MMOs as Third Place

Bloodbath_of_B-R5RB

A screenshot of the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB”

Almost exactly a year ago, just before teaching a Business English class, one of my students, who sat in the front row every week, asked me if I was familiar with a game called Eve Online. I confessed that I was not, but I could see he wanted to tell me something so I asked him what it was all about.

His description was pretty much the same as that found on Wikipedia:

Eve Online is a space-based, persistent world massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Players of Eve Online can participate in a number of in-game professions and activities, including mining, piracy, manufacturing, trading, exploration, and combat (both player versus environment and player versus player). The game contains a total of 7,800 star systems that can be visited by players. The game is renowned for its scale and complexity with regards to player interactions — in its single-shard game world, players engage in unscripted economic competition, warfare, and political schemes with other players.

He told me that something really big was currently happening in the game. As reported on the gaming site Polygon, 31 March 2016:

Earlier this week players in Eve Online were involved in one of that game’s famously large and expensive battles. But sources tell Polygon that this was just the opening round of what could be the largest military mobilization in that game’s history.

This battle – officially called the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB” even has its own Wikipedia page, which describes the events of the “war”:

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB or the Battle of B-R5RB was a massive-scale virtual battle fought in the MMORPG space game Eve Online, and was possibly the largest player versus player battle in history. Pitting the Clusterfuck Coalition and Russian alliances (CFC/Rus) against N3 and Pandemic Legion (N3/PL), the 21-hour-long conflict involved over 7,548 player characters overall and a maximum of 2,670 players in the B-R5RB system at one time. The in-game cost of the losses totalled over 11 trillion InterStellar Kredit (ISK), an estimated theoretical real-world value of $300,000 to $330,000 USD. This theoretical value is derived from PLEX, an item purchasable with real currency that can be redeemed either for subscription time or traded for in-game currency.

Part of a larger conflict known as the Halloween War, the fight started after a single player controlling a space station in the star system B-R5RB accidentally failed to make a scheduled in-game routine maintenance payment which made the system (a key staging area used by N3/PL in the war) highly vulnerable to capture. The CFC and Russian coalitions began pouring players into the system in a swift offensive, and N3/PL moved in a large fleet of players as a response as well. A massive battle erupted in the system and numerous smaller engagements occurred throughout the game universe as players attempted to block reinforcements from joining the battle. CFC/Rus gained a clear win by inflicting heavy losses on N3/PL and successfully capturing B-R5RB. The losses totalled 576 Capital-class ships including 75 Titans (the largest ships available to players), along with thousands of smaller vessels.

To commemorate the sheer size and cost of the battle, the game’s creators, CCP Games, erected a permanent monument in the system B-R5RB named “The Titanomachy”, consisting of non-salvageable capital ship wrecks.

Such detail! Such intriguingly impenetrable minutiae! Such confidence in the reality of the conflict!

This was my introduction to MMO gaming.

What explains the success of these MMOs? Marshall McLuhan is often quoted in this context. In the 1960s he described (non-electronic) games as “dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions”. McLuhan said this long before video games as we understand them; even before Atari’s Pong, which was released in 1972. Was he right? Well, the most popular video games of recent times are titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, in which killing people is central to the gameplay. Can it really be that all the people playing these games are “releasing tensions”? It is possible. Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature argues convincingly that far from getting more violent, statistics indicate that global violence overall remains in retreat, which hints tantalisingly at the idea that violent video games may in fact act cathartically for people harbouring dark fantasies.

McLuhan also referred to games as “collective rather than private dramatizations of inner life”. Here we move into the territory of MMOs. The collective element, the interactions with others in an alternate reality, all add to the sense of realism. Artificial Intelligence today is nowhere near good enough to provide this, meaning other players are currently necessary. Perhaps in the future players will become lost in their own games, with themselves the only “real” participants in vast gaming universes hosted on private servers, but for now this is mostly impossible.

What is the appeal of experiencing these alternative lives in parallel and often strange, alien worlds? Escapism for one thing. The following is a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.

Anyone who has read Tolkien’s book will know such descriptions abound, and yet Tolkien said that a common complaint he received from fans was that his magnum opus was simply too short. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for all its length, is devoured by readers who adore its breadth and attention to detail. The same thing goes for Star Wars and Star Trek fans with their focus on extended universes and the importance of the “canon”. Most recently, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was lauded for the immensity of its gameplaying world, with journalists gushing over a map size that dwarfs games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 – themselves enormous games and huge critical successes.

My own theory is that the huge, intricate worlds of fantasy, science-fiction and MMORPGs are explained by the times we live in. Wikipedia tells us that

By 1950, “sword and sorcery” fiction had begun to find a wide audience, with the success of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. However, it was the advent of high fantasy, and most of all J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which reached new heights of popularity in the late 1960s, that allowed fantasy to truly enter the mainstream.

Here is a map showing the years European colonies gained their independence.

MMO1

It is perhaps noteworthy that the growth of fantasy coincided with the end of empire. The world had been discovered, colonised, de-Orientalised, raped, pillaged and industrialised. Men and women who before might have joined the foreign service and been shipped off to New Caledonia or Timbuktu or Darjeeling now had nowhere left to wander, no great wars to fight. They were born after the age of discovery and before technology would allow exploration of the galaxy. What was left except to conquer the new worlds of our imagination?

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