Politics from cyberspace: Welcome to the world of Eve

The virtual worlds of video games hold lessons for the real one. We could learn a lot about how to organise our politics by studying the best video games grounded in democracy, writes Simon Parkin.

The arrival of the internet brought with it unprecedented means of human connection, and the most extraordinary of all of these can be found within the worlds of online games. Here, in simulated landscapes, people meet to quest, hunt or simply be together. Known as “massively multiplayer online games”, these virtual worlds live on after a player shuts down the computer and churn away awaiting his or her return. At the height of its popularity, in 2010, one such title, World of Warcraft, had more than 12 million “inhabitants”, whose monthly subscription fees earned its creators more than $5m a day.

Eve Online is a smaller virtual state, home to roughly half a million people, who log on to barter, fight and collaborate with one another daily. What it lacks in population, it makes up for in complexity and texture. This is a science-fiction video game of unprecedented scale and ambition – a cosmos composed of more than 7,500 interconnected star and wormhole systems – that has grown into a huge and fascinating social experiment since its launch in 2003.

As in life, one’s initial experience of Eve is dictated largely by the circumstances of one’s home. Space is divided three ways. “High security” is, contrary to the term’s associations, the ideal place for space cadets. It is heavily policed, so it is here that fresh recruits will find sanctuary from the pirates who roam “low security”, a more perilous patch of cosmos where newcomers’ spaceships are routinely captured and sold. “Zero space”, the third territory, is the galactic Wild West. Anything goes here, among the buckshot nether stars; players may join forces, build empires and fight rival factions to stake their claim to entire solar systems and the precious resources they contain.

High-security dwellers can keep a low profile as they eke out an honest living as a miner or trader, earning money with which to improve their virtual ship or dwelling. The zero-spacers, by contrast, throw themselves into a world of intrigue, engaging in dynamic, player-led plot lines, conspiracies and intergalactic heists. In one notorious incident a few years ago, members of a mercenary group worked for 12 months to infiltrate a powerful in-game corporation, taking on jobs within its structure and in gratiating themselves with its staff. Then, in one orchestrated attack, the group seized the company’s assets, ambushed its female chief executive, blew up her ship and delivered her frozen corpse to the client who had paid for the assassination. Not only was this an act of astounding co-ordination but it had realworld value, too: the virtual assets seized were worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Few other video games allow for the full unpredictability of human interaction in this way. For this reason, Eve’s population is diverse and enthusiastic. However, for its developer, the Icelandic CCP Games, this presents a problem. How do you build the galaxy in a way that keeps everyone happy – from the day-tripping explorer to the moneygrubbing space pirate? Its solution is the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a democratically elected body of players whose job it is to represent the interests of the game’s population to its creators.

Each year scores of would-be player-politicians stand for the CSM. Just 14 of them are elected. Every six months CCP flies the successful candidates to its headquarters in Reykjavik for three days of intensive debate.

During that time the council meets CCP’s inhouse economist, Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, and hears about new features planned for the Eve galaxy. If they want, they can contest these proposals in the interests of their electorate. Minutes of each meeting are kept and made public afterwards, so there is full transparency over whether a councillor is making good on campaign promises.

“Council members can have very different ambitions and concerns, depending on which part of space they hail from,” explains Ned Coker, CCP’s senior PR officer. “You may have someone who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches, who will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.” Likewise, would-be councillors often campaign on specific issues with the promise that, should they be elected, they will promote the interests of those who voted for them.

The run-up to the annual election reflects the way that political parties work in real life. “Candidates come with their own platforms, create propaganda and do a lot of mustering, both in the game and outside it,” Coker says. This year Dave Whitelaw, an oil-rig worker from Thurso on the far north coast of Scotland who makes an Eve online podcast called Crossing Zebras, attempted to interview every candidate in the final ballot for it.

“Candidates fall into three categories,” he says. “There are those who stand on a single issue. Then others who champion a specific play style such as piracy or industry, or who represent a large group of alliances. Finally, there are those who would act purely as a communication membrane between CCP and the players.” As in politics, lesser-known candidates must put more hours into campaigning than more prominent ones.

In May, after months of canvassing, both inside the game and across social media, the line-up of the eighth CSM was announced. It was the fifth time that Robert Woodhead, a 54-year-old from North Carolina in the United States, had been elected. These days Woodhead campaigns on his track record, although that doesn’t preclude doing grassroots leafleting. Last year he harvested thousands of player names from the game’s web forums and sent emails to all, encouraging them to vote when the polls opened.

“I view the elections as good, clean political fun, even a part of the actual game experience,” he says. “You are being elected to be an advocate, not a legislator.” That advocacy, he feels, is remarkably effective. “I have watched the CSM evolve into a very useful tool for influencing the company,” he says. “More and more people at CCP have come to realise that our feedback and advice is tremendously valuable and that we do help shape the game.”

CCP is a business not a nation and, as such, has the final say when it comes to choosing whether or not to act on the CSM’s lobbying. But the council is a microcosm of the game’s populace, in which members hold significant sway. Ignoring their petitions could damage the business.

In 2011 CCP held an emergency meeting with the CSM following in-game riots, which resulted from the developer deciding to take a more aggressive approach to virtual selling. Disgruntled players believed that the introduction of micro-transactions – which allowed players to purchase virtual clothing, accessories and mementos for real money (including a $70 monocle) – was evidence that the game was moving in an unwelcome direction. “The riots happened because CCP prioritised its vision over the needs of customers,” Woodhead explains. “They lost sight of the fundamental reason for Eve’s success – the depth and complexity of the social relationships that it spawns.”

The emergency summit demonstrated CCP’s commitment to listening to the players and showed that the CSM wields power in representing the views of the game’s population. “Some people think the CSM is a PR stunt,” Coker says. “There will always be conspiracy theorists. They think we fly them over here, get them drunk and tell them what to say. But that incident showed the system works. Players not only felt like the CSM was working hard for them – after all, they all put their real jobs and lives on hold for a week – but also they held us to task.”

Even though the CSM is more of a lobbying group than a governing body, it is not immune to corruption. Councillors are privy to forthcoming changes in the game and some members have used this information to their advantage. In 2009 one councillor, Adam Ridgway, bought items worth thousands of dollars to stockpile ahead of a design change to the game that would vastly increase their value. As these virtual items carry significant worth in the real world, CCP closely monitors the actions both of CSM members and of its own staff. It even has an internal affairs department that follows players to ensure they are not using insider information for personal gain. Ridgway stepped down from his position on the CSM following his indiscretion.

More and more sociologists and economists are studying Eve Online, viewing it as a microcosm of the social forces that drive our reality. Its populace, when set against Britain’s increasingly disaffected electorate, is energised and politically engaged. There is a belief that the CSM can have a meaningful effect on the game’s world and that it is therefore important for players to elect the right candidates to represent their interests.

In this virtual world, players can express dissatisfaction with ineffectual council members more easily. “There have been people on council whose inaction has magnified calls for them to be unseated,” says Coker. “And we have the bounty system as a final recourse.” This allows disgruntled players to place a price on a CSM member’s head. “It’s a very effective way to make your political disaffection known,” he says. If ever there are plans to apply lessons learned from studying Eve to the British political system, perhaps we should start with bounties.

Simon Parkin writes on gaming for the Guardian and the New Yorker

The elect: an Eve player and her alter ego. Photograph: Bara Kristindottir/The New York Times/redux/Eyevine.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
Show Hide image

How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

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