It's rare for a video games hack to be writing about a war. Generally speaking in this space, "war" is just a euphemism for competition whether it occurs within the industry – see EA's "war" with Activision, back when Battlefield 3 was gunning for Call of Duty, as an example – or between players in-game over short, brutal multiplayer matches.
War in gaming is very rarely viewed like its real-world counterpart: a conflict that is long, brutal, and costly and in which both sides will use everything from hi-tech weapons, to propaganda to espionage to take down their enemies.
EVE: Online is slightly different in this regard. Icelandic developer CCP's long-running space-opera MMO, in which players zip about a massive galaxy in spaceships, trading and building and fighting and destroying, has been turned into a warzone on numerous occasions – and these eruptions of violence bear stark resemblance to actual historical conflicts. Empires have fallen and risen, alliances have been forged and shattered, and thousands of players have taken part in epic battles racking up damage that's been valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds in real-world currency.
Obviously a crucial way in which EVE: Online's wars differ is that there are no actual fatalities. You can lose ships, status, money; but nobody's showing up at your house with a signed death warrant. But in many other aspects, watching a war unfold in EVE bears an eerie similarity to any other human conflict.
And as is the case in any war, only those with their boots on the ground – or in this case, the bridges of EVE's array of armed-and-dangerous spaceships – know the reality of the situation. For those watching at home, doing their best to follow the coverage, it's difficult to know what precisely is going on.
EVE: Online's current war (widely known as World War Bee, and also The Easter War) is being fought between two alliances – The Imperium (formerly CFC and collectively known as Goonswarm) and The Money Badger Coalition (MBC). Across the game and into associated online media channels, communication platforms are being flooded with propaganda, misinformation and outright bullshit, making accurate coverage a real challenge – just as we see play out on the nightly news, where the stakes are higher but the methodology's the same. Every EVE-related missive posted on the web usually features a ton of comments railing against the author for taking sides.
There's one way around this, though – at least to the extent where information is coming from the proverbial horse's mouth, rather than it already having been digested into so much slop. Go straight to the people in command of the opposing forces.
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"One of the things that's difficult [to understand] from a media perspective is that any public statements that are made are part of the game itself," says Alex Gianturco, AKA The Mittani, the head of The Imperium. "It's an attempt to write the history, to get the narrative taken up by the publication of the highest status, to seize control of the conventional wisdom. That rarely has very little to do with the reality on the ground within the game."
In a way, EVE's metagame trolls the very people trying to cover it – both for the game's audience and any curious onlookers. It's a problem that even those who have taken it upon themselves to chronicle the game's history have had to contend with. Andrew Groen, a journalist and self-styled EVE historian (who has written a book on the game, Empires of EVE, documenting its greatest wars), says that accurate reporting requires any interested parties to take every metagame statement with a skipload of salt.
"This exact problem is why I write history rather than current events in EVE," he tells me. "The narrative and the storytelling in EVE is so important to the leaders in the game that it is very deeply spun. Every narrative in the current setting is always somebody's narrative. You can't take it at face value."
The proof of what Groen is saying can be found by casting an eye at some of the material published since CCP fired off a press release at the beginning of April, advertising the war taking place in its game.
PC Gamer has posited that the war started over a Kickstarter for a book about a recent conflict in EVE called The Fountain War. Since the crowdfunding initiative was backed by and would have financially benefited The Imperium, these reports contend that the war was ignited by other players in the game becoming pissed that The Mittani's crew were trying to monetise their experiences.
But according to Peter Farrell – AKA Elise Randolph, one of Pandemic Legion's leaders (a faction aligned to the MBC) – the Kickstarter had very little to do with the start of EVE's current shenanigans
"I'm sure some of the thousands of players involved are really happy to see The Imperium fall because of the Kickstarter," Farrell says. "But none of the people in the fleet commander channels are here to punish a failed Kickstarter."
Gianturco is in agreement with Farrell – though that's one of the few things The Imperium and MBC do agree on.
"There's a link you can check out on pastebin," he says. "There's a thread of leaked enemy comms channels that date back to last December, that show you how it started."
"Like most real wars, the one currently raging in EVE is taking place due to a perfect storm of events, rather than a single cause."
"The war began because a guy in the game named Boson Dubstep found a backer named Lenny Kravitz," he continues, "and Lenny wanted to be a player in the metagame – kind of like the Iron Bank in Game of Thrones. Boson realised this – check the thread – and used the money out of Lenny's wallet to hire mercenaries to attack The Imperium."
Farrell and Gianturco's comments back up a report on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that points to a conflict between virtual gambling site I Want Isk ("Isk" being the in-game currency of EVE) and Space Monkey Alliance (a faction within The Imperium) as a crucial tipping point. When SMA welched on an amount it owed to I Want Isk, one of the site's bankers (a character named Lenny Kravitz2) decided to finance some mercenaries to hit them and things just spiralled from there.
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But even though the IWI/SMA grudge has more credibility than the Kickstarter reports, opining that one event sparked off a war of this size is kind of like saying that World War I was started solely due to the fact that someone decided to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Like most real wars, the one currently raging in EVE is taking place due to a perfect storm of events, rather than a single cause.
"The war started because The Imperium seemed a bit weak, and many people were fiscally motivated by wealthy in-game bankers," Farrell says. "Once enough people got involved, other parties felt more comfortable joining in the fray. People like to fight the biggest empire ever, not anything more than that."
"When people think that you're weak or that you're losing, anyone who has always wanted take their shot at you, they feel safe to do so," says Gianturco, going on to call bullshit on CCP's statement concerning the war, advertising it as "the best time to join EVE" since it's likely to feature a ton of epic battles.
"What we've seen from official statements from CCP about the cause of the war has no relation to the actual cause or even the start date of the war," he says. "There is an attempt [to portray] something that's been happening as far back as early January as a big pile of massive battles shot out through press releases in the hope that people will rush to join the game, while serving Goonswarm up on a platter."
The Imperium, he says, has been combatting the MBC by avoiding the temptation to engage in huge fights. Rather, it has deployed a Fabian strategy; abandoning its territory in the face of superior numbers, moving all of its major assets and ships out of harm's way and slowing down the game. Basically, the intention here is to make the game a grind and as unappealing to play as possible.
Of course, this could simply be more spin. However, Gianturco's statements are backed up by one of his more prominent enemies.
"The Imperium are, in fact, trying to make the war more boring and slow the pace down," confirms Farrell. "But that is solely because the MBC has a tremendous amount of momentum and their military strategy is to just wait for the MBC to tire themselves out, and resort to in-fighting."
"MBC is probably a month or two away from causing catastrophic damage," he says. "If this dynamic changes, or if The Imperium reacts in a strange way, then the war can carry on smouldering for upwards of six months."
Continued coverage of EVE's war is going to be tricky. While it's helpful to have leaders on both sides sit down and confirm one or two details about the causes and state of the conflict, following it from the outside while remaining accurate looks to be impossible. Between the metagame and media trolling, though, it's apparent that the war for the game's narrative is as important as any territory or resources that can be won through gameplay itself. The winning side gets to write a pivotal chapter the game's 13-year history and, as Orwell once succinctly pointed out: "Who controls the present now controls the past. Who controls the past now controls the future."
VICE Gaming attended the 2016 EVE Fanfest in Reykjavik, Iceland, and will be running content from that amazing gathering of EVE fans from around the world very soon.
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