Meeting someone in person that you've only ever talked to online is a surreal experience. When we talk to people on the internet, they tend to exist in this space where we ascribe them certain features and characteristics that aren't really based on anything. We hear a voice, maybe see a few photos, and our brains fill in a billion blanks so that the voice we hear isn't just some detached sound filtered through thousands of miles of cables. We compensate for what we don't know about them.
Going to EVE Vegas 2015, there were a lot of blanks I had filled in for a lot of people. I've spent the last six months interviewing various players from all over the galaxy of New Eden. But outside of the game, I had no idea of who these people really were. In some ways, I didn't even think of them as people, just characters in space whose actions had sent ripples through EVE Online. As I stood in an elevator, on my way to shake the first real hand of someone I know from EVE, I was nervous. Scattered throughout the hotel rooms around me were 800 people who had come to Vegas to, like me, learn more about the game and meet the people behind the pilots. But what would those people be like?
For as long as I have been playing at EVE Online, I have been trying (and failing) to describe it. Failing to translate that imperceptible tug that pulls me back to the game month to month, that dizzy sensation of comprehending a galaxy full of people—just like you or me—who contribute to this eccentric culture that exists on the hard drives and cables between our computers. For a long time, I described EVE in the context of a video game, but that only highlighted what a crappy game EVE Online can be. Later, I described EVE in the context of its sandbox nature, and how the people who play it can impact each other through their actions. But I was glimpsing only a half truth.
In 2013, Sion Kumitomo, Chief of Staff for the Goonswarm Federation, gave a presentation at EVE Down Under, an EVE Online gathering in Australia. And there, Sion put to words what I had failed to do for so long. He said, "EVE is about relationships." It was the kind of revelation that, try as I might, I could not discover myself. True to the nature of EVE Online, I had to receive that idea through someone else.
But last weekend, at EVE Vegas, I still wouldn't have been able to put that into words quite as easily and simply as Sion did. After the weekend was over, I could sense the truth, but it hadn't really internalized or understood it. But I do now.
When I used hear a lot of the dissenting opinions regarding EVE, when I read comments from people who fail to grasp what EVE Online is, I used to feel baffled. How can I enjoy a game while others see it as obtuse and boring? How can I enjoy the players when others degrade them as sociopathic? While I'm not saying that any of those labels are inherently wrong or right, what I learned is that, at its core, EVE Online is a game about relationships—real relationships in all their broken, hurtful, vulnerable glory. And the people who excel in EVE are the ones who don't just scratch at the surface of the game like so many, they are the ones who immerse themselves in those relationships. And after my weekend in Vegas, I am convinced that the true heart of EVE doesn't exist within the aging confines of the game itself, it exists between the relationships of everyone willing to embrace the culture of EVE and contribute to it. In doing so, they elevate EVE Online into an experience not bound by the space it takes up on your computer.
Most role-playing games, and by extension MMORPGs, try to put you in someone else's shoes.. But even though EVE Online might ask you to create an avatar, I'm fully convinced that who you are in the game is who you are in real life. Try as you might to twist and distort that mirror, there is always a truth to the reflection. And I saw that come to life this weekend, when I shook hands with notable EVE players and neither of us wore the masks of our in-game personas.
I have tremendous respect for those in EVE Online who have attached their real-life selves to who they play in the game. While most who play the game will never do so, and will always play with the safety net of anonymity, those who take off their masks and play the game as people rather than characters are embracing a level of consequence that isn't available in any other game. If they screw up, make a mistake, upset the wrong people, or say the wrong thing, there isn't the freedom of deleting that character and starting again. Sure, you could try, but you would never be able to play at the same level that you had before. Someone would recognize your voice, your face, or the way you write.
Despite that consequence, many of the people I had met this weekend had done just that; they gamble their reputation, using it as a currency to play the game at a level that most people will never understand. And why do they do it? Because the relationships, the friendships, and the rivalries are what matters. Because, whether you understand it or not, whether you choose to participate or not, EVE Online is startlingly—oddly—real.
On the second night in Vegas I was standing at the casino bar with one of the new friends I had made, Tim. As Tim and I talked, someone came up to us and introduced himself and asked if we played EVE. Both being tipsy and social, we eagerly invited him to join our conversation. We asked him who he flew with in the game (he declined to say, mentioning that they weren't a big group), and then he asked us. When he both answered Karmafleet, he nodded and we continued talking for a few moments before something in his brain clicked and he realized that—what a minute—Karmafleet is with Goonswarm!
I will never forget the way his expression suddenly changed as he asked us, "Are you guys goons?" When we both nodded, he looked visibly uncomfortable. Here we were, 800 people who had gathered over our love of a video game, to talk and to meet, and this guy was suddenly unsettled because he just shook hands with the supposed "villains" of EVE Online.
At first I thought his reaction was so odd—childish even. But later that night I realized that it was merely a symptom of what a strange game EVE Online can be. A game where two people can meet and one of them could immediately make assumptions about them based solely on the group they play with.
EVE Online isn't for everyone. Even reading this you might think that everything I've said sounds ridiculous. You're probably right. But I can't say I really care either way. EVE Online might be deeply flawed, it might seem overly hostile, and it might seem like way too much time. But it's also the only game I've played that the deeper I dive into it the more I am fascinated by it. Last weekend my job was to relate back to you the changes happening to EVE Online in the near future, but the far bigger struggle EVE Online faces is figuring out how to get people involved in a community unlike anything else in the world. EVE Online might seem dark and cold, but all I can say is jump in; the space is great.