Why Men Fight: Part 1

 

Morale is an inherently nebulous force. In real life, it is the thing that can shatter armies long before they’ve become unfit to fight. It’s the reason armies would bluster and form notorious reputations around themselves, striking fear into the heart of anyone who came against them. It’s also the reason that some of the greatest powers of the world, the Romans, the British, the Macedonians, and Americans did and still do pride themselves as unshakable in the line of duty.

And yet so very rarely is it thought about when you think video games. Sure, many war games, for the reasons listed above, have a morale mechanic – from your Total Wars to your much more granular War in the Easts, you can find plenty of games that claim to model morale, specifically in the context of a battlefield. But how do you do that in a player-run game?

“A Single Death is a Tragedy; A Million Deaths a Statistic”

To discover that, one must first explore how morale is used when it is a gameplay mechanic, before exploring how to use it when it isn’t.

Let’s look at Total War as our example. In Total War, morale is a defined statistic, much like shields and armor are in Eve. It’s a number, a health bar in essence that shows how valiant and strong-willed your troops are, and how likely they are to abandon the field when the going gets rough. It is a number, a stat like so many others. And yet unlike the very simplistic effects of health versus attack or armor versus penetration, morale, even in a rather base and very mathematical interpretation like Total War’s is still more complicated than pike beats horse or arrow beats peasant. What affects morale in Total War? Commander ability, the presence of active troops around them, safety in numbers, a lack of dead, a sense of coming victory and accomplishment – all of these are positive reinforcements for morale in Total War amongst others. And on the negative? Massive loss of troops, isolationism, being surrounded, particular weapons and tactics specifically targeting morale like flaming arrows or enemy commander abilities. Sound familiar?

The better the FC, the better the morale of the troops he is leading.

It should, as a lot of the same things affect morale in Eve. FC ability is the obvious place to start. The better the FC, the better the morale of the troops he is leading. Safety in numbers, the lack of destroyed war materials, the presence of big fleets and the sense of accomplishment and purpose are what have driven some of the greatest victories in Eve, and have lead to some of the most stunning comebacks in the game’s history as well.

And on the negative? Propaganda, superior enemy firepower and leadership, the lack of organization to put forth adequate numbers, the lack of purpose, bad leadership and tactics that specifically targets morale, even if it means less overall damage. The weapons, both pro and con are much the same.

So how is it that morale can be a thing in Eve? How is it that the same tactics and strategies work on a Total War battlefield that do in an Eve battlefield? Eve doesn’t have a morale bar, it doesn’t have a morale system at all. There is nothing about the mental state of the captain involved in Eve’s mechanics for the obvious reason that said captain is you or I. And yet, anyone who looks back at Eve’s history can see that morale definitely plays a role, one that many would and have argued is even more important than the cold reality of numbers and victories. Why is that?

In short, because war in Eve is not fun. Roger Ebert, in his thoughts on the animated movie “Grave of the Fireflies” made a point that has stuck with me. He claimed that, if for no other reason, “Grave of the Fireflies” might be the most effective anti-war movie ever produced, because it never excites the viewer. Unlike any other war movie, it never goes out of its way to glorify what is happening, even from the side of bravery or valor in the face of desperation and hopelessness. It is simply a tragedy, from beginning to end.

PVP is an aspect of war, but so is the industry of Eve

I bring this up knowing that there are plenty of people like me that get a huge kick out of, and perhaps even have stayed around in Eve due exclusively to the PVP. But I’m not really talking about PVP at the moment, I’m talking specifically about war. PVP is an aspect of war, but so is the industry of Eve, so is the relationship between powers, the politics and the diplomacy of Eve. In Eve, war is everything. And yet at the end of the day, war isn’t “fun” in the same way that playing Total War to many people is fun. It is a lot of patience, it is a lot of missed opportunities, of sweat and, yes, tears. And in the same way that “Grave of the Fireflies” is a radically different film for its portrayal of war as not glamorous but vicious, Eve is a radically different game for shedding the idea of war as purely entertainment. After all, in almost any other game you play, war is a source of fun through conflict. It is a puzzle to be solved.

Again, if you take Total War, it is a question of how two hundred peasants will stand against an army twice their size without breaking. It is a question about how you will sack their capital without losing so many men you won’t be able to defend it. War is a puzzle, war can be “solved,” and any lasting effects of war are modeled in the same way as morale, as stats to be manipulated for the furthering of the puzzle.

In Eve? You have grudges, you have everything from border skirmishes, to misunderstandings that cause open fistfights across regions of space, to yes, ironically, Total War. This time it is in the classic sense of the word, as a war that drags in every member of a society in some way, from commoner to clerk, from foot soldier to commander-in-chief. Eve’s wars therefore do not so much resemble the wars of video game, but the wars of reality.

In battle it is the cowards who run the most risk…

… Bravery is a rampart of defense.” This quote is from Sallust, a Roman historian and politician of his time, and yet another example of Rome’s pride and focus on morale as a stalwart defense of the Roman mythos. It is also a good mantra to live by in the harsh world of nullsec.

And it is because of that and other similarities that I even bring up the relationship between morale in Eve and morale in real wars. It’s been a long standing tradition among people in Eve to take propaganda posters from the likes of WW1 and 2 and change them to their purposes, and in another part of this series I will discuss this in depth and the other ways people affect the morale of themselves and their enemies. However the relationship between the realities of war and the aspects of player morale in Eve go much deeper than the war of words and posters.

Let’s take one of the most famous examples of a last stand in Eve’s history, Red Alliance at C-J6MT. For those who don’t know, the defense of C-J6MT saw an overwhelmed Russian force stand their ground against overwhelming numbers and not only win but force their enemies to back off. A lot has been said about the battle; it has given the Russians a certain mystique almost among the players of Eve as this brutally invested group of players that can pull off the impossible and are respectable for their tenacity, even when they are otherwise loathed.

Now any last stand brings to mind the battles of Thermopylae, Wake Island, or the Alamo; great stands of brave men against an impossible force. However there is something else a lot of these events do, and the Russians were no exception. C-J6MT did more than show off their heroics, it gave Red Alliance something unique at that point, due to the age and nature of the game; it gave them a mythos.

The reason modern society remembers Thermopylae is that it saved western civilization

As last stands go, Thermopylae is overly cited, but in this case it serves an important point to bounce off of. The reason modern society remembers Thermopylae is that it saved western civilization. Greece as we know it, and thus the West as we know it, can be shown to exist squarely on the back of those famous defenders of the pass. It is a part of who we are, our western mythos.

In much the same way, when Eve pilots talk about the Russians, what do they mention? Sure they talk funny, they all drink vodka and are all probably criminals but whatever you do don’t go into a war with them without a plan. And why is that? One of the major reasons was that defense of C-J6MT. Seventy men standing between the annihilation not only of that particular Russian alliance, but at the time the entire ideal of Russians within Eve. They were not just defending themselves, but defending a cultural identity. They were defending Eve’s Russian civilization.

So what does that have to do with morale? Well, at the time of C-J6MT you had a series of alliances mostly made for the purpose of profit and exploitation. There were the budding warlords and politicians of course, but a lot of Eve at that time saw nullsec as the cash cow. Because of that, most alliances didn’t have that great of a sense of identity, and indeed even the warlords and politicians of Eve were mostly still leading groups of opportunistic pilots. They lacked a mythos. They were essentially in the modern understanding of it, autocratic societies. Think old fashioned European kingdoms; Strong men or women rulers who led people to greatness because he or she could rally people together to a common goal under their strength of will. It is why a lot of alliances fell, and to an extent still do to this day, when its ruler leaves Eve or is otherwise rendered indisposed.

a lot of the leaders of that battle are still important figures within the Russian community

Red Alliance’s brave defense at C-J6MT gave them a mythos, a story to rally around. It is telling that a lot of the leaders of that battle are still important figures within the Russian community of Eve up to the present day, up to and including entire corporations and alliances being named after its hero, UaXDeath.

And yet the most fascinating case of a mythos comes from the allies that Red Alliance found next in their career in Eve, Goonswarm. Goonswarm had a built-in cultural identity due to their ties to Something Awful. They had a creation mythos of being a group of noobies who sucked at the game but who were here to show the group of ‘try-hard internet spaceship pilots’ what for.

I’d argue the entire rise of the swarm style of battle that the Goons created and then further perfected under Redswarm, besides being generally good tactical sense, holds a much more precious sense to the Goon’s overall mythos. It is a populist act to allow even the newest and least able among pilots into a corp that holds to many space in the ‘endgame’ of Eve. Through populism, you can build an identity as an alliance that works for the betterment of all pilots in Eve, of the downtrodden underdog. We saw it used by Goonswarm in its early days, we see it now being used by the likes of BRAVE. Indeed, both BRAVE and TEST are extensions of the same idea that brought Goons here, and because of that have had a pretty similar trajectory, a nation of “Redditors” in the state of TEST.

Finally it would be remiss to mention the mythos of a nation state, the idea of morale not only as tactic but of foundation for a group, without talking about Jade Constantine and Star Fraction at least in passing. Possibly the most direct version of the idea of an alliance building a nation mythos, Star Fraction was intended to be built whole cloth as a place for pilots to come and work together not only for the betterment of themselves, but of their society. And through that, Constantine is widely regarded as one of the pioneer users of a whole section of morale that unfortunately this part will have to mostly ignore: meta and its narrative. By controlling the narrative of a conversation, not through direct gameplay, or even through the game at all, Constantine opened up an entirely different can of worms in Eve.

Eve stopped being merely a game about making money or shooting other players; it became a fight for the survival of an entire culture

Through their manipulation of morale, mythos, and of a unique virtual form of cultural identity, not only do the names like Constantine and UaXDeath reverberate even today, but they were able to hold together empires through much rougher times than their peers. A united sense of purpose led to a united front against all opposing forces, in some cases even internal. For the people in their corporations Eve stopped being merely a game about making money or shooting other players; it became a fight for the survival of an entire culture, of a group of friends. People like to think of alliances as ‘content creators’ these days, but the most important aspect of an alliance for its own welfare is its ability to promote comradery. When the content runs sour, and everything is blowing up around you, what keeps your pilots flying? It may not even be fun to them at some point, they may even start to lose sleep or skip work, but what makes them do that for something they might not even enjoy? It’s the friendship, that common thread between you and the pilot next to you, that idea that you are fighting for something. And nothing can instill that better into a person than to give them a backstory, to instill a sense of tradition and purpose into them, so even if they hate the person they are flying with and hate even flying at all they’ll still come until their last ship pops.

And when mythos is such an effective glue to hold an alliance together, and thus of utmost importance to destroy when attacking someone, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it quickly went outside of the confines of Eve as an MMO. What started with Constantine as propaganda and verbose speeches on the Eve forum quickly turned into some of the most widely covered aspects of Eve, the propaganda films, pictures, memes, and podcasts that preach the importance of one alliance over another, or merely cover the moving drama that is Eve.

However, it also led to some of the most infamous aspects of Eve, the toxicity of fighting as one group goes too far in breaking the morale of another. The allegations of harassment, of death threats, and even of all out attacks on other people’s digital property has become the unfortunate dark side to most people’s perception of this game, where the meta narrative meets reality, and in part two I will go over some of the more infamous moments, and try to explain when too far becomes too far.

 

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About the author

Mathias Sinistar

Mathias has been a little bit of everything, from running belts with highsec corps, to ninja salvaging with TEARS, to running fleets with Brave. When not flying, he finds himself reading up on the history and politics of Eve, one of the things that always tends to draw him back in to the game.