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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle