As always, space is dark. What was that line? “Space, the last frontier.” At a distance safe from the mineral-rich debris ejected from the impact of my civilian-grade mining lasers upon the Pyrite asteroid’s surface, my mind drifts into warp at an angular momentum comparable to that of my Hornet I self-defense drones tumbling around me. I am dreaming in the day; I am alert in an endless night. As I ostensibly float around at speeds in excess of one astronomical unit, a reoccurring and undeniably real sensation creeps up my back: my butt is itching.
I was expecting something more. I worship at the altar of recursive, emergent phenomena, and books like Godel Escher Bach are my bibles. In the controlled microclimes of my preferred ivory towers, reality is but a thin veneer constructed over subconscious information processing strategies and heuristics. Things like money and power are real, but they don’t exist in the objective sense. Modern conceptions of money – blips and bloops stored in persistent capacitor arrays – aren’t something you can touch or literally use to buy a litterbox for your cat (so it stops pooping in your closet). Yet they are as real and just as American as baseball and blueberry pie.
Here’s another question – is the future real? If the future is real, can I touch it? Can I take hold of it and grab it, nuzzle it to my face and huff its scent and promise of halcyon days like a man huffing a paint can? Because even if you reach out for the future, it becomes the present. The future leaves for the past at the rate of a second per second. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find someone outside of a mental asylum (or perhaps the typical frat house) not wrestling with their future.
My time at university will end, and that is textbook indisputable justified belief, as indisputable as the absence of adulting I had performed in preparation for my imminent ejection from student life. I’d held off on hunting jobs so long that they might as well have recovered from a “critically endangered” species to “least concern”, or at least “vulnerable”. It’s so easy to ignore reality when you can assure yourself that it isn’t even real. Perhaps the future is real, but I couldn’t be bothered with that. Given the “””undeniable””” consistency and correspondence of my beliefs with my external environs, I hoped, knew that it was inevitable. Any life other than my own was awaiting me beyond the launch screen of the 10-year-old game EVE Online.
My cargo hold–all 5000 cubic ft of it–has filled with Plagioclase ore. With my bottom of the line mining frigate – christened Venture class by the Outer Ring Excavation (ORE) coalition of mining corporations that developed it – I roam the asteroid belts of the high sec systems Cellenium and Luse while I puzzle my way out of my urgent numerical predicament. I have been commissioned to produce several Gallente spec civilian shuttles and deliver them to another system 3 warps – cumulatively hundreds of light years – away. However, the largest ship I own only carries around 2000 cubic feet of cargo. I need to haul over 7000 feet of cargo more than 40 light years, and ideally, within the next week.
I think about my next commision; my mission, if I choose to accept it, is doable. Sure, I would have to run on a tight schedule, injecting skill points to train skills over a period of days in order to pilot progressively large vehicles (eventually, I would like to own, pilot, and flaunt a gargantuan ship like an Obelisk), and simultaneously juggle producing the thousands of kilograms of Tritanium, Pyreite, and Mexite and the afterburners, capacitors and shields needed for constructing and fitting such shuttles. But,I could do it. Though, at this point, I’m not sure if it would be worth it – the skill points I invest in these skills are hard to come by, and I’m not sure if I want to become a freight hauler, industrialist, asteroid miner, gas miner, or pirate. Like most capsuleers (players in EVE, named for the capsules they can respawn into via cloning technology), EVE has got me calculating out the total amount of skill points needed for each career path in Excel – the game lives up to its nickname of “spreadsheets in space”. (Did you know that training every skill back to back would take 30 years of real world time?) Evidently, there are a lot of things capsuleers can do, and I’m putting thought into what I’ll do.
I even think I’ve put more thought into what capsuleer career I want to explore first than what career I’d want to explore first in the imminent adult world.
As a miner, the rare earth metals I produce and sell on the regional market trickle down through the warp ways of New Eden, transmuted by industrialists and traders into increasingly complex components and ships. Smelting raw ore into minerals and casting minerals into components requires a station equipped with the correct equipment. The stations of the major empires – the religious Amarr, democratic Gallente, independent Minmatar and capitalist Caldari – levy taxes on users of this equipment, but organizations can maintain their own equipment out in nullsec space. Nullsec space is more dangerous, however, with no protection by the empires from PvP raids from other corporations. To corporations, maintaining a standard navy, the pilots to maneuver the ships, and the territory to produce the ships is a matter of life or death. Out in nullsec space, where the influence of the major empires wanes and pirates roam unhindered, the great corporate alliances stake their claim, build their unregulated space foundries and amass capital ships like these Titans, as well as Battleships and Dreadnoughts, to prepare for wars over important issues. Like whether Anime should be allowed on the public forums.
I imagine, paradoxically, that the first thing the developers at CCP (a Swedish company, no relation to my social-credit-labeling country of birth) decided once building a comprehensive game engine capable of expressing via interacting semantic symbols the nature of a reality free from the tyranny of distance was to refamiliarize this new physics field fabric with the dimensions of measurement it had just eluded. Partial translation: Far things are far. Just as Mexite ore trickles through the market forces, illicit smuggling and industrial supply chains of EVE, one must trickle time to obtain traveled distance. Markets are capped by distance – the slow flow of resources from point A to B is what allows careers like being a space trucker, which can resemble operating an arbitrage firm more than driving a truck (actually, operating ships as a capsuleer really doesn’t resemble driving at all). Weapons must respect distance – some are best constructed into ships designed for close range brawling through low range, high damage per second weapons (or by deploying a swarm of combat drones like some sort of angry technologically advanced space beehive) while others can fit enormous cannons capable of sniping enemy fleets from distances of hundreds of kilometers.
I say “I think” I have because I don’t want to quantify it, but I know that it’s true. It’s easier for me to assure myself I am hauling damaged drone cores and abyssal filaments thousands of light years from space port to space port for titans of industry than to face it. I trickle time for distance. It trickles and trickles and trickles.
The largest ships in Eve Online — the Avatar, Leviathan, Erebus and Ragnarok – cost around 75,000,000,000 ISK over eight weeks of total production, with an equivalent fiat dollar value in the thousands. These suitably named Titan class ships require the work of a village to first produce and then supply with ammunition and fuel. While smaller ship classes such as the Frigate or Destroyer class can slingshot themselves hundreds of light years using star gates maintained by the major empires throughout their space, Titans are too large to fit through these gates, or even the largest observed classes of wormholes into W-space, for that matter. As such, even moving Titans around becomes a logistical nightmare of titanic proportions, requiring extraction and processing of specific jump isotype fuels, as well as the construction and maintenance of a cynosural field or beacon at the target star system. Though, once a Titan opens a jump bridge to its destination, allied ships can ride the bridge alongside it, making Titans a key strategic asset for deploying fleets.
Yes, deploying fleets is a major issue in EVE. This is not like World of Warcraft, where you can teleport wherever you please when called to raid duty- it can take an entire day to hop and hop and hop from one side of the galaxy to the other, and that’s assuming access to stargates – a privilege that supercapital ships like Titans, but also Supercarriers (Motherships) and Dreadnoughts, will never own if the NPC major empires are to maintain their sovereignty. (Would the fictional equivalent of China let terrorists transport nukes through their highways?) The securing and disruption of logistical supply lines compounds the strategic reality of EVE – while corporations can build their own stargates, they can also build cynosural disruptors and warp disruption bubbles, as well as field specialized electronic warfare vehicles such as interdictor destroyers or the Black Ops class of battleships.
I’m surprised I haven’t heard of more corporation leaders keeling over from stress-induced stomach ulcer growths rupturing their stomachs inside their abdomens which, fleshy constructions they are, could hardly have been designed to protect a still basically primitive man from the stresses of making decisions and accepting consequences in the absurdity and complexity of an anarcho-capitalist, post-modernist, post-post office space age reality. Where things never, never, never, ever make sense. From where do they find the energy to brave 20 hour weeks making decisions with virtually real consequences?
While Titans are the largest ships in Eve Online, they are not the largest structures. That honor goes to the Keepstars – behemoth fortresses often compared to the Death Star of Star Wars fame, with equivalent super lasers to boot. (Unfortunately, Keepstars aren’t shaped like a sphere – that would be a little too obvious.) The most resource and time expensive buildable structure, the Palatine Keepstar, costs the equivalent of 484 normal Keepstars and would take what the website tells me is “1950y 29w 5d” to build. That’s 1950 years, 29 weeks and 5 days. And an extra few hours, I’d imagine. To cut the build time down to a few months, you would need 456 players (150 accounts, with alt account slots), which is especially ludicrous considering even the largest corporations only need around 50 players to maintain their virtual industrial war complexes. Coordinating with at least 150 players and hoping that nobody fails or walks away with their .66% of the raw materials is like asking monkeys to assemble a Tesla. Let us remember that in a time far before his infinite wisdom as the violator of SEC guidelines and prophet of dogecoin, not even Elon Musk could get a Tesla assembled.
If I ever hear of a corporation building a Palatine Keepstar, I know EVE would be dead. Because one corporation would have had to monopolize the production of all resources in the game for many months to build such a structure, meaning that, in all likelihood, the player base had dwindled to a point where only one such corporation could even be supported by the remaining capsuleers. Attempting to build a Palatine Keepstar in the current game would spike the prices of basic resources to the point of adding trillions of ISK to the base cost. Scarcity created from distance, market competition, and a pervasive shortage of labor creates perceived value – there’s nothing impressive about triumphing over exactly nobody else to build a large space triangle that can defend your assets from precisely zero competitors.
Just as any age of empires has its Caesars, Alexanders and Napoleons, EVE has its own resident master of intrigue and his own cult of personality: the Mittani. The Mittani is famous for heading the first espionage agency of EVE Online, in a time where espionage was frowned upon (it is now commonplace). Nowadays, he is the charismatic leader of the Goonswarm alliance, the largest alliance by active players in nullsec space. Goonswarm is so powerful that it has taken the combined forces of the rest of the galaxy (an allied force consisting of Pandemic Horde, BRAVE, and Test Alliance Do Not Join, among others) to force them down into the border system of 1DQ1. He is a man for which thousands of loyal followers will leap into battle and drain their assets for – the kind of man that some people are looking for to provide structure in an increasingly nihilistically coded reality.
As of right now, I do not have dreams of becoming the Mittani. I simply wish to earn enough money to buy PLEX – the special currency that allows you to extend your premium membership – without having to buy it myself in real life. I had bought a month’s worth of PLEX for myself, but I cannot imagine myself buying more (and living with it). I am buying something inherently worthless. I imagine the taste will be as sweet as the first subway sandwich I ever bought with the wages the “mart” that is the extended legacy of Sam Walton was willing to extend me for my services bagging groceries part time during my junior year summer.
The scariest thing about Walmart was not selling my time bagging groceries with the same wiggle of the wrist that gets items to scan right, without fail. The scariest, most insidious thing was that I liked it. Had to be pulled away from the structured shifts, predictable challenges and illusion of meaning.
A reminder to all those who seek to build their own science fictional metaverse: though the layers of abstraction that form our reality can often have completely independent emergent semantic meanings, there is still a brute ordering hierarchy. That is a fact that even the Mittani, commander of the Goonwaffe and holder of the so called “horn of Goondor” (surmised by players to be an email chain that can summon EVE veterans who have left EVE over its decade of history back into the fray) has to grapple with. In one particularly gruesome war–
Wisps of smoke curl and twirl across the sky as time shudders, pressured by the howling and familiar sounds of phasers and lasers arcing through space. Einstein’s laws of special relativity postulate that as a body approaches the speed of light, its time will be decelerated in stationary reference frames to compensate for light moving at constant speed in all reference frames. Bound by the flips of electrons and the bouncing of packets throughout the information freeway we call the web, the frames of reference which we employ to view fantastical virtual worlds sometimes also follow this principle. Because the server – the computer maintained by the company that operates EVE Online – must enforce the same laws of physics upon all, when it is strained it takes longer to compute what transpires in a tick – the smallest interval of time a game runs on. Normally there are a dozen, if not hundreds, of ticks in a second. But in this gravitationally bound battlefield etched by countless Davids and Goliaths, each tick contains millions of projectiles, millions of damaged components to track, tens of thousands of players to assert dominion over. In a typical war, for an arbitrary but particular ship captain, they find that their ships move slower and slower as their experience of time in our real space accelerates relatively to the movement of ships in EVE’s space.
– an enemy Keepstar was preventing Goonswarm fleets from reinforcing one of the war’s major engagements. The Mittani was asked by a subordinate from an allied Russian alliance to tell him where the Keepstar operator was based. The Mittani first told him both the location of the Keepstar and the home base of the Keepstar operator.
“No no,” I imagine the subordinate replied. “Where does the operator live in real life? I will send men to shut off the power to his house.”
Though he was the dictator of his loyal Goonswarm alliance, his power in EVE was still subservient to the real world. I can imagine how it would’ve gone: Wisps of smoke curl and twirl…
Somehow, I found myself at a corporate brunch hosted by the (coincidentally) named Galaxy Ventures, a VC firm headed by Tiger Global spinout billionaire Michael Novogratz, a man who is now looking to expand his riches in the burgeoning crypto ecosystem the optimistic are calling the metaverse. I nomming on the biscuit from the best breakfast buffet I had ever had in my life while being stared down by a finance PhD student who now held a rather confused expression on his face.
“So, how can you guarantee that when you buy and sell items, that the trade will go through?”
I grinned. “That’s the thing!” I explained between bites. “You don’t – the developers let you do anything you want.” Indeed, I told him how the EVE University wiki hosts a subsection of the wiki detailing over 80 elaborate common scams. “Outside of the basic sell and buy orders you place at regional markets which – by the way – you have to physically travel to or hire a freighting company like Red Frog to pick up and deliver on your behalf, any more complex securities have to be floated on trust.”
In EVE, unlike in our comparatively tame, not yet anarcho-capitalist society, it can be useful to be seen as an unhinged sociopath like the Mittani. It prevents people from trifling with you. Yet this infamy is also what allowed the Mittani and Goonswarm to fill their war coffers using a security predicated on Goonswarm paying the lender back at a future time; a space megacorporation reinvented war bonds to finance their war against the rest of the known universe.
As I cut into my quiche, chuckling internally as the PhD continued stewing in his bewilderment, I went back to unfurling my cloistered models of reality. EVE Online seems more real than other games – it’s more real to the venture capitalist and politicians of the world than, say, the world of a book. Why? Because the world of a book never changes? But EVE Online is not realistic, per se. There is no sound in space – there is no up and down in space – yet all depictions of ships in promotional media show them an up and a down. Ships in EVE behave more like Microsoft flight simulator planes than actual spaceships – Just like how the new Star Wars trilogy depicted bomber ships that dropped bombs in, I reiterate, outer space, a place where there is no concept of up and down in the second movie,. This stuff makes me irrationally irate.
Because the violation of the rules established in the exposition of the text leads to breaking the suspension of disbelief. Breaking the stilts above a sandstorm of friction-laden silica sparkle of undefinable, absurd form. Because you cannot, from a stream everchanging, cup certainty in a structure with more holes than medium. Breaking news! Reality doesn’t make sense!
Perhaps, like all great technical problems of the modern internet age, the problem of verifying reality comes down to assent from multiple people. People would actually not accept a Turing test result claiming that a machine is a person if the tester was obviously incompetent or malicious. Yet, if performed with every person in the United States with a 99.9% success rate, the hope is that the machine is actually real. Why is crypto real now, and not before? Because of adoption – because the people at this brunch now think a pixelated image of a gorilla or a collection of right facing rock jpegs (as opposed to a much cheaper, and otherwise identical collection of left facing rocks) is in fact worth millions of dollars.
I made the choice to graduate from my days as a miner – after extracting thousands of tons of ores from the surprisingly mineral-enriched vacuum of space, the initially engaging mechanical motions of mining had also left me in a state not unlike the exploded, utterly depleted rocks I left behind after each mining trip. I could jump into a system, warp to the nearest asteroid belt, target the ore with the greatest yield (preferring dense or huge variants of ores over normal ores), retarget another asteroid after depleting the first, and the second, and the third, until my ore hold was filled, jump to a trade hub like the Domain system, sell my ores, rinse, jump into a system, warp to the nearest asteroid belt, target the ore with the greatest yield (preferring rarer ores like Kernite and Gneiss over common ores like Veldspar and Scordite), retarget another asteroid after depleting the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth, until my ore hold was filled, jump to a trade hub like the Domain system, sell my ores, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat so many times. Having started EVE searching for new fantastical experiences, I had discovered I could only spend hundreds of hours collecting and carting space rocks between the same 3 mineral-rich systems and commercial hubs for…hundreds of hours.
Having made a tidy profit from selling ores, gas, and several ships, I invested a majority of my savings into refitting an old Thorax class Cruiser for privateering against enemies in hi-sec space. Undertaking mission after mission for The Sisters of EVE corporation, I destroyed Amaar, Caldari, and Rogue Drone ships alike. There was a bit of a learning curve with my new equipment – I had no experience puppeting medium sized drones and had to learn both mechanical and in-game skills to field them – and upgrading the caliber of cannons I was working with from 90mm to 150mm meant that my effective range of engagement had ballooned from one thousand meters to twenty-five kilometers. It seemed I had escaped the doldrums of mining – an activity so low intensity it’s possible to leave your game client idle and go, I don’t know, do your laundry while your ship hums away, decimating asteroids with lasers. Instead, I had graduated to farming bounties for specific types of hostile ships – an activity not so unintensive that you could listen to an audiobook while doing it, but not so intensive you had to actually think about it. Deploy the Hornets. Target each enemy target with Hornet drones if they’re in close range and with the railguns if they’re far. Destroy all targets. Recall the Hornets and deploy the salvaging drones. Salvage every wreck for damaged ship components and scraps. Rinse. Deploy the Hornets. Target each enemy target with Hornet drones if they’re in close range and with the railguns if they’re far. Destroy all targets. Recall the Hornets and deploy the salvaging drones. Salvage every wreck for damaged ship components and scraps. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
With enough luck, I’d only have to complete a few dozen missions before being able to afford a Battleship or Battlecruiser, in which I could join an established corporation’s Incursion fleet – an organized group of players specializing in fighting equally epic enemy fleets. I can imagine it: Wisps of smoke curl and twirl…
I have been told that it would be prudent to, at some point, sit down and discuss exactly what EVE Online is. Which I find almost offensive – imagine walking up to Delueze and expecting a succinct and illuminating answer on what “desire” is. To box EVE as something definable, explainable, grokable, would be to limit the crimson expanses of what it can be. I will however, chisel away at EVE by defining it in negative, through what it is not.
For example, EVE Online is not real.
I’ve lost friendships over fake real things. One game, called World of Tanks, had in-game events where groups of 100 players called clans that would band together to fight other clans for the rights to exclusive prizes. These events – campaigns, we called them – required a lot of time commitment from everyone – upwards of 4 hours a day. It was equivalent to working an extra job for some. These events would run for several weeks, and tensions would be high. Very real drama was seen, and very real friendships were created and destroyed. For me, I decided to leave my group to join another halfway through because they were more successful – and some of my closest friends called me a traitor. Over an internet tank. Over a sense of loyalty to a group performing activities in a completely virtual arena, which never interacts with anything else. Why? Why am I torn up over the remnants of an event that doesn’t even exist in physical reality – the ledger, the record of which sits in the space of virtual, bits and boops, reality?
It’s finally time for me to join a corporation – to join an incursion team. Am I ready to rejoin a clan? I wonder. First, I need to apply to corporations. For some, the application process is fairly simple, though undocumented – Test Alliance Please Ignore’s Dino Nuggets newbro division just requires you send in an application. For others, like EVE University, I am coerced into writing 11 separate short responses in a website somebody built for ingame currency (website development and art commissions are two noticeable exceptions that CCP allows in banning the interaction of EVE’s New Eden and real life’s old earthling economies). “Which EVE University rule is your favorite, and why?” “If admitted, what resources would you take advantage of to achieve your capsuleer goals?” The process usually caps off in an interview with a senior officer, where I’m asked to elaborate on my goals, motivations, and ambitions in more detail. I am accepted to two out of the 6 corporations I apply for.
I shudder to find that I can still slink into my lizard person suit honed by the arduous tech recruiting process from which I have, in the past, received promises of material wealth no person my age or mind should have. I turn to my mainstays, convoluted theory, for comfort, only to be spurned – simulation and language game theory have nothing better to say about my predicament. Foucault himself is shaking his bald head at me. Why did I think earning PLEX would somehow free me from the grasp of EVE? I want to buy something inherently worthless. By grinding materials, grinding missions, and then grinding incursions, and eventually grinding wars, I would always be within the bounds of the game – within the bounds of a society, culture, market, game manufactured by CCP. Why did I think earning PLEX would somehow free me from the grasp of EVE when buying PLEX is a mechanic implemented by CCP Games, when to buy PLEX, I must play EVE?
I am pissed. Sparkle of undefinable, absurd form. I am half a mind to pick a fight with a Battleship in hi-sec space and get blown up, either by the Battleship or by CONCORD’s police force. We live in a manufactured reality. I am distraught. There exist entire dimensions of gameplay in EVE I haven’t discussed – exploring the ruined space stations of the ancient, extinct, extremely technologically advanced Drifters in deep space, engaging in economic warfare while deploying huge amounts of capital to buy up all the stock of an item to artificially raise the price for profit or to lower the price while tanking the loss to drive competitors out of business (and then raise it, for profit), leveraging an understanding of distance and market information asymmetry to buy cheap at one end of the galaxy and sell expensive at the other end, winning a technological lottery. And, not unlike science fiction which asks one mind what they make of the future, EVE asks many what they make of reality. It’s a pity people choose to engage in scams, warfare, and general misanthropy in search of ISK while those in power who have been in power for a decade are entrenched by game mechanic-based advantages. It’s a pity it’s all manufactured to install me as another edge in a directed acyclic graph of causation for which people pay 30 dollars a month to access. Now I’m pissed again.
What should I do? Be trapped in EVE? Be trapped in the society contained by EVE? Be trapped in the meta-game of economics containing EVE? Be trapped in the society that contains EVE? Be trapped in a game? In a reality?
I remember the words of a prominent AI researcher: Someday, we may harness and dim entire galaxies to save the life of a single child.
Humanity is not there yet. Will the resolve I feel in the face of incalculable odds last?
I close the game.
I close the game.
I close the game.