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Eve Online's bloody history reveals the path to real online power

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Author and journalist Andrew Groen took the stage last night at Cards Against Humanity's Blackbox Theater in Chicago to discuss the opening chapters of his upcoming book, A History Of The Great Empires Of Eve Online. The presentation left the audience rapt, revealing a story worthy of the grandest space operas.

Groen's first book is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign funded in early 2014 at more than $95,000. Early production samples were on hand, revealing a rich leather-wrapped cover around glossy, art-quality pages. But the real treasure came in Groen's retelling of his book's opening chapters, including the Siege of C-J6NT and fall of Eve's first titan-class starship — Steve.

"When factions start to run out of room," Groen explained to the crowd, many of whom had no experience with the massively multiplayer game, "they're going to start to push into the neighboring star system, and once they’ve conquered 100 star systems you might start to see them butt up against another player group’s territory.

"What happens when two groups have conflicting interests inside of a video game? When the resources are finite? They’re going to start going to war against each other. And that’s really what the study of my book actually is really all about; what happens when these groups come into conflict."

Eve is a famously complex game, alternately described as flying a spreadsheet around the universe and as the most exciting boring game in the world. But every so often, the scale of its conflicts bleeds over into the popular gaming consciousness — as it did this past April.

What makes Groen's approach to his work so special is that he largely flies right through the busywork of the game itself, focusing instead on the people behind the action. Inside its attractive covers, Empires of Eve has all the makings of the year's best science fiction novel — or, perhaps several novels, given its scope.

Groen, who interviewed dozens of the Eve community's most famous, and infamous, players says it takes a special kind of person to play the game at a high level.


"It's really fascinating that the game that we talk about with Eve is not the game that you will play if you download Eve Online," Groen said. "You will find yourself in smaller versions of those stories, and you'll have a perfectly good time, but in actuality the top level game — we’re talking about the machinations of empires, and the moving the chips across the board and making these huge decisions and being involved in diplomacy and all that — there's probably only going to be a hundred people in history who have ever actually played this top level.

"I found it historically fascinating because modern-day Goonswarm [one of Eve's largest player-controlled factions] consists of about 40,000 accounts, which translates to about 20,000 actual people. And so if you’re going to be the person who tells 20,000 people what to do? There is a special human characteristic that you can actually watch play out in history.

"There is a special human quality, that kind of charisma and I find it absolutely fascinating."

Groen's hour-long presentation began with a stirring video trailer, detailing how in 2006 a hardy band of 70 Russian pilots brought their empire back from the edge of total annihilation, only to embark on a bloody campaign of revenge at any cost. How, later that same year, the game's entire power balance shifted because one group — whom Groen characterized as bookish, insular engineers — managed to build the game's most powerful starship... which it promptly named Steve.

The secret to Groen's stirring accounts is that he breathes life into the game's characters, ascribing color and motivation to its most obscure factions. The book itself features full-page portraits of key figures in the narrative, further fixing them in both the game's universe and reader's minds.

"The trait that allows you to lead in Eve is not terribly different from what allows you to command the Mongol hordes, or be Alexander the Great."

Throughout his talk, the meta-narrative that surrounds Eve was always present. Groen told of how Steve the titan was built so quickly that the makers of the game, Iceland-based CCP, weren't finished programming it yet and had to stop play to unceremoniously plop it down. He shocked the audience with a tale of how one of CCP's own staff was caught illegally spawning resources into the game, sparking a virtual holy war whose impact can still be felt to this day. The room went silent when Groen related how one of its most famous spies, Vile Rat, was in actuality an attache to the American consulate in Libya, tragically murdered by Islamic forces in the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

But the presentation always turned back to the epic dramas that played out inside the game itself, which recalled the great battles of world history. Within Eve Groen found the echoes of Waterloo, Ypres and even Midway.

"The trait that allows you to lead in Eve," Groen said, "is not terribly different from what allows you to command the Mongol hordes, or be Alexander the Great."

Empires of Eve is accepting pre-orders now, and should ship out to backers soon.

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