This Is For Your ProtectionTarek Raimo
Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin FranklinAnother interesting episode of the ongoing EVE Online soap-opera played out last week and spilled over to different community sites. In the unlikely event that you completely missed it, this is what happened in a nutshell: A long standing member and Titan pilot of Space Monkey’s Alliance (SMA) made a mistake during a fight between the ClusterFuck Coalition (CFC) and Black Legion (BL). That blunder supposedly marked him as a spy, and so he got lured into a trap by his allies where his Titan was destroyed, execution style. The player felt betrayed by his in-game friends and allies and initially decided to quit the game. Days later, the leadership of the CFC admitted that their verdict was a mistake and they invited the SMA pilot to come back, get his Titan reimbursed and his privileges fully reinstated. This series of events lead to a lot of discussion of course. Clearly, BL had a field day making fun of CFC leadership for being overly paranoid and destroying one of their own Titans as a consequence. Before the official apology was released, the initial CFC reaction was very defensive and full of conjectural evidence that the pilot in question truly was a spy. Many people pointed at the CFC, or Goonswarm in particular, to accuse them of paranoia, fear mongering and stalinist levels of prosecution. One of the most damning accusations levelled against them was that they collect data about their members through out-of-game services and in some cases even use that mechanism to gather personal information about the player rather than resorting to in-game surveillance alone. That modus operandi is not limited to the CFC or Goonswarm however. Several EVE organisations of the past and present have made use of their internal forums, killboards and other services to not only maintain surveillance on the activities of their members in the game but also to do analysis based on player’s IP addresses and other connection data. There was a lot of back and forth arguing whether this is morally wrong – some people even cried for bans of alliance leaders who endorse such activities – but this is not the discussion I want to continue here. Rather than that, I want to take a look at the mindset that leads to such methods being applied in the first place. Where does it come from and what does it mean for the social relations within a player organisation?
No Less Than Twelve SpiesAt the basis of all that surveillance – whether in-game or out-of-game – lies the fear of spies and traitors. Ever since the legendary betrayal of Band Of Brothers by Haargoth Agamar, the spectre of high level spies potentially destroying whole alliances was conjured up as the ultimate threat scenario. Such large-scale events are very rare, but there is a constant stream of small betrayals, thefts, awoxes and intelligence leaks happening throughout the game. Espionage and betrayal are real and do have the potential to cause problems for alliances and corporations. It pays off to be wary about who to trust and who to give positions of power in an organisation. Among the most cautious are the wormhole settlers. They tend to run comparatively small operations with limited assets that can easily be accessed by most members because the POSes and ship maintenance arrays they use as base of operations offer little security. Even a player without extensive privileges can commit acts of theft or disruption that are potentially crippling for the organisation. Consequently wormhole settler groups tend to be very thorough with background checks and interview candidates extensively before allowing them to join. Once players have joined, however, surveillance and secrecy tend to be rather low in intensity. Since wormhole corporations very much rely on their members to become a tightly bonded small group, internal distrust is actually counterproductive. Similar dynamics exist in small PVP oriented groups in lowsec and NPC nullsec. Major nullsec alliances are the second group in the game that makes extensive use of screening and background checking but many go farther than that and put surveillance measures in place to constantly monitor the activities of their members. Their cited practical reasons for doing so are strategic. Large organisations rely heavily on logistics and administration to keep their space empires supplied and held together. Furthermore, they risk immensely expensive assets in warfare, and it can be disastrous if their deployment plans and battle orders fall into enemy hands. A spy disrupting such a complex structure can cause problems which potentially result in knock-on effects spreading throughout the organisation, but operational security is not the only reason for nullsec blocs to keep a watchful eye on their members.
Threats To CohesionThe strong bond which holds small groups together does not exist to the same extent in major coalitions with hundreds or even thousands of members. Internally there may be tightly bonded cliques – like the Goons’ Special Interest Groups – but for the collective as a whole that is virtually impossible to achieve. To prevent all the small groups from seceding, an alliance or coalition needs to create a collective identity to which the members commit. In doing so, they immediately create a conundrum for themselves: how to be sure that individual members are in fact “good citizens”? The positive approach would be to create an identity which players will gladly and willingly get behind. Brave Newbies – for example – have managed, with some exceptions, to keep a very positive enthusiasm alive even when they grew quickly and eventually moved to nullsec. Most notably they simply do not care about the spy threat at all. There are, however, also paradigms at the foundation of large player organisations which are less positive in outlook and use fear to ensure that members are faithful to the organisation. A very simple and effective way to inspire loyalty is to use an external threat as central focus for the narrative. One of the most frightening ideas for every player is that their in-game allies may be plotting to betray them, thus the spy menace is kept alive in the minds of the members and at the same time becomes the cited reason for monitoring them. Real-world governments of today act no differently in the way how they leverage the threat of terrorism and violent crime to create ever more extensive surveillance systems. For the purpose of pure security, in-game intelligence would be sufficient, but to collect further information about the players rather than just the in-game characters does not simply serve the purpose of security. By doing so, an organisation can also create a credible threat of punishment for transgression. In the case of the destroyed SMA Titan, that punishment stayed in-game even if the case against the player was partially based on knowledge about him as a person, but this is not always the case. Spies and other opponents will sometimes be harassed out-of-game and that can be a seriously disturbing experience. Collecting information about players implicitly carries the threat of such harassment if they should dare to betray the organisation they are with.
Serious BusinessEven in our real-world societies, surveillance and security measures are not accepted without criticism. The Benjamin Franklin quote I prefaced this article with shows that condemnation of overbearing and meddlesome governments is not a new thing. Contrary to the game environment, violent crime and terrorism in real-life do cause deaths and damage to society’s infrastructure, so if people are wary of real-world governments treating every citizen as a potential suspect, that wariness should apply even more to in-game organisations. To create elaborate systems of intelligence gathering and monitoring around a game, which should be an entertaining diversion, does not indicate a healthy mindset. After all, what can really be lost? Expensive ships? Sovereignty? In-game money? Becoming the victim of a spy or a corp-thief can be an annoying or even humiliating setback, but one should be able to move on from there. A certain level of prevention is not a bad thing; the in-game threat is real after all and protecting your organisation from it is as normal as putting at least some tank on a mining ship or hauler to protect it against suicide gankers. To track players and even subject them to harassment in real-life is excessive though.
Ironically, the secrecy and meddling that are part and parcel of such oppressive organisational paradigms have the potential to cause quite a bit of drama. In the discussion about the latest incident, many have asked the question how CFC pilots can still trust their leaders if those people decide to punish them excessively based on little evidence. An actual spy embedded with the organisation would be happy to encourage such seeds of doubt and nurture feelings of dissent because internal drama can be the greatest threat an alliance may face. More often than being destroyed militarily – with the help of spies or not – organisations fall apart because of dissatisfaction spreading among the members. The kneejerk reaction of alliance leadership would often be to spread even more fear and internal propaganda, but that only exacerbates the problem. Organisations which become increasingly oppressive and paranoid are already in a less than healthy state. To even feel the need for far-reaching surveillance shows that people are afraid of in-game consequences to a degree which is disproportional to the actual threat. It is just a game after all.