The Real Politics of a Virtual Society

The massive multiplayer online game EVE has its own elected officials, and they’ve created a political structure that is influential offline, too.

Around this time last year I started getting wind of “The Bloodbath of B-R5B.” The epic battle took place in the massive multiplayer online-space-simulator EVE, and according to the game’s developer, resulted in an estimated $300,000 loss of digital property.

Although I had been interested in EVE and its stalwart community prior to reading about what has come to be known as “gaming’s most destructive battle ever,” it wasn’t until I saw game-maker CCP erect a physical monument in Reykjavik for those lost in battle that I got hooked. That was the first time I had seen any physical commemoration of an in-game event by any game company. This type of recognition of the EVE community is not rare for CCP, though, and emphasizing the devotion of their player base is important to the lifeblood of their product. The monument is not the only physical manifestation of the gaming universe that reflects the passion of the EVE community. There is also the Council of Stellar Management, or the CSM. Formally established in 2008, the CSM claims to be is the only example of a game-based deliberate democratic organization meant to represent a virtual society.

Formed by EVE players elected by their peers, the CSM is primarily a platform for individuals to provide direct feedback to CCP developers working on bettering the game. But it’s more parts representative democracy than it is a focus group. Currently the ninth council is comprised of 14 members and frequently conducts conference calls in order to discuss a myriad of topics involving product releases, changes in gameplay, and other matters of like player protest regarding unsatisfactory updates to New Eden (the sandbox-style game world where EVE takes place).

Twice a year, however, CCP hosts a physical summit for CSM members to congregate in order to discuss more granular issues like in-game economics (which are overseen by an economist), ship balancing for warfare, play-styles in different sectors of space, and political dynamics between different player factions (which are called corporations). Feedback given to CCP by CSM members is extensively documented in minutes, reports, and other forms of public press. A quick glance at documents published from these summits show extensive agendas. But it turns out that, like real-world politics, the political structure that runs one of the most complex virtual worlds can be somewhat opaque and not entirely accessible to outsiders.

The EVE Online monument in Reykjavik, Iceland (Burkazoid/Flickr)

I initially contacted members via email and was advised to talk with the CCP employee and CSM coordinator Nataliia Dmytriievska. She invited me to participate in a Skype group chat addressing some of my initial curiosities regarding the council. Many members attended and I followed up afterwards individually over emails and Skype with the council-member Sugar (Sug) Kyle, Sion Kumitomo, Xander Phoena, and Corebexx. (They asked to be identified by the names they use within the EVE universe.)

Dmytriievska informed me that the formation of the CSM came from “many fronts.” She explained: “Among these was the need for transparency, and the will of CCP to include what is regarded as one of the most loyal and dedicated communities in online gaming in the development process.” That need for transparency and inclusiveness in the development of the CSM was in part due to a study that was conducted regarding the political state of New Eden, and the societal development of the community. This white paper, subtitled "A Comparative Analysis of Real Structural Social Evolution with the Virtual Society of EVE Online," enumerates the ways in which the development of a social infrastructure within New Eden mirrors that of “real-life” civilizations. In the analysis, the authors credit the need for the Council of Stellar Management since the political development of the society of EVE has surpassed the point of tribal and stratified structures, reaching a point of complex social hierarchies and government institutions that designate a civilization status. Because of the increasing volume of players and the complexity of these hierarchies, the authors of the study conclude surmise that “EVE’s society must be granted a larger role in exerting influence on the legislative powers of CCP.”

The CCP-commissioned study also outlines the processes needed for creating the legislative authority for the CSM. The paper argues that the complexity of EVE’s social structure has advanced to the point where players need to be active participants in furthering the development of their community. To that end, EVE is an incredibly complex game and is often criticized for having the steepest learning curves of any existing MMO. After new players finish initial tutorials for understanding how to pilot and equip a ship, earn money, fight enemies, and advance skills they are encouraged to immediately join a corporation. These corporations exist within territorial clusters of solar systems within New Eden and are “graded” by the level of security from 1.0 down. In “high security” space (1.0-0.5) an AI-driven policing force protects against pirates and other raiders. As you enter “lower security” and “no security” space, the dangers amplify quickly and aligning yourself with others becomes a valuable asset in protecting your ship and your goods.

Corporations, however, do not operate autonomously from one another, and instead form complex alliances that employ officers and fleet commanders in order to oversee economic, political, and warfare campaigns. How various alliances occupy, expand, and organize various territories of New Eden is the basis of the EVE’s society. Where much of this dynamic plays out in massive wars like B-R5B, other aspects happen through diplomacy that happens away from the battlefield. What the white paper attempts to grapple with is finding a way to harness these dynamics into a consolidated legislative body.

When I spoke with some current CSM members, however, the need for the CSM was not based on the grand philosophical assessments of EVE’s social evolution as proposed by the initial white paper. Instead, some council-members noted that the CSM came out of a necessity to harness activities of the game that fell outside of the boundaries of the computer simulation. Sion described to me the need for effective participants in the CSM to have active roles in what he (and others) called the “metagame” qualities of EVE. He discussed how his experience in space diplomacy between different corporations within his alliance started five years ago, and how this metagame activity has now become a dominant part of how he “plays” EVE. In other words, for many members of the CSM the political participation has become the main way to play the game.

“I used [to] actually play the game: I’d log-in, shoot spaceships, or what have you, but the metagame is an entire creation that exists in parallel to the game world,” he told me. “We have an immense command and control structure [within alliances], it is beyond even what most people can understand.”

What the white paper doesn’t articulate, according to other council-members, is the extent that metagame-play contributes to EVE’s society. As a result, the tasks, duties, and jobs of running a corporation of alliance within the game started to bleed beyond the screen. Those real-world commitments became problematic for CCP to oversee, since many players were conducting back-channel conversations out-of-game with developers in order to gain advantage for their corporations. Some council-members said that in some ways the CSM was more formally established in order to create an oversight committee to prevent metagame activities to infiltrate and influencing developers favoring a particular player group.

The “real-life” activities of EVE community members are a striking example of when a game begins to evolve into another type of simulation. In this instance, the metagame becomes a kind of political simulation that starts to manifest itself more off the screen than it does within the virtual society. For instance, many council-members discussed how they often engage in physical player meetings in order to discuss in-game policy. As a more independent representative, Sug discussed this in some detail: “I spend hours having group and personal discussions. I do monthly open chats on a public communications server run by one of the educational corporations. I do interviews, I have gone to player meetings locally as well as the yearly CCP sponsored gathering in Las Vegas.”

Players gather at the EVE Online Fanfest in 2012. (Tony Syvänen/Flickr)

It was surprising to me, however, that few CSM members I talked with viewed themselves as outright political representatives of this virtual society. Some members attributed the lack of personal political identification with the fact that the voting process for the CSM is based on a block-vote system that can result in somewhat lame-duck representatives. This process is similar to party-line voting in that regardless of who is running, as long as they are representing a certain sector of space or have specific alliance affiliation. In a block-vote system, a candidate only requires a certain number of votes to be elected a member of the CSM. All subsequent votes that would’ve gone to the top candidate automatically trickle down to someone next in line. For instance, if a large alliance in New Eden has already committed to one candidate all votes that go over the necessary amount go to a second or third representative.

Corebexx, who identified as a non-block candidate, commented that because of this voting system, “people that don’t have a block tend to work harder. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to prove that you’re going to be there for all players.” Those that do end up on block-vote bills tend not to be active campaigners, and routinely are criticized for participating in the CSM only for in-game leverage.

However, even with the block-voting system causing difficulties, players habitually distanced themselves from any kind of political identification. When asked about any non-EVE political activities, Sug confessed that she never participated in politics: “Not even a little bit. I have never had the desire. I struggled with the fact that I would become a politician because it seemed a negative thing.” Sug’s disparity between political participation within EVE and outside of the game is not an isolated example. In a group chat moderated by Dmytriievska, other members discussed how their political participation in the CSM was not a reflection of their offline lives. Instead, many members discussed how their participation in the CSM went directly against their limited interest in other forms of representational politics. Xander perhaps summarized it best: “I vote and such… but I wouldn’t say I was any more politically active than the next person.”

Even when CSM members actively participate in metagame activities like conducting space diplomacy meetings over the phone or in person, the overall political assuredness of participating in the CSM doesn’t necessarily transcend beyond the game. The distance that Sug suggested in the negative association of becoming a politician might in fact be a window into the reasoning behind this lack of political identification. However, regardless of that distance, there are some telling similarities between the political manifestations of the CSM and other electoral politics. For instance, Sug told me that in some ways her knowledge of when certain modifications and updates to the game were going to be released spoiled her in-game activities. Knowing, for instance, that in upcoming releases the unfair advantage of a certain kind of ship was going to be corrected couldn’t be shared with those that would suffer the most from this change. She told me over email, “When something is going to change in the game we cannot act upon it. Not to help yourself. Not to help your friends. You are not guessing about the future. You know it. And you can do nothing but try to make sure that future is the best one for the game even if it is not the best one for you.” This process of “knowing it” sours the experience of player engagement, a frightening parallel to a process that occurs when citizens become public officials. Once the curtain is drawn back to reveal another layer of insider-knowledge, some of the enthusiasm and excitement of being involved in a participatory system (whether video game or government) gets disrupted.

The similarities between the CSM and other electoral systems don’t stop at the point of becoming an insider within a political system; they also extend into the ways that a specific demographic creates forms of self-representation. Corebexx discussed how one of his primary accomplishments as a council-member has been “standard-of-living type stuff” for players in his immediate community. For Corebexx, these changes included making sure that his constituents were satisfied with changes made to warping within wormhole space. As a representative of a wormhole-space constituency, he actively pursues getting the attention of developers to problems with this part of gameplay. He sense of responsibility for the players that elected him shows that a deliberate democracy at work, however not all members seem to have this same sense of allegiance to other players. The internal criticism of representatives to the council was felt from many different council-members I talked with, though many cited the non-disclosure agreement preventing them from publicly calling out the failures of fellow CSM members. This limitation highlights one crucial difference between New Eden politics and American politics, in which public discourse about the failure of other politicians is, for better and worse, the rule rather than the exception.

The “known-unknown” of difficulties within the ranks of the CSM presents another parallel to other forms of electoral representation. Where some members of elected bodies feel a sense of great responsibility to their constituents, others are performing a civic duty only for the benefit of further leveraging self-importance. The council-member Sion expressed how participating in the CSM can jockey a player into favorable in-game positions to advance metagame space diplomacy—though such ulterior motives are frowned upon. Although many council-members felt that any influenced gained by sitting on the council was symbolic, some block-candidates have used that power to advance agendas that only benefit certain alliances or corporations. But this should be no surprise to those who follow politics, as the personal gains and goals of an individual routinely outweigh the interests of their electorate. However, one would imagine that establishing a new legislative body for a virtual society, a certain form of built-in flexibility, might prevent this unfortunate mainstay within electoral politics. In this way, the nimbleness of the developing content for gameplay is not equally applied to the development of this democratic process.

As a result, the CSM suffers from the same problems as those found within traditional democracies. Sion described this best when he told me that “the developers of CCP are well-intentioned, but at times they live in what could charitably be called an echo chamber.” The interests of CCP often take precedent over the concerns that players might have about the continued development of the game. The internal debate of what is good for the company and what is good for the players mimics the kind of inside baseball that often permeates much of western democracy. These problems not only affect those already playing, but also affect how potential new players engage with the social and political representation of the EVE community. Some have credited the lack of inclusivity and desire to engage new players as a result of the overall constituency of EVE’s society being overwhelmingly male.

Others have cited a lack of inclusivity due to the steep learning curve of EVE’s gameplay, and the time-demanding commitment required to participate at high levels of immersive play that EVE has become known for. It could be argued that these are not necessarily the concerns of CSM members or the community of existing players. However, during summits, council-members frequently meet with cinematic teams, promotional staff, and other employees working on product development to entice prospective players.

When contemporary video game communities are under the (well-deserved) scrutiny of expressing a certain political message or atmosphere, it would seem even more important for a self-elected body like the CSM to promote democratic discourse between its players. Understandably some of the difficulty of doing this is based in the real-life geographical and cultural differences that divide the player base of EVE. But even so, it would seem apropos for this community and the CSM to overcome some of these burdens in order to create a political discourse unique to emergent virtual societies. In doing so, some of the problems of game development and player experience might become secondary to real-world socio-political issues, but maybe that isn’t the place for EVE and the CSM. To that end, maybe “playing democracy” in the CSM as an aspect of EVE the game is merely just another layer of simulation.