The EVE battle logs: Going To War With Goonwaffe

Phil Hartup becomes the first embedded reporter in the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

On Sunday 28 July, the universe of EVE: Online experienced the largest battle it had ever seen. Almost 3,000 ships were destroyed in a clash between the two corporations which dominate the game. But the battle wasn't the beginning of the war; instead, it was the dying embers of a protracted struggle. Phil Hartup has been embedded within CFC for the last month. These are his reports from the front-line of the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen.

Like many men with too much time on their hands in the early part of the twenty-first century I have dabbled in the dark arts of the MMORPG, the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Of course very few of these are actually massive, most relying on small isolated zones with limited numbers of players in called instances. Fewer still involve anything like what anybody who has ever rolled a twenty-sided die in anger would consider role-playing. Some barely qualify as a game, becoming arbitrary time-sinks, boondoggles for the age of the internet, absorbing time and enthusiasm like great soulless sponges. But not EVE: Online. EVE is the real deal.

The best way to think of EVE is as three distinct games, each one based around being the captain of a spaceship and each one defined by the level of in-game security present in the areas in which it is played. In Empire space, which is the most secure, EVE is a game of commerce, of adventure, of hunting pirates, buying spaceships and flying around with your friends, safe in the knowledge that you are probably not going to be killed in an unpredictable and violent fashion. In low security space, known as Lowsec, things are a lot more dangerous for players. Gangs of other players hunt these regions, not necessarily in large numbers, but in this cut and thrust world of do unto others and cheese it with their cargo the game is played at arguably its highest level in terms of player skill and risk. Lastly there are the lawless areas, Nullsec, where alliances of player groups numbering thousands do battle over territory, bragging rights and personal grudges.

EVE: Online is now a little over a decade old with a subscription base that has grown over the years though which has never been exactly high, in contrast to most MMORPGs which start high, drop around 75 per cent after the first month, then quietly go free to play a year later. Even the fact that EVE maintains a subscription model speaks to its somewhat anachronistic nature, although it has begun to allow players to buy in game money, called ISK, with real money via game time tokens. Many players who have dipped into MMORPGs will have given EVE a try at some point over the years though most don’t stick around for too long. It is an old school game, cutting the player loose in a hostile universe with no direction, no planned level path, and most importantly, a user interface that feels like the bastard child of a scientific calculator and a pager.

In fairness to the user interface, it is ugly but it is powerful. Like a mad scientist’s mutant lackey the EVE interface will, once sufficiently tamed, explain everything that is happening around you, allow you to easily fly your ship and smite your enemies, even allow you to browse the internet, run voice communications with other players, send emails within game and spend all your hard earned money on shiny new spaceships. It is a loyal beast, just try not to actually look at it.

I have played EVE off and on since 2004, mostly off, keeping an eye on it but seldom playing. I watched the old alliances rise and fall, I watched the emergence of the Goons, a horde of players out of the Something Awful forums, tearing through the game in cheap ships, showing no respect to anybody and being generally hated for it. I watched them grow over the years. Watched attempts to stamp them out and even went to war with them myself in one of my earlier groups in the game, although saw no combat. Despite all efforts by the old guard and elite they kept going. They grew and grew, tearing down the old order, to an extent replacing it.

My experience with Goons in other games was uniformly negative, though always second hand. Nobody had a good word to say about any of them, and nobody ever seemed to talk to them. I was told they were ill mannered teenagers, the worst Xbox Live ranting kiddie stereotype you could imagine. They were a horde of mouth breathing idiots who only played the game to ruin it for other people, the barbarians at the gate, and the end of gaming civilisation. They were the other, the savages, but damn it all, they seemed to know what they were doing.

With that in mind, when the opportunity to join what is now called Goonwaffe and ride along with them and the rest of the Clusterfuck Coalition (CFC) during their, at the time, impending invasion of The Fountain region of the game appeared, seemed rude not to go.

Joining Goon is a remarkably sophisticated process, because it needs to be. I’ve seen plenty of gaming clans struggle under the weight of administration just to keep a few dozen players, a web forum and a voice comms server ticking over. Goonwaffe has thousands of members so recruitment, training, communications in and out of the game, forum admin, tech support, even security are all major concerns. You can’t just round up thousands of players, point them at the bad guys and type go in local chat, at least not anymore.

Getting squared away on the assorted secure communications programs, the Pidgin server, the forums, this all took place very quickly, the process largely automated, backed up by a brusque yet effective tech support team who consider the capacity to properly set up your various permissions and peripheral software programs as a kind of final entry exam. Considering this is a group that is based on volunteers everything about it was slick, polished and professional. No corners cut here, like the football fans that make it to every away game, braving Russian cold and Italian knives, many EVE players take their game very seriously.

Finally ending up in the recruit forum with a gaggle of other new and equally starry eyed players I felt strange, like I had been thoroughly processed, even absorbed. I have experienced friendlier welcomes to gaming clans, but there’s nothing like the feeling of being passed through automated scrutiny and acknowledged, accepted and issued the appropriate clearances to make you feel officially at home, recognised by the system. My character in game got the mail a few minutes later, the offer to join, one of the few parts of the process that has to be done manually by another player. Like magic, the tags appear on my character. It was official, I was a Goon.

Tomorrow: battle begins.

A fleet attacks. Photograph: CCP

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times