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

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era