Introduction and Abstract – Draft v1.2
‘I was there’: In-situ onto-epistemology in EVE Online
EVE Online’s single-server architecture and it’s deep, often arcane, open-ended sandbox gameplay creates conditions for collaborative in-situ environmental discourse set within a realistic in-situ socio-political context. This suggests the possibility of applying these same technologies and design principles to other “real world” applications where similar in-situ learning and knowledge exchange is desirable but not possible or practical, either due to external factors (COVID being a pertinent example) or other barriers to access such as distance or disability.
The transfer and teaching of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) is an example of one such application. It illustrates how epistemological processes such as knowledge creation and exchange depend on more than static documentation and require the kinds of socio-political frameworks and interactive processes EVE Online simulates, while also sidestepping physical limitations to participation.
In the paper Law for Country, Wanta (Stephen Patrick) Jampijinpa, applies the Walpiri framework ngurra-kurlu to a standard ‘environmental stewardship’ challenge like the conservation of a threatened species. While the practitioner could document different aspects of ngurra-kurlu like language, law, skin, and ceremony that represent Warlpiri IEK, that process alone is ‘unlikely to foster revitalization of that knowledge because it does not engage with how the knowledge exists in situ’.
To better enable the regeneration of knowledge, he says we need to be there, actively engaging with the social institutions and political contexts: learning, teaching, modifying, practicing, and negotiating knowledge between us. We can’t just transform a cultural tour into a few pages of a report and call it a day.
To illustrate the point here, EVE Online’s in-situ socio-political simulations and institutions needn’t accurately map all their real-world counterparts, only demonstrate that focused, targeted areas pertinent to the application – in this case, game design – can be accurately simulated. I argue that the degree of success to which this is achieved in EVE suggests that other targeted applications could theoretically achieve the same for their own ends.
Introduction – Social and Political institutions – Draft v1.2
There are many different social structures in EVE Online, and one is between those who might identify as roleplayers (RPers), and those who do not. This may seem strange, given this genre of game – MMORPG – is an acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. The difference is perhaps in how players understand what “roleplaying” means. For many, simply playing the game is playing a role - a definition most agree with, including many in CCP (the creators of the game). Others, however, like to expand this idea further. They will pay closer attention to the game’s background fiction, its history, and the people and places in the game’s environment the developers have created and described over decades. EVE Online’s science fiction setting is rich with history and possibility for those who like to like to see themselves not just as a game player, but a character within EVE’s virtual world, New Eden.
Related to this difference in playing style, there is a supposed dichotomy between player agency as in-game “regular players”, and partially in-game and also out-of-game “roleplayers”. This argument recurs especially in discourse on roleplay (RP) and “in-character” engagement with EVE’s setting. To put it simply, the thought is that posting on forums, or writing fiction, or even roleplaying in-game doesn’t contribute in the same way, or have the same impact, as players who actually “do things” in-game.
The idea here is related to age-old terms of reference the EVE community uses like “sandbox” and “theme park” which I’ll do my best to explain and represent in the context of EVE’s gameplay and narrative design.
A theme park is a mostly static experience: the rollercoaster is on rails, and the rides never change. In gaming terms, a theme park is driven mostly by non-player-character (NPC) content. Examples of this in EVE would be the “missions” that player-characters undertake. They are static content that does not change, driven by NPCs. In narrative terms, they are an unchanging story told “down from on high”, by the writers, designers, developers, and artists who make the content. Because they are static, they are largely a story told to players, not with them. In terms of player agency, and in terms of knowledge creation and exchange, it’s akin to a pamphlet acting as a tour guide for a museum. There is no bilateral knowledge exchange – no conversation, no asking questions. It’s a mostly unidirectional experience and ontology.
By comparison, a sandbox is driven by players. The unpredictable, dynamic, and complex interactions possible between people at various scales enables emergent behavior and unexpected outcomes. The story is told by the players, about the players, with the players. The actions of past players too, contribute to a rich history and narrative. This sandbox history could be considered contested too, and somewhat amenable to a constructivist analysis. Many parts of EVE history are not objectively understood – despite attempts by historians like Andrew Groen to document somewhat authoritative records. Instead, they are filtered by different player’s socio-political frames and positions as agents in that history, as inheritors of its consequences and political associations, and as onlookers with their own in-game stakes and views. History and knowledge are negotiated by these different parties. The general design and promotion of EVE revolves around this kind of sandbox gameplay, where players have a unique level of autonomy and agency relative to other games, and where the core experience is not “on rails”.
Highlighting further differences, the same is rarely said for the history of EVE’s setting. The in-setting content communicated by activities like the previously mentioned “missions” is not considered “up for debate” by the community in the same way. It is instead considered a kind of literary canon and referred to as such by the community. Player contributions to the in-world setting and its content are labelled as “fan fiction”, and developer-made contributions given the hierarchical term “Prime fiction” or PF. Players are advised and, to an extent, pressured by other roleplayers towards social norms where these hierarchies are recognized. Works outside an accepted canon – what we might call Apocrypha – might be frowned upon. Players whose fiction or actions violate extant canon are sometimes labelled as “god-modders” – a term that implies they are making modifications to the world that only gods (developers) could or should be able to make. The lowly player cannot speak down from the Heavens (well, not unless they become a god-creator in Zion first, of course).
In his brilliant Long Read: How a virtual world went to the edge of apocalypse and back, Simon Parkin describes it in this way:
Few video games accommodate their player base in this way. Eve’s creators have learned that the future of their world depends not only on the happiness of the game’s players, but also their feeling that the players, ultimately, own the world which they inhabit. Pétursson describes his company as mere caretakers. A better analogy is that he and his employees are gods. While many CCP staff members play the game avidly, they also exist in Eve on a celestial stratum, defining the rules and boundaries of its reality, listening to the desires of the players and deciding whether or not to act upon their pleas.
Unique to EVE Online, and demonstrated in the quote above about a “shared ownership” framework, is that these lines between sandbox and theme park, and between player and creator, can become deeply blurred, in both ways. The differences I’ve laid out have important exceptions.
Firstly, in-game player actions that have in-game impacts can be deeply motivated by in-setting, in-character, roleplayed positions. Jericho Fraction (JF) is mentioned in that history of “player/sandbox actions” documented by Andrew Groen, but what’s left unelaborated (at least in the Wikipedia entry summarizing the book) is that JF’s motivations were essentially roleplayed. Indeed, Groen’s characterization is that many of those early players operated in a semi-roleplayer mode where they took the game seriously – a norm later subverted by Goonswarm. Though many will have forgotten this aspect of this particular story, some have not. Eve’s past has many remaining survivors and delegates, and a non-zero portion of them remain in positions of influence to negotiate not only these histories, but what they represent. More importantly, countless other campaigns like JF’s have repeated throughout EVE’s history and still do today. Players driven by roleplayed motivations have always “played a role” in shaping the geography and the political and social topology of EVE Online’s virtual world. Some of these groups have shown tremendous staying power throughout its many decades of operation.
Secondly, many player actions and stories have been directly converted by CCP from “fan fiction” into canon. CCP’s sustained interest in recognizing player agency is unique among games and has taken a multitude of forms over the years, worth outlining in some detail.
Turning fanfic to canon.
Throughout the game’s development, short stories and “chronicles” have been written to expand the game’s science-fiction space-based setting and introduce foundational ideas such as the role of players as immortal starship captains, “capsuleers” who can re-enter a new clone of their body after death. Notably, some of these chronicles were written by players, not developers, and can still be read today on EVE’s official websites. Many others written by players were not documented online, but still officially recognized through publication of EVE Online’s magazine EON.
Another source of engagement has been CCP’s volunteer program, the Interstellar Services Division (ISD). It has for years run a reporter’s division that creates fictional news content and reports on player actions, incorporating them into the game’s lore regardless of the motivations that inspired said actions. Because of these reporters, players who don’t explicitly identify as “roleplayers” can still find themselves involved, or even enshrined, as part of the game’s lore and history through their actions and achievements, or sometimes just through dumb accident or luck.
Other divisions of ISD have run in-game events of various kinds over the years ranging from small-scale chats about politics in dedicated roleplay channels, to large-scale conflicts and intrigue played out in-game with stakes on the line such as in-game rewards, penalties, assets, and so on.
Complementing volunteer-led “live events”, CCP has also created their own larger-scale events with a focus on player agency and ability, in targeted and limited ways, to shape the game’s official narrative and the world it describes. Early in EVE’s history, a planet was named after a player who won a “space race” spanning the universe. Many players are enshrined as champions of yearly tournaments – their names etched into in-game items that record and celebrate their accomplishments. Others who have contributed to in-game projects and events have seen their contributions recognized, or even translated directly to in-game content.
These experiments in interactive narrative and sandbox gameplay demonstrate the various ways in which virtual worlds can create a place-based, bilateral knowledge exchange and creation process (writing and negotiating history together, creating and negotiating an agreed upon reality together), that is grounded in that place’s own social and political contexts (the geographies of New Eden, the world’s setting, the meta-understanding of these places as players, the political alliances and histories of player groups).
It is important to note these specific configurations and their parameters are application oriented: the goal is to create a game, and a game with a very specific and unique flavour. Other applications, such as the virtualization of worlds and peoples for the purposes of education or research (sometimes dubiously labelled “serious games”) could employ similar design principles enabling bilateral exchanges but create wholly different social and political frameworks and settings to ground them. Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies could be “hard-coded” into these experiences to represent customary laws, in much the same way that New Eden’s laws preventing planetary genocide by powerful capsuleer starship captains are hard-coded into the game: players cannot unilaterally decide to destroy a planet, or the game’s core NPC factions, or the world itself (something that would be sub-optimal for CCP’s business model). The possibilities are limited only by technology, programming sophistication, and the imagination.
Research-based simulations that in socio-political terms (if not visual terms) border on emulation have equally promising applications. This allows for researchers to visualize accurate reproductions of environments and that are normally difficult to access. The work of Robert Fleet showed how studying EVE’s criminal and violent side – empowered by the higher player agency EVE’s sandbox allows – created a relatively useful dataset for studying “real-world” criminal and violent behavior. More broadly, he makes the point that player activity in these virtual worlds can create useful data for a range of applications, something that has been seen elsewhere, but remains little explored by many academics and developers alike.
The way in which these behaviors intermix and interplay with both real-world and in-setting ideas and ideologies, and the way that actions (regardless of intent) can translate to “canon”, all suggest that EVE Online is not just a microcosm, as Parkin describes, but a mesocosm too.
As an example of social-political contexts permeating the mesocosm and existing simultaneously within “dual realities”: Hiring in the ISD’s fiction and reporting divisions might be partially influenced by player allegiance and familiarity with lore, including focusing on specific factions or ideas. As an example, roleplay-focused players from a specific faction bloc might have elevated knowledge and engagement with that area and be able to contribute greater insights and contributions to the game canon. Regardless of whether it is true, the point is that it could be, in some small way. The socio-political contexts allow for this consideration to occur in the first place.
Modern-day hiring and organizational structuring that focuses on ensuring a diversity of perspectives and voices from those with different backgrounds is not dissimilar from ensuring that your cadre of interstellar reporters has a Minmatar expert to report and write on matters related to that in-game faction, and to get that you might have to go to the source – Minmatar-aligned roleplayers.
Equally, the notion of hiring someone from within a faction to then report on it creates potential conflicts of interest – another socio-political consideration with an ethical dimension. Indeed, there have been many times throughout the game’s history where developers and others have been perceived as biased towards or favoring one particular faction, character, or idea – a concern that echoes the stakes and importance of the game’s setting to some, and the ways it can influence other areas and players who may not even identify as traditional roleplayers or show direct interest in the game’s settings and lore. EVE’s ancient history includes a related incident where a developer was so deeply invested in their in-game community and its power, that they created new items exclusively for them, to create advantage. EVE is serious business, as the game’s most well-worn adage goes.
These complexities illustrate how these in-game contexts can to an extent map and mirror the real world.
As an example of historians documenting “dual realities”: Minoru Hokari’s approach to Indigenous history – specifically the Gurindji walk-off – showed how even academics can work within, between, and across different epistemologies, ontologies, and accounts of events in a way that respects and accounts for all.