Human Nature and the Geopolitics of Online Worlds

Over the last week, I’ve been absolutely geeking out over massively multiplayer online worlds.

In India, our conception of an online world – and what people can do in them – is generally social media-centric. Social media is a rich experience of its own, but people on social media are generally somewhat limited in terms of what they can actually do on it. These are essentially communication platforms capable of broadcasting/narrowcasting – users can share images, text, video, amplify messages, troll other users, etc etc. Based on the rules that social media platforms set out, users have developed complex optimal strategies and counter-strategies to maximise the utility they get out of this array of possible actions. Since users and platforms are tied to the “real” world, we also see that social media is very often a direct – if unique – reflection of what’s happening in the world around us. There’s plenty that these platforms can teach us about the way humans interact with and within digitally-curated information environments. (Of course this is more applicable to Facebook, Twitter et al. than to, say, imgur, Reddit or deviantart, but that is a story for another day).

But this blog post is about a different sort of online world: one that follows an internal logic of its own, and allows its players far more freedom of action. Think World of Warcraft and Eve Online. Before I begin, a quick clarification: when I say ‘an internal logic of its own’, I mean that the world in question is not connected to the news cycle of the real world – it has its own internal mythology and independent actors with incentives dependent on in-world events rather than real-world events. When I say ‘more freedom of action’, I mean players are not restricted only to communicating. They have agency in multiple dimensions, not only in communication. They can engage in transactions. And, more importantly, they can engage in violence. Or, to put it another way: they can create, but they can also destroy.

As we’ll see, these two factors transform multiplayer online worlds into a gold mine that helps us understand a much more complicated aspect of human nature: namely, what humans choose to do with our ability to create and destroy in a reality bounded by a few physical restrictions, and how histories emerge from snowballing improbabilities, and from the tension between order and disorder, organisation and randomness. That said, welcome to Eve Online.

An Online World With an Economy

Eve Online is a vision of a far future where remnants of humanity have been scattered across the star systems known as New Eden. Players are free to hop into a spaceship and become bounty hunters, miners, salvage operators… Or, should they so desire and be so capable, ruthless interstellar dictators.

Here’s what New Eden looks like (or, to be precise, what it looked like in 2013, it’s VERY different now, and we’ll see why soon). The dark space you see at the centre is for low-level players – it’s called high-sec, high security, because it’s rigorously patrolled by the developers and players can’t attack each other here. They’re also far more limited in terms of what they can actually do. Beyond that, though, where all the coloured blobs are? That’s null-sec. Null security. It’s the wild, wild, west, except for space nerds.

Let’s say you’re a miner. You could perfectly well just muck around New Eden’s asteroid belts and sell ore and metals to NPCs (non-player characters) for peanuts. Or.. you could find a nice safe moon somewhere and build automated metal extractors and refineries. But why stop there? Eve also lets you manufacture, say, armour plating and robots with those metals. Don’t have the semiconductor chips you need to do that? No problem, Eve also has colossal markets with thousands of other players participating. Supply and demand exist, and prices fluctuate. With some wise purchases, you’ll be able to manufacture what you want, and sell it in places where it’ll net you the biggest profit.

Okay, fair enough. So is Eve like a trucking and manufacturing simulator, but in space? Well, no, because in null-sec, where you can make the biggest profits, there are no laws. Players can do whatever they want. So you could be attacked by another team of players who have built/purchased sleek raiding ships, and they’ll kill you, loot your stuff, and you’ll be back to square zero. Life is nasty, brutish and short. The strong eat the week, and Matsya-Nyaya, the Law of the Fishes, prevails. It would seem that if you give players a limited degree of freedom to create and destroy, the free-rider problem ensures that order will not emerge. Why invest time and effort if it can be stripped from you by those more powerful than you?

Eve Online has a solution that would appeal to every political scientist: it allows players to organise. To partner, to get together to defend themselves. To create public goods. As the earliest states rose from the primordial chaos of warring chiefdoms, from the lawless anarchy of New Eden’s tiny warring factions, there can emerge massive corporations which behave like de facto nation-states spanning dozens, sometimes hundreds of star systems. Humans respond to uncertainty and chaos through organisation and planning. The result of these processes, unfolding through interactions between thousands of players over the years, are the coloured blobs you see on the map above. All these corporations are composed of real, live people who fulfil roles that have evolved organically according to the needs of their corporations and their own interests. Some people specialise in manufacturing, for example, working in teams that log into the game in shifts to oversee batches of goods being produced. Some people specialise in moving finished goods to trade emporia or to colossal corporation-owned space stations where they’re assembled into fleets of starships – from clunky freighters to sleek special ops builds to city-sized capital ships. Some players specialise in piloting their ships in one-on-one dogfights to intercept enemy bombing runs. Others specialise in bombing runs. Others are masters of interception. There are captains, lieutenants, colonels, admirals, all with a rank in the corporation. There are managers, accountants, recruiters, spies, counterspies. There are hierarchies. And keep in mind every one of these things – the profitability of corporations, their military tactics, their grand strategy – are built from the ground up by real humans who have figured it out, invested time and effort to create them within the limitations of what the game world permits.

In this screenshot, for example, every single ship – from the tiny ones flitting about at the bottom, to the medium-size ones on the left, to the huge capital ship in the centre, to the immense space station looming in the background – have been built by players using materials built and manufactured through complex value chains into what you see.

Just to give you a sense of how rich Eve’s economic simulation is: its economy has inflation, a consumer price index, and its developers release a monthly economic report detailing the production, imports and exports of every region. And to remind you again – the economy runs based on player actions. If they make smart economic decisions, they prosper. If they don’t, or if they’re just plain unlucky, they fail. Unwise speculation and bubbles emerge in Eve just like on Wall Street (though Eve is yet to fully simulate the madness of derivative trading). It’s just like the real world in the freedom it offers – and the fact that a bunch of space nerds are able to create a world this rich speaks volumes of just what people are capable of should they be given the tools and the incentives to do stuff.

Of course, not everything is idyllic in a universe run by ruthless megacorporations seeking profit, territory and raw materials.

Meet the Warlords

While corporations, like nation-states, deal with the problem of anarchy at a local level, what happens at an intra-corporation level? Sure, they’re willing to trade with each other, but there’s also quite an incentive to attack and seize lucrative swathes of space by force. And so we see the emergence of eerie parallels to real-world geopolitics. The international environment has no single law-enforcing authority with a monopoly on violence, and so, driven by their perceptions of threat and their own internal dynamics, nation-states form alliances, coalitions, go to war, make treaties, squabble, sabotage. The promotion of their national interest – as a realist might put it – is a zero-sum game. That is exactly how Eve’s corporations work. Look at the map above – the orange lines around coloured blobs are coalitions. Of course, they all have rather.. er.. tongue-in-cheek names, such as the turquoise blob on the left named “Test Alliance Please Ignore” and the CFC (Cluster F**k Coalition).

War is a huge part of Eve’s world, as is diplomacy and backstabbing. One can see the entire array of Kautilyan upayas at play – sama (conciliation, using friendship and the promise of advancement to convince players to leave one corporation for another), dana (outright bribery), bheda (sowing dissent within a rival corporation and swooping in on the disorganised, warring shards), and danda (open war). There are brilliant, charismatic players who whip up fellow corporation members into rabid mobs via blogposts. There are players who specialise in attacking opponents with abuse so they are too disgusted to log in and fight them. It’s absolutely brilliant madness.

One of Eve Online’s largest capital ships, positioned over Manhattan for scale. Image by Bryan Ward.

Giving power to free agents has created the richest possible simulation of human history that we’ve seen yet. These are real victories, real betrayals, real tragedies, real loss. This is the sort of richness and complexity that no developer or writer can dream up, because it mirrors the unpredictability, rewards, and costs of real life.

The biggest battle Eve has ever seen, for example, was a result of one player forgetting to send out a routine maintenance payment that allowed their corporation control of a star system. Now not all star systems are equally well-connected to others – there are starlanes which form bottlenecks to other systems, thus creating a sort of strategic landscape. This particular system was being used as a staging ground for the invasion of a rival corporation, and the second they got wind of the fact that a mistake had left the system up for grabs, they began to log in en masse and move in their military forces. The defenders immediately got wind of it and mobilised in response. The whole thing snowballed, and 21 hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses later, the Bloodbath of B-R5B was over. The victorious CFC, now called the Imperium, now dominates New Eden. Just like in the real world, a tiny, unforeseen change to a complex, self-adaptive system led to a drastically new equilibrium emerging. And the entire history of New Eden is full of instances like this – ridiculous coincidences and errors alongside brilliant strategic and organisational choices. What might this teach us about human history – which operates within the vastly more complex systems of weather, orbital cycles, climate, disease, and so on? It’s a pale reflection – but it is a reflection. In a very different but internally coherent world, governed by its own laws of physics, we see an astonishing microcosm of who we are as a species.

And, just like the “unipolar moment” that characterised the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eve’s history is far from over. Will the Imperium and its shadowy leader Alexander Gianturco (or as he’s known in Eve, TheMittani, self-proclaimed Emperor of Space) send their swarms of goons across the expanses of New Eden forever, looting cities and space-stations built by defeated rivals? Or are conspiracies already at play, are the Imperium’s warlords already waiting for the slightest chance to backstab their overlord? Only time, and the timeless laws of human nature will tell.