Thoughts on Eve Online (… and WoW and FarmVille … and…)

As I was sit­ting here won­der­ing what I would write (I know… only day two.  It’s not for lack of sub­ject mat­ter, but for too much choice), a fair­ly reg­u­lar and pre­dictable email arrived: an offer to reac­ti­vate my Eve Online account.

For those who don’t know Eve, it’s a online multi­user game so mas­sive that it defines many of the terms that we use for oth­er multi­user games.  Eve throws it’s new recruits (pilots, it calls them) into a cru­el uni­verse were almost any oth­er pilot could be schem­ing to not only kill you, but also steal all your stuff.  Remark­ably most sur­vive and many even thrive.  Strong friend­ships are forged in this bleak envi­ron­ment.

The Uni­verse con­sists of regions.  There are rough­ly 4 “races” (with asso­ci­at­ed pol­i­tics between them) that occu­py 4 regions.  Of that, some is secure (mean­ing if peo­ple kill you and steal your stuff, the police come) and some is inse­cure (mean­ing there is no penal­ty for killing).  The “unit” of space you occu­py is a Solar Sys­tem (with “jump gates” between solar sys­tems).  Solar Sys­tems are fur­ther grouped … but that’s not impor­tant: In each, you are ether some­what safe or not.

You move from Solar Sys­tem to Solar Sys­tem in the game pro­ceed­ing either through PvE (Play­er vs. Eve) quests or PvP (Play­er vs. Play­er) com­bat depend­ing on your choic­es and some­what on the choic­es of oth­ers.  You can be a gath­er­er min­ing min­er­als from rocks; you can per­form chores for select NPCs; you can build in-game things (and sell them) and you can build mas­sive cor­po­ra­tions (col­lec­tions of pilots).  In fact, you can do any­thing in between.  But while play is very open end­ed, at the end of the day you need to (in some way) make mon­ey (Eve’s in-game cur­ren­cy is called ISK) to pay for new big­ger ships and pointier guns (else­wise you’re not pro­gress­ing in the game).

Rough­ly, this is all to say that Eve has all the trap­pings on an MMO (Mas­sive­ly Multi­user Online) Game.  It has areas where PvP (Play­er vs. Play­er) com­bat is allowed and places where it is pun­ished.  It has peo­ple who play the game who are chas­ing either some goal gen­er­at­ed by the game or their own agen­da.  It has a sys­tem that encour­ages the play­ers to behave and form col­lec­tive groups.   It has a sys­tem by which it encour­ages play­ers to keep play­ing.

That last bit is impor­tant.  MMO Games feel very strong­ly that they need to moti­vate play­ers to keep play­ing in many ways that in ret­ro­spect may not be entire­ly fair — or at least should be dis­cussed open­ly such that unwit­ting peo­ple have a chance to make an informed deci­sion.

To bring you all up to speed, after Pavlov’s famous exper­i­ment where a dog could be expect­ed to sali­vate after cer­tain con­di­tion­ing, a man called Skin­ner extend­ed this work with some rather inter­est­ing results… specif­i­cal­ly that the reward sys­tem could be even more effec­tive if it was some­what unpre­dictable and still peri­od­ic.  Basi­cal­ly he’s say­ing that a slot machine (a ran­dom pay­out after a ran­dom num­ber of lever pulls) is more effec­tive at com­pelling a per­son to pull the lever than a machine that gives a set pay­out for every pull of the lever.  In fact, one of the things that can make casi­nos so dan­ger­ous is that the games they offer are care­ful­ly craft­ed to twitch every skin­ner nerve in our brains.

Where am I going with this?  I’ve described Eve Online in broad strokes and I’ve described some­thing that could be poten­tial­ly used for evil gains.  We put them togeth­er, of course.

From a pure RPG stand­point, I tru­ely enjoyed Eve ear­ly on.  You craft your own char­ac­ter, you make your own way.  There is cer­tain­ly plen­ty to dis­cov­er in the enor­mous (almost over­whelm­ing) uni­verse at first.  Like many RPGs, you even­tu­al­ly do some grind to lev­el up, but the lev­els are close togeth­er at first and the new expe­ri­ences are fair­ly engag­ing.  PvP com­bat, in par­tic­u­lar, can be both fright­en­ing and reward­ing.  I built a char­ac­ter focused on stealth and man­u­fac­tur­ing with my com­bat skills focused on my races strengths and a par­tic­u­lar type of stealth ship.  It was fun.

And it was fun… for awhile.  The run­ning gag con­cern­ing Eve is “I have a job; I don’t need anoth­er.” Like many such jokes, it has ground­ing in real­i­ty. To real­ly excel at the game, Eve encour­ages you to either join or run a “cor­po­ra­tion.”  A cor­po­ra­tion is a col­lec­tion of pilots that share some things like space sta­tions… but like cor­po­ra­tions in the real world, run­ning one is real work and belong­ing to one often involves real work, too.  To add insult to injury, cor­po­ra­tions can bond to form alliances — which involves a lev­el of high politic that is sim­ply amaz­ing to the out­sider.

Even if you inves­ti­gate Eve’s oth­er activ­i­ties, they too often sound like “jobs” com­plete with all the drudgery, pol­i­tics and plain old work that a real job would have.  You can be min­ing (or farm­ing rocks), pirat­ing (killing play­ers for fun and prof­it), part of a cor­po­rate mil­i­tary defend­ing a region of space, run­ning car­go or mis­sions… the list is lit­er­al­ly end­less… and to their cred­it CCP tire­less­ly works to add new jobs to the game.

A job, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  Many games use a real occu­pa­tion as the basis for their game­play and sto­ry.  Some of the more obvi­ous like Farm­ing Sim­u­la­tor, Demo­li­tion Com­pa­ny and Euro Truck Sim­u­la­tor try to direct­ly trans­late a job into a game and have seem­ing­ly large fan bases.  Less obvi­ous exam­ples might be Mod­ern War­fare 2 encour­age you to take the some­what hol­ly­wood-ised job of a sol­dier.  Regard­less, these are not gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered games that use Skin­ner as an inspi­ra­tion and are gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as good (if not great games).

Back to “It was fun, for awhile…”  The most shock­ing thing to me, in ret­ro­spect, is that I didn’t stop play­ing when it became unfun.  There­in lies one of the core truths of Skinner’s work on com­pul­sion — that the com­pul­sion lasts well beyond the fun por­tion of the activ­i­ty.  I did take sev­er­al short and one longer “break” from Eve.  At one point I was just busy and at oth­er points I had oth­er inter­ests.  Since you’re pay­ing month­ly for online games, there’s also a sense that you’re wast­ing your mon­ey if you’re not log­ging in.  At cer­tain points I was even not play­ing games that I did find fun to put in enough time to com­pul­sive­ly move my char­ac­ter for­ward.

Before we con­tin­ue, lets be clear on one thing.  I was not addict­ed.  I did not spend too much time online.  I did not neglect oth­er jobs or respon­si­bil­i­ties to play.  I did not expe­ri­ence with­draw­al when I didn’t play.  I did not feel a com­pul­sion to play per se.  It real­ly was like a job.  I enjoyed the com­pan­ion­ship of my online friends and while I was there I eas­i­ly fell into (or was com­pelled) to keep push­ing my char­ac­ter for­ward.  I’ve known friends to be addict­ed to things and I can even imag­ine becom­ing addict­ed to high­ly addic­tive sub­stances like alco­hol (which does some­what run in my fam­i­ly).  As a safe­ty valve, I’m cau­tious with alco­hol — con­sum­ing it only in the pres­ence of oth­ers.  But games are not a chem­i­cal and Skin­ner com­pul­sion is not about addic­tion chem­istry — it’s about unpre­dictable rewards.

Reg­u­lar games (by which I mean non-MMO games, real­ly) may still use Skin­ner to improve the user’s per­cep­tion of the game.  I played through one recent­ly.  But reg­u­lar games end.  No mat­ter your moti­va­tion for play­ing, the busi­ness mod­el involves you pay­ing for a copy of the game which you can play and even­tu­al­ly you will fin­ish.  Some games (like a good book or movie) you may play again — but there is a lim­it to this.  Even non-MMO games that are Online (like CoD, L4D or TF2) have a cycle where the “game” ends.

Now that I’ve described my Eve Online expe­ri­ence, I will say that I’ve been avoid­ing WoW and I don’t think Far­mVille would ever inter­est me, but I can see that they rely strong­ly on Skinner’s work to keep the sub­scribers that they’ve already attract­ed.  Far­mVille stands out for par­tic­u­lar shame as it’s tar­get mar­ket have lit­tle expe­ri­ence with games and it’s “use” of it’s sub­scribers is like­ly to lead to many peo­ple hav­ing very neg­a­tive opin­ions of games in gen­er­al. Far­mVille stands out for an extra heap­ing of shame for the pop psy­chol­o­gy that it uses to goad user’s friends into play­ing.  Evil^3.

Eve Online is not entire­ly dis­hon­est.  There are many things I have enjoyed about the game and even in it’s use of Skin­ner, it would be one of the more mild offend­ers.  There are many inter­est­ing and spec­tac­u­lar things about Eve Online — the sheer scale of the bat­tles in the game, the evolv­ing sto­ry that includes its users and the fan­tas­tic mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism in it’s near­ly pure form.  There is even good research being done into human nature and behav­ior using Eve as a lab­o­ra­to­ry… which speaks to the com­plex­i­ty of world in ways I can­not.

Last­ly, I want to acknowl­edge Extra Cred­its which is a week­ly video col­umn at The Escapist where some of the ideas in today’s entry were dis­cussed in a recent video.  Their dis­cus­sion on Skin­ner par­tial­ly inspired me.  I high­ly rec­om­mend their video col­umn.  For my read­ers (such as they are) fol­low­ing it may pro­vide some fur­ther con­text to my game relat­ed posts as I high­ly respect their opin­ion and their pre­sen­ta­tion.

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One Response to Thoughts on Eve Online (… and WoW and FarmVille … and…)

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