I have been thinking a lot lately about security and safety. In our non-fictional world we can’t stop talking about it. We bring our desire for security into our fiction-based games. After all, what is the point of defeating evil necromancers or eldritch space horrors if not to secure the safety of the ordinary good people in that fiction? Today I will be using an example from EVE Online to explain how risk cannot be eliminated while maintaining reward except by atrocity. There is a bit of a preamble, but don’t worry, I will as always ensure that I am writing in plain English rather than EVE-specific jargon (tooltips will be provided).
In our non-fictional world, safety and security are usually spoken of in positive terms. We generally want children to return from schools and employees to return from workplaces without serious or life threatening injuries or exposures. We expect to be able to walk out of our homes and not die by malicious action or careless negligence. Yet it is impossible to truly perfect our safety and security. Everyone who leaves their house consents to a level of acceptable risk. You know you could lose your life simply by walking out your door, but you do it anyway because the chances are low while the rewards are seemingly endless. You don’t proceed to run into opposing traffic because that kicks the level of risk into being unacceptable: being late for work is not worth your life. You feel safe enough, secure enough, that you would not go to bizarre lengths to drive the chances of something going wrong down to absolute zero. Yet that residual chance of a drunk driver defying the traffic safety rules and laws and causing you harm always remains no matter much more enforcement is applied. As a society we work out where to set the limits, and when we do well the risk is practically zero but not absolutely zero with as few restrictions on individual liberty as possible. We can chase that absolute all we want with ever-increasing zeal for draconian rule enforcement, but somehow we never get there. We know that if there is ever to be any reward, there is a non-zero risk.
Risk vs. reward lies at the core of the mechanics of the finite games we play. Our level of acceptable risk can go sky-high when there is no risk to our physical safety and no real money is involved. Where we are risk averse when it comes to the risk of termination of infinite play, we are perfectly happy to play finite games where we rush headlong into danger and get destroyed when we lose. The boundaries of the game provide a safe space for us to indulge the kind of risks that we would never take if the consequences were not contained within the game. We can construct terrible totalitarian regimes where no threat to our Civilization’s hegemony can go unanswered by military force. We can fly spaceships deep behind enemy lines knowing that we could be blown up at any time. We can take four points for twos at risk of losing our bonus on the top half of the Yathzee card. Depending on the game and the player’s style, finite games played for fun involve different risk profiles. Yet wherever our tolerance lands, we know that a game with rewards but no risks is completely broken.
So what happens when a player doesn’t understand this? This week I have a great example coming from New Eden, the fictional universe in which EVE Online takes place. Since the last time I wrote about this game, I took the plunge: got the subscription, joined a corporation, and moved out to null sec. Security here is different. I no longer rely on CONCORD’s omnipotent but reactionary justice. But I still read Miner Bumping with amusement. That is the blog I referred to in this post about emergent gameplay. Many days it’s more of the same: player in a mining ship in high security space gets blown up by a space mafia enforcer, space mafia engages in a little bit of light roleplaying (the blog being the central source for the in-game propaganda), the miner goes berserk and engages in toxic behaviour, the whole thing gets posted to James 315’s blog where the man himself makes entertaining wisecracks and reinforces his mythology. After a while that starts getting a little old, but then every few weeks something interesting and different happens. This last week Miner Bumping introduced us to a player named Starterrorprime (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This miniseries is exactly why I read that blog.
For those who don’t speak EVE jargon, here is a brief synopsis: dude approaches one of the most powerful groups in a very large game and offers to build their ships rather than pay into their racket. They’re like no, we build our own ships, please pay into our racket. He doesn’t want to, so he buggers off to the area of space (null sec) where CODE. doesn’t operate. Wants to sell ships on the open market to a powerful null sec alliance. The same ships they build themselves and give out to their members for free. He complains on the official forums when his plan for pre-ordained profits fails to materialize. Then he comes back to high sec and goes back to forums with his tale of woe and asking people to donate (in-game currency) to his for-profit enterprise. If he is doing this as a scam, that’s the most perfect EVE gameplay I have ever seen. But if he believes his own BS, if he believes that there is actually something wrong with the game when he can’t just roll in and start making profit at the expense of large groups, that’s where he has a really serious problem. The game would have a serious problem if it rewarded players who are looking to get risk-free rewards, but that’s not the case. If he keeps on trying to mine minerals and build ships out of those minerals in high security space, he is going to continue to face player pirates (CODE. and otherwise) and the heartless reality of the open market where much larger and more efficient operations will be able to undercut him. He is not ruining the game because he is unable to completely remove the risk that he will either get blown up or beaten in the ship market.
Now, if he wants safety and security and the opportunity to take progressively bigger risks for progressively better rewards, he can always give it a try in a different null sec alliance. Do what I did: inquire about who is recruiting, find a good bunch of guys to play with, and be there for the group when they call for help to defend fellow alliance mates. Be there for their team mining boosts, be there for the corporation-level small fleet activities. Sure, my killboard will show that I have lost many, many more ships after leaving the safety of high security space. But my ability to build up and participate in something bigger is far more secure than it would be without being a part of a team.
And this is where we finally get to the part about atrocity: assuming it’s not a swindle, what would it take for Starterrorprime to be able to realize his dream of making profit without interference from opposing players? Would CODE. need to be banned holus bolus? Would a single player be able to find a way to take down a decaying Pandemic Legion? To do this without astronomical risk would take a lot of power, but not just any kind of power: it must be accessible to him but not his opponents. It may not be impossible that he is simply that much of an exceptional player that he could eventually find the hidden path to becoming John Galt in space faster than anyone else, but it seems quite unlikely. How does a one-man corporation reliably take on the masses and win every time (on the battlefield or in the marketplace) when the masses are able to change strategy and have been at the game much longer than our new bro? It is easier to imagine this power coming from some kind of exploit which CCP would make a bannable offence as soon as they are made aware of it. In order for him to use an exploit to dominate very large groups of skilled and intelligent players he would need the developers on his side to allow the exploit to continue. This would be, within the boundaries of the game, an atrocity. Now let’s think about things other than video games: if I came up with a risk-free way to win at board and card games, nobody would want to play with me anymore. I would be banned from tournaments. Casinos would kick me out. In order to keep “winning” I would somehow need to force others to play with me, which is in some ways impossible. The “players” would not really be playing the game, they would be maintaining the facade of a game to keep me placated. I would have to keep changing the rules to keep myself on top, always. The more extreme the drive to zero risk / increasing rewards gets, the worse and more bizarre the situation would have to be in order to make it possible. This why guys like Starterrorprime must be allowed to lose. Hopefully they come back better next time with a little bit more humility and a better plan. Things would need to be really crazy for it to be any other way.
So, the next time you see an embittered player pleading for more safety and security, be wary of what they might have in mind. Are they looking to bend rules to create an unfair advantages for themselves? What would it cost everyone else to see that player get their way? Are they looking to cooperate with others towards a common goal, or to exploit the good will of others and climb to power on their backs? If that kind of behaviour is allowed in the game with a risk of failure, great. But if they have the means to eliminate risk entirely and still get the rewards, some kind of atrocity is sure to follow. If it’s in the context of a finite recreational game then maybe it is time to quit and do something else. If it’s someone who wants to eliminate risk to their real-life fortunes it is important that they are denied the means to make it happen.
Next week at this time I will be rather busy. Last year’s modest proposal has lead to next Saturday being my wedding day. I have said before that this blog will always be free; that you won’t ever be pestered to sign on to give me money via Patreon, etc. just for writing posts. That is still true. However, I did reserve the right to use the blog to promote other projects asking for your money. If you appreciate my work and want to contribute, I do have a suggestion. My fiancée and I have requested of our friends and family to not give us physical things as wedding gifts (we already have enough dishware, thanks) but instead to make a donation to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. So if you, wonderful reader, are the sort of person who’d be inclined to support my work right now please take that money and make that donation instead. To do this, please go to the Universal Hospital Foundation donation page and select “Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute” from the “designation” dropdown.
Almost Infinite will continue to publish while I am away, but comment moderation may be very slow. It should be fine if you have posted before, but new commenters may have to wait a while before their posts show up. And if you are wondering why to care about comment moderation when you don’t post any, I encourage you to make a change there. I hope everyone is enjoying Alastair’s series Full Steam Ahead which will return with “Arma II – Operation Arrowhead” on the 22nd.