISK, although no one can be sure if that number is correct.
The scam has caused quite a stir in the net community as it is the biggest robbery in a multiplayer online game ever, leaving a lot of players pissed off. But according to the rules, this is ok, and the former bank president gets to cruise around in his fancy new spaceship and laugh at all the suckers he fooled. It’s a cruel and vicious world indeed.
“We allow this kind of fraud because we want to have as much freedom as possible in the game,” Nathan Richardsson, CCP Senior Producer tells me after the formal schedule at the Fanfest was over. “What we have seen happening, is exactly the same as has been happening in the real world for the last 50 years. The EIB scam for example was first pulled off in the 1940s, called the Ponzi scheme. This player was just doing the same investment fraud online. The players paid him money, thought they would double their profit but then saw him ditch the whole thing and fly off with all the investment.”
Fanfest attendees had mixed feelings about the incident. Some thought it hilarious while others took it quite seriously, saying that it ruined the fun in the game while underlining the importance of trust and cooperation, a crucial factor in the virtual world. But where there is trust there is betrayal and when earning money is a status symbol, elaborate scams will always exist.
And EVE has money. Lots of it. Enough to buy a fleet of spaceships or fancy Cadillacs, multiple times over. With more cash in your account, you earn respect, power and reputation. This is something greedy individuals are fully aware of.
Although players who take money out of the game run the risk of being banned from playing, its real-life reward is worth the gamble. These virtual game currencies are worth a lot out in the real world where some players will always be willing to pay hard cash for the virtual gold. The business is blooming and while the black market is growing bigger, incidents like the bank scam can have some unpredictable consequences. The price to pay for 100 million ISK at the webpage ige.com is 11.55 US dollars and there are many other Internet sites fully designed for ISK transactions. You do the math. 7,000,000,000 x 11.55, anyone?
“It is a neverending chase and it is impossible to follow every move,” one Dev told me and Richardsson agreed:
“We see a lot of this happening, and yes, it is a problem. It is hard to trace the transactions though. We don’t like it, because we don’t want players to be able to get rich in the real world just by getting wealthy in EVE. We have to find some balance and stop the urge for these grossly abused transactions,” he adds.
I’ve heard some rumours about sweatshops operating, like in Eastern Europe, where people are employed to play computer games for hours, cashing in virtual money selling it to other players who don’t mind paying cash for some online skills or better-equipped spaceships.
“These are not rumours but facts,” Richarson says. “In some countries, people have kids working for them playing online games and earning them money. It’s modern-day slavery and absolutely terrible. Other countries, like China, have people doing the same job of creating virtual money, but they are getting paid for their work. A really good salary compared to labour in their country. But the possibility of doing this creates the need to earn more money and you’ll always find people willing to operate companies like that. It’s part of the human nature. We don’t like it, but it’s really hard to stop it,” Richardsson adds.
It is time to run back to the party. The ceremony was about to start and the Dev band was getting ready to get the party going and the players were showing off their intergalactic moves on the dance floor. There was no more time for serious talks or sweatshop labour speculations. Even though you can lose everything in a heartbeat while playing EVE, worries about scams or enemies didn’t seem to stop the players from having a blast. The overall joy of having hundreds of people to talk to who share your own hobby seemed to be the best reward for all of them. Whether, when or how, the online rage and in-game threats start breaking out in the real world, it was at least not this weekend. CCP sure knows how to throw a great party, and by doing so, the company is steadily getting closer to their goal of world domination.
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