The identity one adopts in massively multiplayer games is a ripe target for psychological warfare
Sometimes, Alex Gianturco is a space tyrant. As The Mittani, he is the former spymaster and current CEO of the Goonswarm Federation, one of the largest player alliances in the hypercapitalist space opera Eve Online.
Eve Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing Game (MMO). Every Eve player exists as the commander of a space ship in a single galaxy called New Eden. Players can mine asteroids, hunt NPCs or trade goods to gain money in order to improve their ship, and their character improves over time, as in any other MMO. But while most big MMOs work hard to minimize player suffering, Eve doesn’t. Eve is beloved for the possibility (and fairly regular occurrence) of long cons, multi-year animosities, major betrayals, scams, and ponzi schemes. What attracts Eve’s half-million subscribers is that it is a game of lasting consequences.
In MMOs like World of Warcraft, death is a brief inconvenience. You die, you respawn, you get on with your fun. In Eve, when your ship explodes, it’s gone. The lost assets can represent days of in-game effort. Wars are fought over vast swaths of conquerable space. Losing territory and star bases in a war can represent the destruction of years of collective effort by thousands of people.
Alex Gianturco has been the architect of dozens of these defeats. As the spymaster The Mittani, bent on the destruction of Goonswarm’s enemies, he has had to devote a lot of thought to the following problem: How do you destroy an organization made up of the undying? Though losses in Eve are painful, as long as players keep paying their subscription fees, their characters can never die. And yet, alliances fail.
“Back in the day I was focused entirely on destroying alliances via espionage or military means (since Goonswarm was too weak to win in a traditional engagement) and became somewhat obsessed with the process,” says Gianturco. The answer, he discovered, was fucking with people’s sense of identity.
In 2009, he coined a term that’s now part of Eve’s vernacular, the “failure cascade.” Failure cascades are easy to identify in Eve. A power bloc with hundreds or thousands of members will suddenly see a massive exodus, seemingly overnight. If you’ve been part of a political movement or an art scene in real life, you may have encountered a similar thing. One day there’s a tight-knit group struggling together for some cause or ideal. The next, it’s evaporated.
“A failure cascade is when an alliance or organization larger than several hundred people reaches a social or cultural tipping point, where the membership no longer wishes to be associated with the identity or membership of that organization and it spectacularly fails, flying apart at the seams,” Gianturco says.
An aggressor, he says, can untie the binds of community by putting pressure on the group until individuals stop thinking of themselves as part of the larger collective. Power blocs in Eve are made up of alliances, which are made up of corporations, which are made up of individual people. In a strong alliance, individuals think of themselves as part of the greater whole. As an alliance weakens, individuals experience a shift in identity. They think differently about who they are.
“Pressure and not having any fun in the game makes pilots blame the alliance for their failures — ‘my alliance sucks, but my corp is great’?“ Gianturco says. “Enough people shift identity from ‘I’m a member of Band of Brothers’ [an alliance] to ‘I’m a member of Reikoku’ [a corporation], and it’s just a matter of time before those corps blame one another for the alliance’s failures.”
When it comes to putting pressure on your enemies, not all adversity is created equal, he says. Dramatic wins or losses, though exciting, do little to turn the tide of war. Humans are quite adept as rationalizing these sorts of events. If you lose one big battle, you can tell yourself that the other guys cheated, or that it was server lag.
Instead, Gianturco suggests a campaign of sustained low-level misery. “The trick is to find what the enemy hates the most and feed it to them nonstop. You listen to their discourse and find the core of their identity and then step on it as hard as you can.”
Figuring out what part to step on is the job of Gianturco’s spies. With access to the private communications of his enemies, Gianturco can figure out what parts of the game they hate and then force them to live only that.
Against the alliance Lotka Volterra, which enjoyed toe-to-toe brawls in space, the Goons and their allies baited them into forming up for big fights and then refused to engage, leaving pilots waiting, bored, for hours. Band of Brothers were proud of their elite kill/death ratios, so the Goons sent swarms of cheap frigates to clog up their killboards. The ISS were founded on cooperation across entities, so Goon double agents who had infiltrated the group would deactivate their defenses mid-combat, sowing mistrust and resentment. “A lot of times, just ‘generic sustained pressure’ will do the trick for an alliance with a weak identity,” he says.
With a period of sustained adversity, it becomes harder and harder to rationalize away losses. The psychological defenses that protect individuals flare up and destroy the group. Some players quit Eve entirely, to find a hobby they enjoy. Those who stick around find a different escape route. “A pilot who identifies himself with a helpless alliance in the midst of a cascade experiences helplessness himself, and to get out of it all he has to do is change the way he thinks about himself,” Gianturco wrote in a 2009 blog post about failure cascades. “Rather than being a member of a failing alliance, he thinks of himself as a member of a perfectly effective corporation in an alliance full of failures.”
At the same time, players in other corporations are coming to the same conclusion. Suddenly, and often all at once, corporate CEOs are announcing their departure from the alliance, an end to the boring grind of sovereignty warfare, and a bold new direction for their team. Or as the Eve community derisively calls this phase, “didn’t want that space anyway.”
The boundaries between game and reality are notoriously blurry in Eve. Like any consuming hobby, real friendships are forged between players who fly together and many meet up at player events or at Eve’s Fanfest. Except some of those friendships aren’t entirely real because some of those players are spies.
Most games are about being someone else. Grand Theft Auto lets you mow down pedestrians with impunity. Sim City lets you pretend to be an all-powerful urban planner. Eve lets you play at being a backstabbing asshole. But if the friendships are real, aren’t the betrayals and the suffering?
“For me it gets even weirder when people ask ‘boundary questions’ because I barely ever log into Eve itself; the client bores me,” says Gianturco. “So you have this game where the most well-known player of all never, ever plays the game — it’s all metagame for me. So if I never log into the game, how much is ‘me’ and how much is ‘The Mittani’? In public I try to play up the space-tyrant angle because it makes our enemies less likely to try to hurt my friends in game if they feel they’re going to war against a cruelty-obsessed madman.”
Goonswarm’s rise to power has left in its wake a trail of defeated alliances and scammed pilots. The Goons revel in their status as Eve’s villains. Their propaganda has drawn from fascist and islamist iconography alongside self-deprecating cartoons of clumsy bees. For many of their opponents, it’s all part of the fun. For others, it’s proof that Goons are terrible people.