There's a lot of truth we can glean about ourselves when we study the way we interact under the guise of role-playing. For many, it is seen as a way to become something else entirely, and therefore the actions of the character you play can't inform the reality of who you are as a person. It's the kind of defense you see talking with anyone in EVE Online who has made a living by actively harming another person, and I'm not convinced it's anything more than a shallow justification.
Because here's the thing, EVE Online is more than just another video game. In many ways, it's a decade-old social experiment about how people will treat one another when the veil of consequence is lifted. In the time that I've been writing about EVE, I've talked to propagandists, market traders, and strategists, and there's one common theme that drives their investment into EVE Online: They can do things in the game that they would never do in the real world.
For a propagandist, that might mean experimenting with emotional manipulation in advertising that could be conceived as unethical in the real world. For market traders, it means exploiting an economy in a way that would certainly land them in jail if done on an actual global market. And for strategists, it means making military decisions knowing that you're not risking actual lives—just the wellbeing of virtual ones.
But that coin has a second side, and it's one that many find much harder to understand. For example, the gankers of CODE built an entire mythos around harassing miners in high-security space. Not only do they destroy miner's ships at every opportunity, but they also engage them directly in conversation afterwards, employing a kind of persistent cruelty that has been enormously successful at getting these miners to lose their cool so that everyone can later laugh at them.
Talking to these gankers, they might tell you that "EVE is just a game" and how they choose to spend their time isn't reflective of who they are in real life. But that's where I disagree.
Let me get one thing straight: I'm not saying that if you're a bad person in EVE Online you're a bad person in real life. Rarely is the kind of truths we can extract from the way games intersect our lives so black and white. But I do think there is a kind of shadow cast on the shape of a person's personality by the character they play in EVE Online. By studying the contours of that shadow, we can begin to understand people by the way they play EVE.
For what it's worth, I'm no psychologist, but I find it curious how the same groups of people within EVE Online tend to crowd around the same justifications for why they do what they do in the game. Are people who spend their time in EVE abusing those who can't or won't defend themselves bad people in real life? Not necessarily. But I'd be willing to wager that the sense of empowerment they get through that transaction is meaningful to them in some way. From the many that I've spoken with, I'm not so convinced that they're quite so detached from the personas they play in EVE as they would have you think. They might say it's just a game, but they get something just as meaningful out of it as anyone.
A few weeks back, I got into a wonderful conversation with someone I know from within EVE about what the political state of New Eden says about its players. He brought up the point that New Eden as a whole tends to be far more focused on destruction rather than construction—that most pilots would rather watch something explode than work together to build something. And that's definitely true.
Even when you look at something like this recent conflict, where one of the greatest alliances in EVE Online folded in on itself in a matter of weeks, you realize that there really isn't much driving people to want to build anything in New Eden. And if they do build something, it's either used to knock down something else or used as bait to blow up others.
I think a lot of people look at that and draw the conclusion that EVE Online is a game full of violent sociopaths who just want to see the world burn, but I find that conclusion really disappointing. I think the truth is that EVE Online gives many of its players a meaningful outlet for expressions that they are unable to make in the real world. Some might equate that to being a giant garbage bin where everyone dumps all the negative impulses that come along with being human, but I'd argue it's exactly what makes EVE Online kind of beautiful. A look into a world where anonymity is a right and consequences are often fleeting.
This is a game where I can explore the parts of myself that I might never be able to really explore in a normal social setting. I might not like gankers, but that's because I've spent time with CODE ganking. I've experienced the guilt of having potentially ruined someone's evening in a game that they pay money to play, and you can call me feeble but it really turned me off. But that's exactly why it's so important that EVE Online allowed me to experience that in the first place. And someone shouldn't be judged just because that's where they spend their time.
But what I think a lot of us as EVE players could do so much better is to drop the pretenses that surround these experiences—to stop pretending like we aren't responsible for how we behave in the game. Just because the world of EVE Online might be fictional doesn't mean that we can't inflict real pain and suffering on another human being through it. It's fine if you want to spend your time harassing miners or scamming people, but you gain nothing by hiding behind flimsy arguments to validate why you do it.
Likewise, we also need to be more careful at judging those who partake in these kinds of activities. It's easy to demonize, but it's much more useful to understand. The truth is, you aren't who you play in EVE Online, but who you play is a part of who you are. And yes, that distinction matters.