Reforming the CSMDanikov
CSM season is upon us. Hopefuls cautiously paw at the edges of the arena and the surviving incumbents weigh their ability to run and win a campaign while still doing their duty for the rest of their term. Meanwhile, the grandstands are filled with constituents, the media are sitting at the back with their scopes, taking potshots at those they deem unworthy and whipping the crowd one way or another.
It is a testament to the power of EVE that the politics of the community start to approach those of real life, but like an accelerated microcosm, the politics of EVE are not just limited to the selection of candidates. The flexibility of the system itself leaves it open to reexamination and revision seemingly every cycle. By and large, these changes are effected by standing CSMs, either at the start of their term based on election promises, or over the course of it in response to the shifting team dynamic. For those seeking election, re-election, or to leave a legacy for those that follow them, these changes inevitably are posed as one thing: reform.
Maybe you’re new to the community, or until now you’ve been apathetic to the CSM process. Maybe you are a staff member at CCP for whom the CSM has never seemed relevant to your job, or maybe you’re CCP’s new Chief Customer Officer who has yet to brush up on what kind of madness this “Council of Stellar Management” actually is. For those of you that have the patience, there is a
10 14 page white paper (recently updated), but to quote CCP Leeloo from the first CSM X summit, a common response to that is “oh my fucking god, this is a 16 page document and I don’t understand what the hell everything is about”.
“…that all citizens of EVE are of equal opportunity, and that entering into the world of EVE means entering into a social contract.”
At the core of the document some important things are established: that governance of virtual societies is an endeavour without direct precedent, that all citizens of EVE are of equal opportunity, and that entering into the world of EVE means entering into a social contract. It also establishes CCP’s relationship to the game as limited only to enforcing violations of that social contract, in part outlined by the Terms of Service and End User License Agreement, and only restricting players with “natural laws’, i.e. the technical limitations of the game itself. From this, it establishes three rights of players: freedom from external influences, putting limits on real-world personal behaviour and how it may be used to influence the game; unlimited interaction with other individuals, placing the burden of morality, justice, and consequences for in-game actions firmly on EVE’s society itself; and influence on how society is legislated, which gives rise to the CSM.
The rest of the document concerns itself with the structure and formation of the CSM: 14 individuals elected annually with responsibilities to make themselves available to the society and to CCP for communication to enact what is known as a “deliberative democracy”, in which their sole purpose is to present the collective interests of the society to CCP. In essence, the CSM is a giant funnel, serving to distill and focus the clamour of the wider community into something that is both representative and consumable within the limited timeframes of meetings with CCP employees, for the purpose of influencing the laws of the virtual world.
What the white paper doesn’t cover is an implicit ‘there, but for the grace of CCP’. That isn’t to say that paying customers don’t hold an indirect power in the form of their wallets, but CCP’s existence is entirely dependent on willing customers and the fiscal relationship that exists with them. As academically interesting as it would be to entertain the idea of a virtual world with real rights, a real constitution, genuine legal protections and standing, corporate lawyers naturally baulk at the idea of making the company liable and beholden to its customers any more than necessary. Furthermore, the role that CSM serves is entirely ineffective if either the relationship between the community and the CSM, or the CSM and CCP falters. Those relationships require effort from both sides, but ultimately CCP has the most skin in the game.
“They put a couple provisions in it they never presented to us for comment… since they won’t talk to us in private I’m just going full war mode on this.”
– Thoric Frosthammer
More than that, CCP are the ultimate arbitrators of the CSM. CCP Falcon illustrated that executive power in disqualifying Gevlon Goblin running as a boycott candidate despite anything in the whitepaper prohibiting his intention to be an inactive delegate; it merely would be grounds for removal from the council after one release cycle if successfully elected. The recent white paper updates have caused drama and calls for clarification of a clause that could potentially exclude a number of incumbents from running for reelection. Incumbent Thoric Frosthammer says that “They put a couple provisions in it they never presented to us for comment… since they won’t talk to us in private I’m just going full war mode on this.” CSM X has been plagued with signs of a total breakdown between the council and CCP, which seems to have resulted into CCP fully exercising that executive power. But even when the CSM and CCP work together well, what they do together isn’t always clear.
This lack of transparency is in no small part driven by the non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. NDAs are a niche legal document that can be used to protect ideas and information that is useful to disclose but could be damaging if released publicly at the wrong time. However, NDAs are notorious for being vague and poorly scoped, either creating a situation where a degree of vagueness exists built on fragile trust, or generating red tape as information has to be explicitly and constantly documented as protected or not. The problem of privileged information is especially precarious with the CSM given their role to facilitate communication between the community and CCP; the more the NDA is invoked, the more the CSM is being used as a focus group, the more the CSM members are expected to be subject matter experts and to operate without consulting the electorate. Furthermore, historical violations of the NDA also highlight that the breaches aren’t malicious in nature as much as they are the result of a conflict of interest: CSM members are active and involved members of the community, putting pressure on them to allow undue external influences to benefit their and their allies position within the game. The mere existence of privileged information means that, by default, the general operation of the CSM is private, inhibiting culpability to the electorate and transparency into the process.
The CSM has further flaws. Most players of EVE will have other commitments and potentially full-time jobs that compete for their time and energy. To take on a role with the CSM is a considerable unpaid commitment that is in excess of their current obligations, some of which support that role. On top of that, being elected has no guarantee that the candidate has the requisite skills to perform the role, if they even considered the position as anything more than a vanity title or some vague extension of their political reach. It can also challenge the validity of the CSM’s input, after all, they are not necessarily subject matter experts, no matter how many people they might represent.
“…the CSM is distorted by bloc engagement in the process, driving a vicious cycle of more apathy and more bloc success.”
The problem of representation multiplies when voter apathy results in low turnout, enabling organised blocs to elect one or more candidates with a vested interest in furthering their own concerns over the benefit of others. These candidates are by no means guaranteed to have entirely suspect agendas and, by virtue of their numbers, such blocs do require representation, but many are right to feel that their elections aren’t truly representative of the wider EVE player base and that the CSM is distorted by bloc engagement in the process, driving a vicious cycle of more apathy and more bloc success.
So how does one go about improving the CSM? Sion Kumitomo’s proposal of focus groups is along the right lines but doesn’t really go all the way. CCP should be using focus groups as a matter of course as a company, and those focus groups should be driven by CCP employees without any CSM involvement whatsoever. Focus group members can be covered by NDA and naturally compartmentalise the disclosure of sensitive information. As potential specialists in a focus group’s area of concern, giving up time and expertise, focus group members should be compensated for their time. With that compensation comes a bilateral interest and therefore incentive to adhere to an NDA, but it also puts the evaluation of participation and effectiveness of members squarely on CCP to judge. The time investment of members should not be anywhere near that of that required of CSM members due to the limited scope of a focus group, allowing for participants not to have their reason for being a subject matter expert – time spent with the subject matter – to be excessively curtailed.
This leaves the CSM with the focus group elements cut out entirely, which can then go in one of three directions. The CSM could become a non-NDA organisation and entirely transparent, however, this would push the CSM more towards being an in-game organisation with practically no power or meaning. Elected or not, all the groups of EVE are perfectly capable of engaging in public discourse with each other without a CCP-endorsed selection of representatives. The only thing such a body might do is reduce the noise by setting a barrier to entry that ensures that members are minimally representative of other people, in turn suggesting that such a body should not be as selective as 14 individuals.
The second alternative is to shift the CSM to a more strategic level, something along the lines of an advisory board or a strategic focus group. The same points for the focus groups count here: an advisory board is very much real world entity, made up of named humans who should be compensated for their time and therefore incentivised to keep an NDA, which again places CCP as ultimate arbiters on whether they are contributing.
The other alternative for change would be dissolution of the CSM entirely, which could equally come from CCP giving up on the process entirely for internal reasons or from delegates consistently failing to perform. While some candidates do seem to feel that this is an inevitability or at least a possibility without serious change, CCP has announced that the elections will be going ahead this year. The possibility of continued stagnancy is real: the greatest obstacle to change is the belief that things can’t or won’t change.
Select excerpts from the summer summit discussing the CSM seem to suggest CCP does not seem fully engaged as an organisation with the CSM. Some of the fault is in allowing the CSM to exist too much in a murky grey area between game and not-game. You can’t blame full-time employees for not seeing the value or finding the time to engage with players who opt to make mountains out of molehills over shoe textures nor would you expect or demand such behavior; EVE is ultimately a game and we love to be entertained. However, contributions towards development requires the decorum and professionalism that only a financially-compensated position can insist upon. This is a problem that needs to be fixed from the top: it means money, it means liaising with the CSM being part of the job role, not just a 20% time project, it means all of management buying into the CSM and allocating the time and thought into using the CSM as a professional resource for their benefit.
Furthermore, while CCP is right to do their best to avoid favouritism, they need a stronger investment in the whole process and engaging all players to participate in it. Voter apathy hurts everyone and any individual candidate would not be faulted for only being interested in increasing participation when it acts in their favour. Again, this is a lack of deep CCP engagement, the CSM only existing as an ephemeral out-of-game entity. The grand hopes and dreams of a virtual society, the rights of all the citizens of New Eden, it all falls a little flat when that information can only be discovered by reading a dev blog or stumbling upon the white paper. If players of EVE really have those rights, they should be established as part of joining the community. The CSM itself needs to be more promoted and more integrated as endorsed on the whole by CCP, in and out of the client.
“The CSM itself is responsible for putting in the effort, for making themselves available, for trying to be as truly representative as possible…”
That doesn’t absolve the player community from action either. The CSM is a voice, but not the only voice to be heard. Some developers more than others make the effort to listen to broad feedback and there are always alternative channels of communication. The CSM itself is responsible for putting in the effort, for making themselves available, for trying to be as truly representative as possible and for taking some initiative in offering up to CCP what they are capable of. The biggest blocs in particular would do well to voluntarily ‘play fair’ and only put forward one bloc candidate in the name of making room on the CSM for a more representative council. CCP might have to insist on it if they take to a scorched earth approach in sabotaging the organisation they’re no longer interested in or believe effective to deny it for others.
Ultimately, who we elect to the CSM dictates the usefulness of the CSM. Boycotting and electing joke candidates because we feel the CSM has lost its effectiveness merely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as such candidates drive the organisation in the direction so cynically assumed. Until CCP better engages the CSM, we still have the duty to elect serious candidates and do our part in shaping things for the better in the hope that they eventually can meet us halfway. The only way for the CSM to fail is to give up on it and stop trying to make it work.