Old Boys NetworkTarek Raimo
Respect for elders is a staple of many societies both historical and contemporary. In some areas – especially in Western Europe and North America – it has recently been somewhat diluted by a worship of youth as the new ideal. Still, even in those countries there are some respected subsections of society which are mostly reserved for people of advanced age: top management, high-level politics, the highest tier of military command, the uppermost level of academia and some niche roles like papacy are considered to be the domain of seniors, and then mostly men.
Still, in the societies most EVE players come from, there are also sectors which are decidedly “ageist” in the other extreme. Sports and stardom in music or acting are mostly a young person’s game, and many personalities of this group will spend a lot of money to maintain the appearance of youth even when they are past their prime. The IT industry is another professional area where youth is of importance. The successful startups who made their first millions before they hit thirty, the young prodigy and the quick-thinking early adaptor are exemplary archetypes of the digital age, and here we find a curious correlation with EVE and its playerbase.
I admit that I am not in possession of any real statistical data, but over the years I have encountered many IT professionals in EVE, and it is a commonplace assertion that the game is attracting that type more than other MMOs. A quick-and-dirty survey on the EVE subreddit seems to confirm the general view that many players work in that sector. The bias towards younger people that the IT sector usually has is however reversed in the game’s playerbase. EVE has a higher average player age than many other online games, and that seems like a reversal of the “ageist” trend generally observed in IT.
“The players CCP is looking for are those that like to master complex systems.”
A good part of this is due to the long-term nature of the game, and as the new marketing director CCP Denebola says in the CSM 10 winter summit minutes:(p49) “one of the biggest groups of people the game is not intended for are players without the tolerance for a complex game” and “The players CCP is looking for are those that like to master complex systems.” Those are both qualities valued in the IT industry, and so it appears natural that people with this inner drive and skillset will find a place in EVE. So where does the dichotomy between a sector that favours youth and a game that has such a matured playerbase come from?.
One part of the answer lay with game mechanics until recently. Before skill extractors were introduced, it could take a player years to acquire the points needed to become proficient in all the skills used in warfare or the higher levels of industry and production. Even a player who would relegate themselves to a few specific roles in the game would still require lengthy training to reach full potential. Today it’s possible to become a master industrialist or supercap pilot with a few clicks, provided one is willing to put down the money, but there is so much more to EVE that favours people with more experience and time spent in the game.
A little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing
It is a truism that EVE is a very complex game, but for many players that already presents a challenge. No matter how powerful your ship is, or how high your skills are, you need to understand how to make use of those things. Imagine giving a player fresh out of trial all the skills necessary to fly an interdiction-nullified, cloaky strategic cruiser and providing them with the most optimised gate-camp dodging Loki. Now tell them to take a tour through a contested nullsec region. The chance is high that they won’t make it, because dodging gatecamps and bubbles is not only a question of skill points, it is also dependent on experience and knowledge of specialised mechanics.
“Those who think they can win on in-game skills and top-tier ships alone usually end up as public laughing stock”
Even the most risk-averse highsec miners or nullsec carrier ratters rely on previous experience for their activities. They know how to check for gankers or watch intel channels, choose mining spots far away from the standard warp-in points and stay aligned to a safespot. There are many tricks of the trade that can only be learned from someone who knows more, or by painstaking research coupled with trial-and-error involving many losses. Those who think they can win on in-game skills and top-tier ships alone usually end up as public laughing stock. In this harsh reality, older players are instrumental in warning the unwitting newbies of common mistakes, and for that they earn the gratitude of the ones they saved. After all, the predators are also often inexperienced or simply not savvy enough to catch someone who can genuinely outsmart them. Except for a few clear no-win scenarios, older players always have the advantage there, but the game’s complex mechanics are not the only thing that they have a better grasp on.
The More You Know
In the ever-shifting sands of EVE Online there are a few constants. It has been known for a long time that systems such as Tama or Amamake are favorites of gatecampers because they lie on tempting shortcuts through lowsec on the route to a major market hub. Other sensitive systems are the gates into nullsec or jump-off points which are otherwise unremarkable systems but are very close in lightyears to an adjacent nullsec region. Knowing the map of New Eden can sometimes be the deciding factor between destruction or victory. Taking the wrong gate could result in getting stuck in a dead end with no way out. Ignorance of the local system connections could mean that an enemy is waiting for you at your next jump because they circled around another way when you thought you had left them behind. Even small details like the warp distances inside of systems can be a deciding factor. A player who knows the “lay of the land” is therefore at an advantage with all other things considered equal. This is not a skill that can be bought or gained by a mechanic, it can only come from experience and many hours of actually flying in the area.
Enemies And Friends
The most complex part of EVE is neither the mechanics nor the intricate starmap, but the social interactions between players. An inexperienced player may see a solo frigate on D-scan and an unaffiliated character in local. A veteran would recognize that as the known cyno alt of a notorious hotdropping gang and their fleet booster, ready to prepare an attack. Within EVE there are many alliances, affinities, pacts and grudges between different parties. They can change over time and are also subject to much subterfuge and obfuscation. Two alliances may usually be opponents, but they might band together against a third party. Attacking one group that appears outnumbered could result in them calling in allies that were unexpectedly on standby. That new recruit you just accepted may seem like a nice guy, but he could be the alt of an opposing player group, a spy or simply a malicious corp thief. Often it is difficult to get hold of all this information, but older players are much more likely to have it than anyone who hasn’t spent many years in this game.
Again, knowledge of the region is also an advantage. Someone unfamiliar with a specific area and its regular residents may see a number of names in local but that does not tell them much beyond their affiliation and employment history at first glance. A savvy local may know that three of them are scouts, regularly on the lookout for potential targets, while another two may be harmless POS fueling alts or miners.
Third Party & Out-Of-Game Tools
Protecting yourself against danger is one thing, but planning, organising and optimising your in-game activities is a different matter entirely. Many new players will hear quite early about EVEMon, EFT, pyfa, EVECentral, Siggy and other publicly available tools, but the true cutting edge lies with established groups who have developed a whole infrastructure of services and information repositories over the years. This is where the IT crowd that is attracted by EVE manifests its full potential and newer players can only play catch-up. Experience will also have taught older players – often the hard way – how to protect their stores of information from infiltrators or even actual “hacking attacks” originating outside of the game. Combine that with all of the above, and a rather well-developed system of operations will be the result. Collections of years of intelligence, combat performance data, production schedules, ship fitting doctrines, financial ledgers and diplomatic records are in the hands of the more longstanding groups existing inside the game. The financial report of a major alliance can rival that of a mid-sized RL company in complexity and depth, and the collected reconnaissance data of an experienced wormhole alliance can be on par with the diving logs of a RL marine research crew. Of all the things I have named, this one remains the most jealously guarded secret of older players. While they will often gladly help newbies with information on how to play, very few will be willing to open up their stores of information beyond the point that facilitates the inclusion of new recruits.
The G Word
“It is widely known that EVE has one of the most skewed gender ratios of all online games.”
In the title and a passing remark during the introduction I was explicitly referring to men, and intentionally so. It is widely known that EVE has one of the most skewed gender ratios of all online games. Interestingly enough, many generalised surveys from different countries find that the distribution between male and female gamers roughly reflects the actual gender distribution. Some surveys even find a majority of female gamers when compared to the base population. There have been many discussions about why EVE online is such an outlier, and I do not want to repeat them here, but I will propose two root causes which have nothing to do with discussions about alleged male gamer misogyny or any assumed disability of women to deal with harsh and unforgiving content.
The first cause I’d identify directly ties in with the attraction EVE has for IT professionals, and the second is based on the genre. Bear with me at this point for a short excursion into the theory of gender socialisation.
At its advent before and around the Second World War, information technology was a domain largely occupied by women. Considered less suitable for combat roles, it was they who worked behind the lines as data processors and analysts despite the fact that the models for their work were still largely developed by men. This changed with the increasing automation and abstraction of computing during the 60s and 70s of the 20th century. With men fully participating in the workforce again, IT became a field of engineering and its educational path favoured boys. That favoritism was not a result of creating conditions alien to girls, but came as a result of a paradigm shift referring back to the accepted social convention that “technical jobs” were not suited for women. As a result, the boys growing up in the 80s had a much higher propensity for IT jobs than the girls of the same age cohort did. Incidentally that is the age bracket most prominently represented in EVE.
As far as the Sci-Fi genre is concerned, the matter is more complex, but allow me to state that it is also much more geared towards boys and men. When it comes to imagination of alternative worlds, male children and adolescents are set onto a path of visionary projection much more often than girls are. Simone de Beauvoir has dedicated many chapters of her 1949 book “The Second Sex” to the different ways how boys and girls – and consecutively men and women – are taught their roles in society. A more modern look at the subject is presented by Cordelia Fine in her book “Delusions of Gender” and Robert W. Connell’s “Masculinities”.
In all of those analyses, the conclusion returns that boys and men are brought up to be forward-thinking in their imagination while girls are taught to be conservative. If anything else fails, think of your own childhood. How many girls did you know who wanted to play space explorer compared to the ones who wanted to “play house”? That may appear as a hyperbolic and anecdotal argument, but sociological research over many generations has shown that it is not.
The bottom line is that the inception age and nature of the game create an affinity for men of a certain age bracket and professional background to flock to it and a lower likelihood for women to do the same. CCP have sought to change that dynamic in cumbersome ways, like with the Incarna Spaceship Barbies, but they face something much more profound than the trends modern market analysis comes up with, and in the last part of this article I will attempt to tie it all together.
Starry Eyed Newbies VS. Bittervets
I will start with another truism: EVE suffers from an aging playerbase. All the advantages I have listed above favour older players over their younger counterparts. For what it’s worth, those old players will not relinquish their power in the game for the sake of newcomers. At the same time, it has become trendy to have a new player wing. Karma Fleet, Pandemic Horde, Northern Army and others advertise with their newbie-friendly attitude.
In the past, Goonswarm, Test Alliance and Brave Newbies have made that a staple of their core recruitment policy, and successfully so. The problem remains, that – essentially – those groups were new players playing an old man’s game.
Brave Newbies started the beginning of their decline when they entered nullsec-sov; a field full of highly advanced and well established old player alliances. Test Alliance rode on the coattails of Goonswarm and ended up heading for disaster when they tried to fully emancipate themselves. Of course they have resurged since then, but in a much more matured and serious way. Even Goonswarm themselves essentially just tried to beat BoB at their own game with – admittedly – very innovative and iconoclastic strategies, but they initially failed when it became time to mature and “become part of the system”. In the end, they did not win in the sense that they changed the paradigm, they eventually just reformed and replaced BoB as the player aristocracy of sov-nullsec.
Since the fall of Brave Newbies a lesson was learned: we shall not play the old man’s game on their terms. The result was a search for “good content for newbies” and it appears that currently Pandemic Horde is doing quite well with this, but that does not change the established way the game is played. Despite all the “dank frags”.
In my opinion, the most innovative approach came from two minor groups: Phoebe Freeport Republic (PFR) and Signal Cartel. Both groups have aimed for a goal that is at the same time aligned with the EVE universe and completely against conventional wisdom.
The former aspired to create a form of “non-sov” by establishing freeported systems which became more easy to create under the new sov-system. I would call them the first group to fully embrace the concepts behind those mechanics instead of bending them to the demands of an old paradigm.
The latter reject initiating any aggressive gameplay while still choosing to live in one of the most unforgiving environments EVE has to offer. Again, an approach going directly against conventional wisdom. PFR are currently struggling, but they have done so since their inception. It is nothing new to them. Signal Cartel seem to do fine, maybe their biggest problem is that they do not allow members the satisfaction of retributive action, but then again that is not everyone’s thing.
How To Change?
At the end, the question remains what can be done for EVE to become more “new player friendly”. As far as the gender divide goes, women are catching up. Educational initiatives and a general tendency for gender mainstreaming creates a generally more inclusive climate for women in gaming and the “IT crowd” base population where many EVE players come from.
However, CCP have a tendency to misinterpret the signs while also complacently leaning back to let players take care of things. They dropped their wiki which was likely to be the first entry point for new players looking for information, because players are supposedly doing a better job already. They look at the newly conceived newbie alliances and think that the playerbase will take care of the recruitment. In both cases they make a major mistake. It is not the job of the playerbase to do this, and CCP should not rely on them. Realistically they can’t. There is no telling when EVE University leaders will burn out, PL enablers become too old or too bitter to still care about getting new players in, or when The Mittani finally gets a real job again and quits EVE.
“It is up to CCP to create a climate in which new players can find new ways of playing.”
It is up to CCP to create a climate in which new players can find new ways of playing. They have done so before. In my two examples above I have implicitly mentioned them: Aegis sov and Thera. Things like that should be the focus of CCP for the future, creating environments which are completely unfamiliar for old and new players alike. Ideally, environments where the advantages I outlined above do not help old players that much.
The promised vision – a future of player-built stargates – might help, but that is only part of the solution. When it comes, this will be something likely to be seized by the old players with all the advantages. However, we need something that changes the game’s incentive structure from the bottom up rather than the top down. Something that will make a new player confident that they can start tomorrow and not find themselves running against a wall of established orders, strategies and tactics everywhere they turn. As controversial as that may sound: something that will leave older players at a disadvantage.