This article is part 4 in our History of PC Gaming series.
It’s not easy explaining what exactly EVE Online is in a single paragraph or why it’s so important to the estimated 500,000 people who play it. On the surface, it’s a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that takes place in a galaxy populated by five empires vying for control of over 7,500 star systems. EVE, which launched in 2003, has its own governments, currency, economy, and religions, making it more complex and intricate than even the most popular MMO in the world, World of Warcraft. The game is full of political intrigue, space battles, and betrayal.
But EVE Online is so much more than that. So picture this instead:
Charles White, 58, lives in Los Angeles and has spent the last 30 years working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, analyzing the rockets that send our men and women into space. You could jokingly call this guy a rocket scientist and not be far off. But to the people of EVE Online, he is simply known as the Space Pope.
White is the game’s most prominent religious leader and he plays the part gloriously, decked out in flowing red and white robes and a papal mitre, as he enters the Harpa conference center in Reykjavik, Iceland for EVE Fanfest 2018, the biggest gathering of EVE players in the world (approximately 1,000 players attend the three-day event hosted by CCP, the game’s developer). You can hear the Space Pope coming from 50 yards away, a procession of robed men and women lead him into the hall, performing something like a Gregorian chant — as the other attendees watch in awe.
Here’s the reality of EVE Online: the game isn’t just a MMORPG you play on your computer, but more of a second life that allows you to go from NASA employee to space pope. Over the years, the line between the digital and real worlds of EVE fandom have become fuzzier so that more and more people find themselves playing the game even when they’re not at their keyboards. For the Space Pope, that means handing out blessings to attendees (and their babies), performing sermons, marrying a couple dressed as their EVE characters, and sharing “the Truth” with his followers. The Truth is, in fact, a large flask filled with Brennivín, Iceland’s local schnapps, that he keeps inside a hollowed out “holy” book called the “Max Amarria,” named after his actual character in the game, Max Singularity.
Before jumping into EVE, White had spent most of his life as an atheist despite growing up in a Christian household. He attended Sunday school as a kid but was kicked out for asking too many questions. Finding a sort of faith, thanks to EVE, surprised him. White describes his transformation into the Space Pope as a “metamorphosis.”
“At first I was like, ‘You realize I’m not really a real pope.’ But then after a while, all these sincere requests kept coming in and it literally changed me,” White says. “All of a sudden I was like, ‘Well, what is a blessing?’ What is the power of blessing and why do priests have this ability?”
White says that the holy words of the Space Pope just started flowing. His sermons are ruminations on the game’s lore, which emphasizes the ability to die and be born again as a clone, thanks to alien technology. “Learn to die,” White advises his followers. “You’re immortal.” The Space Pope preaches about “dying well,” citing the cyclical nature of death in the game.
Yes, you die A LOT in EVE Online — and the consequences can be expensive.
EVE Online allows players to buy a premium in-game currency, known as PLEX, with real-world money. PLEX is valuable because it can be converted into premium subscription time (the game is free-to-play, but a monthly premium membership gives you additional perks) or sold for ISK. Think of PLEX to ISK as gold to dollars. ISK is the game’s actual currency, which can be used to buy new ships as well as upgrades. The current conversion rate stands at about $1 to 165 million ISK. Therefore, when you’re robbed or your ship is destroyed in the game, the consequences can indirectly be measured in real money.
The biggest battle in EVE history, known as the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, cost about 11 trillion ISK in damages, equal to $300,000-$330,000 back in 2014. More than 600 warships were destroyed in the battle, including 75 Titan supercapital ships, which cost thousands of dollars and take months to build. The battle was fought over 22 hours — some players took time off work to participate in the bloodshed — by 7,548 pilots, according to Wired.
On January 23, 2018, EVE players gathered in a star system known as 9-4RP2 with the goal of fighting a battle that would cost $1 million in damages, including the potential destruction of a powerful, Death Star-sized fortress known as a Keepstar Citadel. That didn’t quite happen. Server issues prevented the more than 6,000 ships from successfully wreaking havoc in the star system. The total damages ended up being closer to $10,000. Still, this is just another example of the epic scale of EVE’s greatest stories.
Of course, your experiences in EVE Online don’t have to be explosive to be meaningful. While you always run the risk of being blown up by an enemy ship or robbed by pirates, you could spend a large amount of your time simply exploring the beauty of New Eden space and learning its lore. Or you could become a space miner, or a trader, or a ship manufacturer, or an investor in the ISK market, or even CEO of your own corporation. But, as in real life, it often pays more to be bad, which is why many players choose to become bounty hunters, pirates, con men, thieves, and even drug dealers (they sell things like performance-enhancing combat boosters to players who want to perk up their ships).
There’s a big question at the center of the EVE experience: why are we so enticed by the possibility of living multiple lives? CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson, one of the original developers who worked on EVE Online (surprisingly, he is notoriously BAD at the game he helped create), thinks there’s something very human about role-playing.
“I think people have always been interested in playing a role to explore aspects of themselves and life you cannot do through your own identity,” Petursson says. “This notion is a very fundamentally human one, I would even say it’s a mammalian thing, like if you look at lion cubs playing, monkeys playing. [It’s] is a form of learning. When you have role-playing games, which maybe emphasize this more, then people are exploring aspects of their own person in a way that you cannot do in your natural environment.”
“The thing about EVE is you can do whatever you want really,” explains Aaron Denyer, 22, who plays the game as a character named Jin’taan, one of the game’s most popular fleet commanders and a bit of a celebrity at Fanfest. He wears a money suit to the event — that is, a suit covered in a pattern of $100 bills — and big sunglasses. At a bar not far from the convention center, he orders Adios Motherfuckers (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, and tequila) for his friends. Like a rockstar.
But every individual contains multitudes, which is why Denyer is also known for showing up to Fanfest with his grandmother, whom the community lovingly calls “Jin’gran.” She’s only recently started playing the game. Her character is a princess with flaming red hair and a nose ring.
“She’s like 75 and loves video games. The best kind of person,” Denyer says. His grandmother is a special case, though. Most of the player base is still quite young, with a median age of about 35, according to Denyer.
Denyer credits his closeness with his grandmother and the community he’s found in EVE as what helped him cope with the death of his mother when he was 16. The game has also helped him overcome mental illness.
“You probably can’t tell but I’m very heavily on the autistic spectrum,” Denyer reveals. “I struggle a lot with interaction, especially when I was younger. And EVE‘s given me kind of like this space where I can feel comfortable.”
Denyer points to initiatives such as Broadcast 4 Reps as ways EVE can be a force for good. Broadcast 4 Reps is a group created by CCP and EVE players to help other users who are suffering from depression, dealing with addiction, or going through some other kind of hardship.
“If you feel like you’re having problems with your life, or you know you need to get something off your chest, it’s this super nice place,” Denyer says. “I almost guarantee you it saved hundreds of lives.”
The fact that EVE Online has such a tight-knit community — indeed, players enthusiastically come to Fanfest to meet up with friends, whether they’re allies or enemies in the game — is due to its size. 500,000 players are minuscule when compared to World of Warcraft’s millions of subscribers. Sure, EVE Online is still a pretty niche experience, yet it’s a game that’s still going strong while so many of its other competitors from the early 2000s have died out. And there are those who think that there’s still so much to do with EVE before the game meets its full potential.
“It’s a new genre of human experience,” says Andrew Groen, a veteran journalist and EVE’s foremost historian. Groen has spent almost half a decade chronicling the history and studying the sociopolitical landscape of the EVE universe. His self-published book, Empires of EVE, chronicles intense battles, shocking betrayals, and massive power shifts in rip-roaring detail. In fact, the book reads more like Star Wars than, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s histories of Middle-earth.
What draws Groen to this universe? The fact that EVE players treat the game like it’s a real second life. Groen sees huge potential in that sentiment, especially the way the real world and the game world will blur further in the future.
“I have a very strong feeling that stuff like this is going to be how folks like you and I find meaning in our lives from our retirement homes,” Groen says. “When we are having a tough time and we’re going through all of the things that you go through in old age … like feelings of isolation and loneliness. I imagine that we will reach out through the internet and have adventures, long past when you might have been able to do that in another age.”
This is why Groen finds it so important to document what’s happened in the game so far. People will need a record of what came before, especially if having a digital second life does one day become a human activity as common as playing a mobile game or checking your Twitter feed.
“I think the dynamics of a thing like EVE change very greatly when you take away some of the difficulties that prevent people from getting involved,” Groen says. He points out that people around the world are already constantly connected with each other, thanks to social media and streaming services. In a potential future where you don’t need accounts or logins to jump into a game, joining your friends in another world could become a seamless process. “Combine EVE with modern streaming and with modern streaming audiences and also social media. You can then very easily imagine a situation in which a streamer who has 150,000 viewers can ask those viewers to come into the game.” (Ehem, Google Stadia.)
Of course, you would need a hell of a server to host that many new players at once. As the battle of 9-4RP2 already proved, EVE is not quite there yet. But CCP definitely has its eye on the future.
In 2014, the company erected a monument for the game in Reykjavik, the city where EVE was born. It’s an abstract structure that stands almost 16 and a half feet tall and features the character names of almost every active player at the time. (It’s actually become a bit of a pilgrimage for longtime EVE players to come to Iceland to find their names on the monument.) Buried underneath the structure is a “time capsule” — it’s really a laptop full of memories from the game, as well as video messages from developers and players — that’s to be opened in 2039, 25 years after it was buried.
Will people still be playing EVE Online in 2039?
“People kind of thought that it was cheeky and silly when CCP started talking about the second decade of EVE and stuff like that because people are like ‘Oh, it’s wrapping up. Most of the competition from the old days is now gone’ and stuff like that,” Groen says. EVE, which turned 16 this year, is well into its second decade and has just rolled out some major quality of life improvements, such as a 64-bit client, that could keep players exploring New Eden for years to come.
Petursson certainly isn’t joking about the game’s future. When asked what EVE Online will look like in 20 years, Petursson simply replies, “This game will outlive us all. That’s the plan.”
Read our complete History of PC Gaming series at the links below:
Part 1: 25 PC Games That Changed History
Part 3: The Legacy of Baldur’s Gate
Part 5: The Return of FMV Games
Part 7: The Legacy of World of Warcraft
Part 8: Revisiting The Matrix Online
Photography by Roger Sieber.