The Most Precious Commodity

It is often said that the most precious commodity in EVE is trust. It can not be bought with any amount of ISK and when it is lost, the effort to regain it can be staggering—potentially impossible in extreme cases. Even ruthless connivers like lead Goonswarm diplomat Sion Kumitomo point out the importance of remaining trustworthy. Still, there are people who play the game in a way that risks the trust they have earned while others do their utmost best to create an image of reliability. To examine this, I’ll briefly discuss the moral framework that underlies the notion of mutual trust and also what motivates people to put that trust on the line.


As a response to one of my recent articles, blogger Luobote Kong wrote about the informal system of mutual help that exists in Chinese society. While this concept—Guanxi—has its cultural particularities, similar systems of mutual aid based on acquaintance and social bonds are present elsewhere in the world. Most—if not all—cultures have ways to express the importance of solidarity and warn about violations of trust. This can range from folksy idioms like “what goes around comes around” or “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” up to deeply ingrained religious beliefs and philosophical rationales. Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism speak of Karma to indicate that all actions—good or bad—will have consequences in the future, even the next incarnation of a soul. In Islam, we find the concept of Ummah which decrees that dealings with the faithful—including to some degree followers of the other two Abrahamic religions—should at all times be ethical, helpful and respectful of one another. Judaism and Christianity have their own version in both the Torah and the Bible, which are often summed up as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All three Semitic religions speak of punishment—divine or otherwise—for violation of these doctrines. Not only religions teach that concept though; it can also be found in rational philosophies. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is certainly the most prominent example, but many socio-cultural theories include it as well, up to modern system theory. In a generalised way, this is called the principle of reciprocity and almost every culture includes it in one form or another since time immemorial. It lies at the basis of religious doctrines, legal systems and social mores even in the most rudimentary human civilisations. The purpose of reciprocity as a teaching is threefold: its first function is to act as guideline for positive and ethical behaviour to ensure a peaceful and prosperous relationship with other community members. Secondly, as a direct consequence it creates a level of trust, at least among those who share the same ethical belief-system. Ultimately, reciprocity also works as a deterrent against deviant behaviour. No matter how it is defined exactly, there is always a punishment or negative consequence for acting against the accepted moral code. Naturally, it follows that EVE has its own forms of reciprocity. A jump freighter or hauler pilot may transport items to or from the market at a discount for those who scout or light cynos for them. People who fly logistics ships may be the first to receive loot after a fight and ship replacement programs often give preferential treatment to players who fly interdictors and tacklers which are instrumental for getting kills but also very likely to be lost in the process. Betrayal of one’s own group is seen as undesirable in the game as without. Goons don’t fuck with Goons, shooting blues (awoxing) is widely frowned upon, and spies regularly become the focus of severe persecution that can on occasion spill over into real-life grudges. Even the more pragmatic individuals or organisations tend to uphold professional ethics to engender trust. Mercenaries do not betray those who have hired them, lest the word spreads and they can’t get further contracts due to being unreliable. Pirates will honour ransoms because if they don’t, their victims stop paying them, and diplomats do not break agreements in an effort to build and maintain their reputation as negotiation partners who can be taken seriously. EVE trailers, articles and blog-posts have emphasised that this game is special because actions have consequences for a player’s career. So why are there still people who break agreements or betray those who trust them? eve_online_30956

The High-Stakes Game

To some, it can be especially thrilling to play games with the trust of others because it is so valuable. This high-stakes game can take many forms, but I will describe the most common here:

The Cocky Sociopath

Despite the appellation, I do not want to state here that these people are actual sociopaths. Some of them might be, but in general they just play one online. This category includes awoxers, griefers, corp thieves and others who use loopholes in the game mechanics and the gullibility of their marks to create a situation in which they can betray their victims to the greatest effect. Some play “the long con”, where they join a corporation and act trustworthy enough for an extended period only to then steal some major assets or work in concert with third parties to destroy them. Others will go for more short-term goals like ransoming a ship or pod only to blow it up anyway or leading players into a trap where they will be ganked.

[T]here’s no reason not to blow up a missioner’s loot pinata after extracting some ransom. There’s zero downside—it’s not like he’s going to warn his carebear friendsAvarice911

Rejecting all moral and pragmatic reasons for adherence to any code of honour, these individuals argue that EVE is just a game and it explicitly allows for players to be the bad guys. At the same time, they do recognise that their victims may genuinely feel personally betrayed by their actions. They laugh in the face of those who take the game and their possessions in it seriously enough to get angry about theft or destruction, but they also measure their own success to some degree by how much anger they can cause. This “tear harvesting” motivates them as much as potential profit.

The tears and real life death threats are just the best, [L]ove the metagame.Immortal Chrono


The Avenger

Most of the time, these are individuals who are already part of a group and did not necessarily plan to betray it, but are driven to do so by anger or disappointment.

I helped do a coup because I felt like either get rid of the head guy or have everything die.ThinningIce

In some rarer instances, Avengers might actually have infiltrated themselves into the ranks with the express purpose of retaliation through deception. In both cases, such players are motivated by feeling mistreated or underappreciated by their targets, and that resentment is strong enough in them to put all previously earned trust on the line. We can see that behavioural pattern most often during the last stages of a failcascade when the problems within a group become ever more pronounced. In that situation, players may want to make a statement by hurting the organisation through theft of assets.

I was threatened with removal several times for my “attitude”—my attitude being that you are not going to act like you’re better than me and treat me like shit on a computer game. – Xuixien the Epic

Those who prepare their revenge in advance usually want to deal a crippling blow to the group they are betraying in retaliation for perceived wrongs. I did that myself many years ago after joining a griefer crew who had broken apart the first corp I had been with through a series of wardecs. When an industrialist we wardecced hired a mercenary corp to fight us, I fed those mercs intel that made their job easier. The griefers eventually gave up and disbanded their corp after a series of internal squabbles resulting from their lack of success.

The Professional

This category includes spies and infiltrators who have been planted, or are paid, by another party to deliver intel about a target and disrupt their operations. Sometimes they are independent operators but commonly they are just alts of the opposing players.

Being a nullsec spy is, I imagine, about helping your side win. There can’t be [a] much stronger motivation.stevedaltonbest

Usually, spies will do their best to blend in, be outwardly helpful, and generally do not put any trust they have earned on the line, they rather exploit it covertly. In some strategically important moments, it may become opportune to “burn a spy” which means that the infiltrator openly betrays their target either by theft, or by leading them into a trap where the opposition can be seen acting on knowledge that only a few people had. Spying is among the most complex schemes that can be enacted in the game because a spy needs to appear reliable and trustworthy to both parties in completely different ways. The mark needs to see a valuable contributor, maybe even a valued leader. The other side, however, needs to be able to rely on spies working for them and not “going native”. There is the potential of spies revealing themselves as Cocky Sociopaths or Avengers by playing both sides, but as far as I know that remains a rare occurrence. jita4-4

The Scammer

Of all the people who play games with trust, these are the least discriminating and usually they are simply driven by the desire for profit. Like fishermen, they just cast their nets or baited hooks and wait for someone to get caught because they wrongly trust the offer of the scammer. On the other hand, there have been instances where con-men focused on specific individuals with very elaborate setups that lure the mark ever deeper into a maze of false promises designed to strip them of everything they have. The now infamous “Bonus Room” scheme is the most prominent example of that.

It was a calculated system to insure the victim had every right to think they would get a massive payout. Once you were in the bonus room, you were effectively trapped by your own greed. – The Big Red 1

Most scammers do not put that much on the line. The dupes of their shenanigans are usually completely unrelated people. The mark just sees some random guy making an offer in local chat or find what appears to be a great deal in the contract search. Only scammers who really take it to elaborate heights and become “star players” of that game risk their reputation to a significant degree. In such rare cases, the backlash can be severe, as the drama around Erotica1 shows. Politics

The Politician

When the fates of large organisations involving hundreds or even thousands of players are on the line, backstabbing reaches a whole new level. During his presentation I linked to earlier, Sion Kumitomo provides an example of what happens if betrayal on this level goes wrong. On the other hand, if a crafty diplomat happens to do it right and their side wins, there is no telling how (in)famous they can become for such a political stratagem. The prospect of putting one’s mark on EVE player history like that can be tempting. The long-term consequences of either success or failure can be extensive, though. Players who are involved in the leadership of large alliances tend to be widely known and since they are metagaming rather than using ships and alts for their purposes, it is them as a person who puts their reputation on the line. A diplomat or leader who turns against a former ally will have to work hard to convince others that they remain trustworthy. The highest art of this game is to enact a betrayal without it appearing as such. Propaganda, revisionism and spin play a big part in this, and some people in the game are frighteningly good at it.

If You Break It—You Own It

As stated, our social mores, ethics, and religions have thoroughly conditioned most of us to reject betrayal and although EVE is just a game, treachery is also widely condemned among players. Certainly, there is a level of celebrity that can be gained by pulling off a major heist or staging a coup, but that tends to be a double-edged sword. I have heard of former Guiding Hand Social Club players being refused corp membership regularly because they were once famously involved in a major heist. Haargoth Agamar was never again entrusted with a leadership role. Many recruiters will reject former Goonswarm affiliates because of the bad reputation that group historically has, and Erotica1 was even banned from the game in the aftermath of the the Bonus Room scam. So how does one deal with burning the bridges built by mutual trust? The easiest way is to stay with a certain community that either approves of treasonous practices or does not care about them. After I returned to the game following an extended hiatus, I openly told all recruiters I talked to that I have a history in spying. The response was usually something along the lines of “if you want to awox us, go ahead—just means more content for us” or “there isn’t really anything worth spying for here anyway.” The fact that I moved all the way across the map and into a completely different player subculture certainly helped with that. On the other hand, an organisation like CODE. or Belligerent Undesirables will probably accept people with open arms if they have a record in ripping off “carebear corps” and playing bait-and-switch with mission runners who fly expensive ships. The main problem with this approach is, that it can only be sustained up to a certain point, and it is necessary to understand where the end of the line is. A series of aggressively conducted treacheries can quickly result in compounding grudges that limit the freedom to choose new careers and partners—or targets for that matter—in the game.

Yes this is a game, but isk, ships, or SP all represent time. Doesn’t matter who you are, time also represents money. You’re still scamming and stealing from people, albeit in a video game, but it’s still taking shit that someone else did. – tri wolfman

Negative reputations spread, and even if people do not take things personally, they will probably be wary just for reasons of convenience. I would assume the director of a wormhole industrial corporation will be less likely to accept someone who shows any signs of having been a corp thief. Not because they necessarily sympathise with the victim or despise the player for their actions, but risking all the effort put into building up and securing an operation like that is just not worth one potential new member, no matter what they bring to the table. My own personal friend who used to be part of a W-Space alliance would not have me for the simple reason that even if she trusted me, in the case of things going wrong I would be the prime suspect and she would not be credible vouching for me either. To face this potential problem, my advice would be a wise choice in targets. It is a good idea to avoid groups that are obsessively defensive and have sufficient clout to really conduct a witch-hunt. Particularly among the larger nullsec alliances, it is better to tread softly because many of the players in this subculture are deeply invested into their online communities. Short-term scams, ganks or similar shenanigans that affect more loosely affiliated groups usually work best because one can easily vanish back into obscurity and just remain the bogeyman-of-the-month for the local mission runners or miners. Then there are targets who genuinely do not care on a personal level and accept that treachery is a part of the game. They will probably acknowledge a thief or traitor with some joking insults and grudging congratulations, but they are unlikely to pursue them and seek revenge. In the end, one could argue that it would be best to just stick to universal ethics and not engage in such objectionable behaviour at all, but that would diminish the appeal of this game. The fact that there are spies, traitors, scammers, and awoxers adds a dimension to EVE which goes beyond just flying around in spaceships and shooting at red crosses, rocks, or each other. To retain that fascinating aspect of the game, someone has to play the bad guys. After all, the moral framework of any community does not only define itself through the ideal and the positive, it also always includes examples of the negative. Thanks to all reddit users who gave me feedback that helped with this piece.
Tags: awoxing, ganking, intelligence, scamming, spying, tarek

About the author

Tarek Raimo

Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.