Living in digital "failed states"

by Michael Brunnbauer, 2018-08-14

For the past years, I have been living in a digital realm that is ridden by lawlessness. When a crime happens - chances are good nobody will give a shit.

In this realm, it is easy to connect with likeminded people but this power is used to build spontaneous mobs that cause grief.

I also see an unhealthy tendency for centralization - partly driven by the danger of living in this realm.

Another thing is the platform operators: They have massive power, are greedy, sometimes corrupt and they don't take their responsibility seriously enough.

I'm talking about EVE Online.

You thought I was talking about the Internet or the Web? Kinda - all of these points also apply there. If you took the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace seriously, you might consider Cyberspace a failed state now. Recently, Tim Berners-Lee had his Oppenheimer moment.

So why do I still like EVE Online while I think that much of the Internet sucks nowadays?

"Because EVE Online is just a game while much of the Internet is not", you might guess.

EVE Online just a game? It's not that easy. But yes, I came to computers and the Internet via games. Maybe it is time to remember the roots. Maybe we should make more of the Internet like a game? Where we have full control of exposure. Where we can choose our attitude towards our digital self - maybe have several?

Let's start from the beginning and introduce EVE Online first:

EVE Online - a [dystopian] vision of our future?

EVE is a space-based, persistent world, massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). All players play on the same virtual server and are able to meet each other, trade, form alliances, claim territory and erect permanent structures. EVE has been around for 15 years and has seen empires rise and fall.

Many behaviours that are considered griefing in most MMOs are allowed in EVE. This includes espionage, stealing, scamming and extortion. Players can be killed everywhere. In the safer areas, the risk of killing another player is getting the own ship killed by robot police - which can still be profitable should the killed ship drop loot more valuable than the own loss.

So here we have the state of [EVE-]nature with humans free to do whatever they like. And what do they do? Mostly killing everybody else for fun or profit - as lonely bandit, as temporarily formed pirate gang or as a territory holding tribe/empire. Yes, resource extraction, building, logistics and trading are an integral part of the game and flying deadly ships would be impossible without them but if you want to get anywhere as a group, you have to erect structures that can be attacked - so they must be defended and player vs. player combat is widely regarded as the most important aspect of the game.

Not that I don't like player vs. player combat. I love it :-) It is often incredible fun - even for the losing side. The interesting thing is the high amount of non-consensual fighting happening. One of the timeless wisdoms of EVE is that "You consent to being killed when undocking". People complaining about losses are told to HTFU ("Harden The Fuck Up"). You get the gist. Maybe we would all live safer if we would consent to having our computer hacked when connecting it to the Internet?

Another thing to note is the amount of surveillance connected with recruitment. Can you imagine handing access to your private mail to a potential employer? Well it's considered best practise in EVE when you apply for membership in a player corporation! The ingame mails can be pulled via an API, enemy spies are everywhere so you better give permanent access to that (and all the other stuff) if you want to be part of some group.

EVE is also a good place to watch self-reinforcement of bad behaviour. I've seen players adopting behaviour considered antisocial by their group after being repeatedly exposed to the negative consequences of that behaviour from wrongdoers inside or outside that group.

But there is hope! While most player groups operate under NBSI (Not Blue Shoot Immediately - where Blue means affiliated to the same group or an ally), some groups use NRDS (Not Red Don't Shoot - where Red means affiliated to a known enemy group). This means neutral players that have not harmed a member of the own group in the past are left alone, can enter the group's territory and use some of the resources found there. One group even commited to bring civilization to certain regions and free them from pirates! Have a look at their battle song (lyrics included).

Are they just roleplaying or do they take this for real? A bit of both. "EVE is real" is a phrase used often by the players - because the consequences of an action in EVE can last for many years. Because the social bonds, the fun and the pain felt when playing are real. But you will also see sworn enemies in the game meet in real life and have fun together - because "It's just a game". I wish we could afford this dialectic for the Internet as a whole.

And what about the gods running that place, those making the rules (or their absence)? Those who have (and use) the power to ban players forever from the game? Well CCP - the company behind EVE - wants to make a profit of course. The longer you stay, the more skill points you have and the reluctance to leave and "waste" your investment grows. Also having (and paying for) several characters makes many things easier. And the impatient can always advance themselves by throwing real money at the game. So CCP does a good job regarding the profit thing - maybe a bit too good. In other areas, there are more substantial doubts: Cases of misconduct by employees and members of the player-elected Council of Stellar Management have been documented.

Some important differences between EVE and the Internet

  1. Anonymity vs. pseudonymity

    The Internet mostly has intravirtual anonymity (changing your IP is too easy) and lacks extravirtual anonymity where desirable (try getting an IP that cannot be traced back to you in China).

    EVE Online on the other hand has no intravirtual anonymity and strong extravirtual anonymity. Whatever you do, you do it with one of your characters and face the consequences with this character - sometimes for many years. Transferring your precious skillpoints from one character to the other comes with prohibitive cost. But your real life identity is mostly regarded as not relevant in the game and usually revealed voluntarily.

    I know there are people working on solutions for digital identities that are detached from real identities. Maybe some day many Internet services will only be accessible with such an identity. The ability to start again with a new identity can provide a kind of airbag protecting against misguided technology.

  2. Law and ethics

    In the Internet, the laws of one or several countries always apply - or are in conflict. Sometimes they are enforced - but mostly to people we would not deem criminal.

    This should be true for EVE also but yet destruction of property, theft, scamming, extortion, espionage and wars happen - often with quite real grief for the victims but never with legal consequences in the real life. All consequences - if any - happen inside EVE.

    As I already mentioned, I am tempted to have this contract tried on the Internet as a whole. It would be a much needed eye-opener for many people. We would get more secure systems and less sensitive stuff connected to the Internet. But there have to be limits and even EVE has them: Extravirtual threats and certain forms of bullying will get you banned. I still like the idea of having maximum freedom of choice - it makes doing the right thing more valuable.

  3. Control

    In EVE, the tools I can use always behave as intended - though it can be difficult for the developers to jugde the consequences of a change to game balance. But an informed player always has full control of his exposure to the hostile environment.

    As for the tools used in the Internet and IT in general, I see a big loss of control. The amount, the complexity and the number of sources the code on a modern system has reached is gigantic - and so are the security bulletins listing discovered security flaws and the press coverage of security incidents.

    But we can build provably secure systems - why don't we even do it for the most basic building blocks like hardware, kernel, system libraries? Intel stopped caring about formal proofs for whole CPUs a long time ago because it's too expensive. It seems the market does not value security.

    Also in many cases we don't need turing completeness and could use tools with decidable behaviour. Yeah they tend to suck - but better safe than sorry.

    Or we can be prepared for the worst and stop connecting sensitive stuff to the Internet. Why do I read about secret government databases being hacked on a regular base? Why does everybody carry an Internet-connected microphone and camera?

    I think we need to go slower, to abstain and to pay way more for security.


The environment mankind lives in is becoming more and more digital. I think EVE is a good place to watch human nature unfold in a digital environment and learn some lessons.

EVE will end some day and so will everything else. It's all castles in the sand - the fun is in building them. With some, we want to take more risks - with others, less. Sometimes, we want to start from scratch.

I think the ability to have well-known, calculated risks in the digital realm is of utmost importance. Right now, we are gambling with stakes that are often unknown to us and way too high. I want an Internet that is less serious and more fun.