Inside Eve: Online’s propaganda machine—from Photoshop to DDoS published by nherting
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Posted on 2016-09-08
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Inside Eve: Online’s propaganda machine—from Photoshop to DDoS
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Gaming Article by nherting. Article Location: New EdenTweet
On June 30, 2016, a costly battle took place in Eve: Online. An alliance of players calling themselves the Imperium—assisted by allies in the game's low security region—destroyed four Titan-class ships (the game's largest and most expensive) and inflicted damage worth half a trillion of the in-game currency (ISK) on their enemies in the Money Badger Coalition (MBC). This battle was one of the largest since the so-called Bloodbath of B-R5RB in 2014, which resulted in losses of 11 trillion ISK—worth roughly $300,000 (£228,000) in real-world money.
The Imperium’s recent assault on the MBC is hardly a left-field event; Eve players blast the hell out of each other on an almost daily basis. But this battle was special; it took place just days after the MBC declared that it had won once and for all the game's latest large-scale war, with forum posts, fan sites, and Facebook feeds featuring links showing how the Imperium and its allies had been driven back across Eve's map of space. The MBC was gleeful in its declaration of victory in the months-long struggle it had taken to calling "World War Bee;" it was over and MBC had won.
"Our goal was to dismantle the CFC coalition [a looser collection of groups accounting for more than 40,000 players, including the Imperium]," says Killah Bee, a fleet commander in Pandemic Legion, which is part of the MBC. "We dismantled the coalition—the only thing left is the Imperium, the others have left—and we freed the north [territories]. That's what we set out to do."
However, cast an eye at TheMittani.com, a major Eve fan news site, or even SomethingAwful.com, and a very different narrative emerges. Both sites are supporters of the Imperium—whose ultimate leader runs the former—and by extension the Goonswarm, a coalition of factions the Imperium heads up. To hear them tell it, World War Bee (a name they thoroughly resent) is far from over. In fact, it's just getting started.
"The war's not over at all," says the Mittani himself, Alex Gianturco. "All of [what you're hearing from the MBC], including the victory declaration, is what we predicted they'd do after only a couple of months—so we're right on schedule. They've now commenced infighting in earnest. We, on the other hand, have been very aggressive in dropping Citadels [space stations] and assisting chunks of the MBC against each other. I think our enemies would be unwilling to acknowledge this."
This all sounds strange; conflict isn't supposed to be up for debate in a video game. In most games, you're in no doubt as to whether you're under fire from your opponents. So what gives? Why are two of Eve's biggest factions not only at odds with each other in the game, but in total disagreement as to whether they're even fighting in the first place? The answer lies in Eve's grand narrative and the dogged determination of players to own it.
In Eve, as in the real world, the winners write the history books. Or blog posts, as the case may be.
Spin a yarn
Eve's story is written by its players. While nearly every other story-based game, including almost all other MMOs, has a plot that's based on the vision of its developer, Eve's lore relies not on what its developer CCP wants, but on the actions of its declining, but still sizeable player base. In Eve, legendary characters aren't AI controlled—like, say, the iconic Garrosh Helllscream or Sylvanas Windrunner in World of Warcraft—they're real people.
The reason for this is due to the game's structure. Eve is divided into three main regions: High Security (High-Sec), Low Security (Low-Sec) and No-Security (Null-Sec).
High-Sec is the starting area, where players get to grips with Eve's mechanics in relative safety through one of the worst tutorials ever made in gaming. The rewards for staying there are slender, but if anyone tries to grief a new player in this region, the AI shuts them down. Low-Sec is where players take off their water-wings; it's a little more of a free-for-all, but the game still provides some semblance of protection.
Null-Sec is the heart of Eve, and it's about as forgiving as the post-apocalyptic world presented inMad Max. Here, Darwin's law applies; only those that band together survive, and lone wolves are quickly picked off. Players band together in factions, which in turn team up as coalitions, with the larger ones boasting tens of thousands of members.
It's also in Null-Sec where the plot unfolds. Eve’s myriad coalitions battle one another for territory and resources using assets both in and outside of the game. Yes, gigantic dogfights take place, ambushes are set and triggered, and fleets move to contain chokepoints on the map. But unlike other games, where conflicts are mostly confined to the game itself, the wars in Eve spill out in the real world: players make shady deals over chat channels, secrete sleeper cells within one another's ranks, and grief enemies on social media.
The reason is that the stakes are always high in Eve. Unlike other MMOs—where death usually causes the player to respawn with all of their weapons, skills, and equipment intact—death inEve can see assets that have taken hundreds of hours and piles of in-game money to accrue reduced to ash in the blink of an eye. Damage is permanent: if your ship is blown up in Eve, it's gone for good.
In an effort to control the narrative—particularly when things don't go in their favour—players flood forums, fan sites, and social media with disinformation and propaganda, making it impossible for outsiders to obtain a true picture of the state of play. Hop onto an Eve social media stream and you'll see World War II posters photoshopped to represent the views of either side of the war, lengthy propaganda videos on YouTube, and deep think-pieces. One op-ed the Mittani published during World War Bee even called into question whether IWantISK.com, an online "space casino" where players gamble using in-game cash to win modules, ships, implants, or even ISK payouts, was even legal under meatspace Florida law, the state where the site is based.
"It's not at Gamergate levels," says Gianturco. "You don't have people receiving, say, bomb threats. Death threats have happened inEve, but there's nothing that has ever reached the level of full-on harassment. In general, the community looks at it all as good clean fun. The metagame has always been there. People in the media will always look at platforms like Facebook or Pastebin as a sign of modernisation. Back in the day the outside game interaction was confined to online forums."
"CCP has a zero-tolerance policy for these things happening on their official forums, but it's so hard to police on other forums," says Peter Farrell, aka Elise Randolph, one of the high-ranking members of Pandemic Legion. "The Eve community is robust, and it is very hard to police. CCP has levied severe bans when harassment has taken place on out-of-game forums and the end-user license agreement is broad enough that they can take action on basically anything. Hopefully we'll never have to see them make use of this."
And yet, despite what some players maintain, harassment levels in the game have now escalated far beyond a few crude photoshop jobs. There have been instances where factions have launched DDoS attacks against the comms channels of their enemies just before a major battle, while key players have also been anonymously sent pictures of their homes by opponents as a form of intimidation.
"As far as I'm aware, nobody in Eve has ever released the home address or anything of the sort," says Farrell. "However, outing a player's sexual preference, exposing real-world relationships and professions, and attempting to glean information based on posting on other non-Eve related forums and social media are some of the more prominent doxxing stories."
According to Killah Bee, most of the metagame is instigated by individuals within each faction. It's not something the fleet commanders on each side usually coordinate.
"There are very small groups that do that kind of stuff. It rarely happens and it hasn't happened in World War Bee," he says.
So the poor old ostrich died for nothing
Like all wars—both real and virtual—World War Bee wasn't triggered by a single event. While some have pointed to a failed Kickstarter which the Imperium organised to turn the history of The Fountain War (a major military victory in 2013) into a novel, others have pointed to a feud that the Space Monkey Alliance (SMA), a part of the Goonswarm, had been having with the owners of IWantISK.com as the cause. When the SMA/IWI conflict came to a head, one of the site's owners—who goes by the in-game name of Lenny Kravitz2—started bankrolling mercenary factions in Eve to go after SMA and its allies, and things started snowballing from there.
The injection of in-game cash into what became the MBC caused thousands of players to sign up to the new coalition. Having been battered by the Goonswarm, a long-dominant and not entirely friendly force in the game, for years, lots of players wanted revenge, so it was easy for MBC to recruit. Killah Bee says that the involvement of Pandemic Legion gave the movement a boost. The Imperium's enemies could finally see its throat exposed.
Eve: Online's news network The Scope discusses the fight in World War Bee earlier this year.
"The players in Eve had been hesitating to go all in on the war," he says. "They didn't know if they could do it without Pandemic Legion. As soon as we declared war and they knew this was for real, everybody [with a problem with the Goons] joined us."
Faced with such an onslaught, the Goonswarm responded using Fabian strategy—the practice of avoiding pitched battle in order to frustrate enemies—by ceding territory and retreating without much of a fight. Not only did this have the effect of making the game more boring, which encouraged new players to leave, it allowed the Goonswarm to keep most of its fleet intact. On the downside, it was forced to abandon most of its territory and flee into Low-Sec.
"They are completely abandoning the north and are moving down south with the rest of what's left of their coalition," says Killah Bee. "I never expected that to happen, not this fast, but with that happening, World War Bee is basically over."
Not over 'til it's over
Killah Bee's appraisal of the war isn't one Mittani shares.
"After stating that they [Pandemic Legion] were out to destroy Goonswarm and that Goonswarm would never be allowed to field more than 200 people in a fleet, they left," he says. "They've moved their goalposts."
Gianturco also points to Eve's most recent expansion, Citadel, which allows players to build gigantic space cities, as possibly providing the Imperium and its allies the means to return the territory they've lost without technically retaking it.
"Using citadels allows us to be more independent of the vicissitudes of the Sov System (the in-game method of claiming territory)," he says. "Citadels, when they're used in large numbers, allows us to—kind of how Zerg Creep [in Starcraft] works—build a carpet of these structures expanding outwards that do not show up on the in-game map at all."
"In previous versions of Eve: Online, the Sov System required factions to scout and use recon. In order to contest territory you needed to see where your enemy's assets were," he continues. "The current Sov System doesn't require this, so players have even more of an advantage when you’re defending. Citadels don't play to this. You need to scout them out to see if they're vulnerable. We've been throwing down extremely large numbers of these citadels, which have inherent defences that we've used to vaporise a number of attackers. You won't see us advance until a system is filled with citadels."
Is World War Bee over? The MBC seems to thinks so, but the Mittani is adamant it's not.
"The goal here is the complete obliteration of our enemies," he says. "We're not going to just retake our empire; we're going to take revenge on anyone who participated in this war against us."
A sincere threat or idle propaganda? In Eve, you can never be sure.
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