It's Saturday night, and Reykjavík has come alive with revelry.
This is not an unusual occurrence for a place only half-jokingly referred to as The Ibiza of the North, but tonight is special. Tonight, the biggest party in Iceland isn't in the city center bars, but inside the impossible architecture of the Harpa Complex where hundreds of people are gathered for the closing party of EVE Online's 2017 Fanfest. This annual three-day event is a place for EVE players to escape the vacuum of their space sandbox, let their hair down and have some fun—or, as one player succinctly summarizes it, "What happens at Fanfest, stays at Fanfest."
This year is a celebration, the 20th anniversary of EVE's Icelandic developers CCP—the game itself launched in 2003. But as anyone with a passing knowledge of the game knows, EVE isn't really about the devs. It's about the player community, the hundreds of thousands of capsuleers who stretch across the regions of in-game universe New Eden—whether that's the lone pilots and diplomats of "Nullsec", the sacred officials and spies of "Highsec" or the heathens, renegades and blood miners of "Lowsec".
But who are these people? If you know anything about EVE it's probably the grand space battles and intense political machinations—but what about the men and women behind these vast corps and alliances? With that in mind, I set out to meet the real people of New Eden, find out how they came to the game, why they stick with it, and how it can shape their worlds both on and offline.
In-game name: Lisanna Struss
AKA Steven Smith
Years Playing: 3 years, 6 months
2017 marks Steven Smith's first visit to Fanfest. In fact, it's the first time he's been outside the UK on his own, telling me: "I've only left the UK before with my mother and family, so it's a culture shock, but the people seem really nice."
Smith lives near Plymouth and works at a KFC—it's a job he enjoys, although he doesn't feel like he earns enough. "But I have a lot of special needs" he says. "Asperger's, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and an extra chromosome… plus a bunch of other stuff which just annoys me, so I get personal independence allowance and employment support, and it's these payments that allow me to live".
With a litany of developmental issues, life hasn't been easy for Smith—but when he found EVE, it became a safe haven for him. "I was bullied all the way through my academic career; then I found this game on a night when I was holding a knife to my arm," he explains. "A friend invited me to play and said it might make me feel better… And by god, he was right."
"I've spent lots of money in three years on a intangible thing, money that I could have used to buy a car. But who needs a car? I have a spaceship!"
EVE might be just another baffling MMORPG to outsiders, but the way Smith sees it, the people of New Eden have become an invaluable lifeline for him. "I urge people with disabilities like mine to try play the game—there's a chat channel in-game that deals with everything from PTSD and bullying to suicidal behavior (Broadcast 4 Reps), and they've saved my life three or four times."
After two weeks of playing, Smith paid for his first subscription to the game and hasn't missed a month since, as for him it's a way to connect with the wider world. "I don't socialize in real life, only in EVE, so I spend my money on the game because it allows me to stay alive and enjoy myself. I wake up, turn my computer on and it stays on until I go to sleep, and I'll be online for all of that—of course I might not be at the computer, but I'm always logged in."
He's planning on moving to a place of his own soon, but while independence beckons, right now he still lives with his mother who doesn't always get his obsession. "She's really supportive and understands why I play, but she's concerned I've spent lots of money in three years on a intangible thing, money that I could have used to buy a car." Smith pauses, and laughs: "But who needs a car? I have a spaceship!"
In-game name: Momiji Sakora
AKA Morgan Welden
Years Playing: 10
A game developer and level designer by trade, Morgan Welden's parents raised her on a diet of sci-fi, so when a friend introduced her to the EVE back in 2007 she was instantly hooked.
"I've taken a break now and then, but I've never really looked back since I first picked it up almost ten years ago," she explains. Over the last decade of playing, Welden has risen to a leadership role in the Central Omni Galactic Group (COGG), heading up an alliance of 800 capsuleers (the name for in-game pilots) based in the Providence region of Nullsec.
What sets COGG apart from many other alliances is their approach to delegation—while many of EVE's leaders pass work on to their pilots, Welden chooses a hands-on approach. "We like to do most of the work ourselves, because for me it's about building and maintaining the sense of community," she explains. "I like to keep people interacting and make sure everyone's happy, so they know where to go and what to do—it's all about giving them a sense of direction."
But it's a role that can end up feeling like a full time job. "If there are diplomatic issues, two hours in-game can quickly become six, and there are moments when it becomes a little too stressful—because you feel responsible for all the people flying with you. We have so many pilots now that when there are diplomatic issues I feel a responsibility to make sure they're ironed out quickly, so it doesn't risk the in-game lives and enjoyment of players in our alliance."
And it's a focus on enjoyment that has led COGG towards a unique and anomalous play-style in the often-merciless EVE Online universe. "Lots of alliances have a policy called 'not-blue-shoot-it' (i.e. if they aren't your friends, you're going to get killed), but that seems a bit barbaric and gung-ho," she says. "So, we work on the basis of 'not-red-don't-shoot' (i.e. abide by the rules and you won't be attacked). In part, that's why it's been easy for our alliance to grow—because we breed a sense of home and belonging for people."
In-game name: Irma Amatin
Years Playing: 4
When Anna met her partner (in-game name Tarion Usaro, pictured with Anna) he had already been playing for seven years, and as their love developed, so did her love of EVE.
"I got interested because the playing style leaves you so many choices," she tells me. "It's flexible enough that you can do whatever you want, whether that's mining, fighting, dabbling in metagaming or diplomacy." But, recently, the game has taken a backseat for Anna: "I play for maybe three hours at a time, just doing a little industry and trading—and even then only a couple times a month—because my main in-game time is spent organizing events for the community."
Anna and her partner run the largest EVE Online player meet-up for German-speaking territories. "We like to brag that we run the best player-organized event in the world," she jokes. The mini-fanfest—which is held yearly in Dusseldorf—had around 150 attendees in 2016 and has already sold-out for 2017.
"It's just an opportunity for players and devs to interact. Of course, we have talks and a PVP tournament, much like a normal event, but we leave a lot of time for players to chat with one another."
It's fan-run events like Anna's that keep the EVE community together long after the playing ends, uniting veteran players and n00bs alike—because in a game like this, even when initial enthusiasm has ebbed away, the social aspect remains strong. "Even the most repressed person will let themselves go at an EVE event," she adds, laughing. "And it doesn't hurt that there's drinking, too—lots of drinking!"
In-game name: The Judge
AKA Rowan Hawke
Years Playing: 14
The Judge has a reputation for ruthlessness in EVE, earned as head diplomat for one of the game's most revered alliances, Circle of Two. But in person, Rowan Hawke couldn't be further from his ominous in-game persona. An ebullient and excitable character, he rarely stops smiling while we chat.
"In EVE, if you're a diplomat who's organizing stuff for almost 6,000 people, you've got to not give things away too easily," he explains. "So, being able to force an issue is a very important skillset, but in real life I'm a lot more relaxed."
Hawke lives in Melbourne, Australia and got hooked on EVE when a guy in his local game store mentioned some new game was going into beta. "He said it had spaceship in it and was sort of Star Wars-y, so my friends and I got excited and jumped on it straight away."
Since then he's risen to the upper echelons of diplomatic power in EVE, acting for both his alliance and the wider coalition, which totals roughly 18,000 people, while also holding a position on the liaison group between players and CCP, the Council of Stellar Management (CSM). "I see my role in EVE as helping other players find what they want to play and providing that content for them—that's what I really enjoy," he explains.
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But while one wrong in-game word might start a war, his real life job couldn't be more different. "I've been a fisherman all my life, and I've always enjoyed going out on the water, so I wanted to get into the industry and now I sell boats—anything from cruisers to fishing boats, y'know, whatever is 18-feet and upwards."
It might come as a surprise, but there's a fair bit of crossover between selling boats and engineering wars, as Hawke explains: "It's about being able to sell people on an idea, or an ideal—getting pilots to fight for you because they believe what you believe. It's a skill I've learned in real life, about how to gauge people's emotions and use them to your benefit." He laughs, "And, on the other side, getting to practice that everyday in EVE just makes me even better at my day job."
While this in-game power is rewarding, it can be outweighed by stress—knowing thousands of people's time and effort rests on his shoulders. "It's tough, I put in anywhere from six to 12 hours a day during the week, and 18 hours a day on busy weekend. But I'm spurred on by the idea that a fleet went out and killed bunch of people and I made that happen, y'know? I like the idea that someone had two hours of fun, or maybe 250 people or even 5,000 had a lot of fun, because I pushed a couple of buttons, talked to a couple of people and made something happen." He grins, again: "I guess you could say it's hard to not have a god-complex in EVE."
In-game name: Max Singularity, The Space Pope
AKA Charles White
Years Playing: 9
"I'm a real spacecraft guy," says Charles White, which in any other circumstances might seem hard to believe, coming from a man dressed in full papal attire at a games event. But this ersatz pope is the real deal, having worked for NASA for the past 30 years as a knowledge management specialist for the jet propulsion laboratory. "Essentially, I do spacecraft investigations, and document the lessons learned," he explains.
White came to EVE nine years ago, and has now become a powerful institution in the game, as both co-founder of the Sixth Empire—a nonpartisan alliance providing support for new players and those in trouble ("We're like the coastguard of New Eden," he says)—and, more notoriously, the "Space Pope."
"A few people decided to troll me and say, 'he's not a priest, he's a pope.' Of course, they didn't count on me cosplaying as the Space Pope at the following year's Fanfest."
"I had no choice in becoming the Space Pope," he says, laughing. "The title was bestowed onto me after I got involved in counseling people on the in-game comms channels. I'm an older player, so I said I was an Amarrian priest—but a few people decided to troll me and say, "he's not a priest, he's a pope." Of course, they didn't count on me cosplaying as the Space Pope at the following year's Fanfest."
But while he might play at pope in New Eden—carrying a large "bible" that conceals a stash of Icelandic schnapps during Fanfest—outside of the game, he feels less of a connection to the spiritual world. "I'm more atheistic in my everyday life, except for one thing," he says, pausing for a second. "God is the cosmos, and we are made of the cosmos, so in that respect, god is in my heart."
In-game name: Malketh Terona
Years Playing: 6
"I'd rather not use my real name," says the man you'll know only as 'Todd', in somewhat conspiratorial tones. "I'm systems security engineer for a company in Texas that does Department of Defense contracting, so I like to keep things very separate."
He started playing EVE when it was in beta in 2003, but lost interest until he was drawn back after hearing stories of 2013's Battle of Asakai—one of the largest space battles in video game history at the time. "There was big interest online in EVE, and there was a new in-game corp called Brave Newbies—so I joined up because it sounded so freakin' cool."
Todd might like to keep a division between work and play, but gaming is undoubtedly in his blood. "My family are gamers, and my dad still plays EverQuest," he says. "He was the one who got me into gaming in the first place. It was around 1984 and he brought home our first computer, and there was a little dungeon crawler type game that I became obsessed with—I've been hooked on gaming ever since."
It was his involvement with Brave corps that saw him adopt the title of "Missionary," visiting Fanfest and its sister event, EVE Vegas, to spread the good word. And while he was reticent to attend these events at first—"I was like, it'll be a gaming convention full of sweaty basement-dwelling neckbeards, but everyone was so cool"—his aspiring political machinations and backroom deals soon took off. Sadly, they were scuppered when the real-world vices of others became a little too much to deal with.
"I love my former in-game CEO to death—he's the one who got me coming to these events—but it turns out he was a raging alcoholic." He pauses, adding: "I think he finally got some help, but we haven't spoken in a few years and things seemed pretty bad for a while. I really hope he's okay now."
In-game name: Feiryred
AKA Rhiannon Williams
Years Playing: 9
I first met Rhiannon Williams when she was part of the Space Pope's coterie—but caught up with her again to talk about her involvement in the Sixth Empire, and life beyond dressing-up as a space nun.
"I'm an astrobiologist based at the UK Center for Planetary Sciences, and co-founder the Sixth Empire Alliance with Charles (White)," she explains. "The way I was looked earlier was just window dressing for the media—it means he can do the figurehead thing, while I do more behind the scenes work."
"At our level, we might not log in regularly, but we provide content for everyone who does. I probably play more EVE when I'm not logged into the game."
Outside of the shadow of the Space Pope's imposing persona, Williams enjoys doing her work away from the spotlight. "It balances itself out," she tells me. "It means I can get things done while he has to talk to the media, so it really works on that level—I like to joke that he's me with a dick, or maybe I'm him with a cunt," she laughs.
Williams' EVE evolution started much like any new capsuleer, joining various alliances as she learned the mechanics of the game. But that changed when she became part of the Fatal Ascension alliance, and began getting into diplomacy. "It was there that I learned from Vile Rat (aka Sean Smith, an EVE player and US diplomat who died in the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya). He'd put everything in place to recruit new diplomats, and that's how I learned the craft, before going on to recruit others."
It was around this time that she found her passion for metagaming, influencing the stories that make EVE such a compelling game for so many people. "At our level, we might not log in regularly, but we provide content for everyone who does," she explains. "I mean, I probably play more EVE when I'm not logged into the game, because we want the players to have something to do—otherwise it could just be boring. I want people to read the gaming news about huge wars between good guys and bad guys, and get excited to play it themselves."
Williams describes herself as "Good at getting into people's heads," an empathic skill that's helped her as both a diplomat and counselor. It's something she attributes to many years spent in her other career as a psychic. "If you're an empathetic person, you can talk to people about their problems. It's a skill-set that really enables you to help people. Although I don't go into all of that magic shit," she laughs. "The way I see it, you can't have science without art, and for me being able to read people is an art that balances out the science side of my life—and the two combined are why EVE is such a good fit for me."