Like most newly-published authors, Andrew Groen has spent a lot of time lately doing talks and trying to get the word out about his new project. He’s travelled to popular destinations, and done his best to convince people to buy his history book. The difference is that Groen isn’t traveling the real world; instead, he’s piloting a ship inside the online game EVE Online, venturing to bustling trade hubs and using the in-game chat to spread the news. His book, Empires of EVE, chronicles the formative years of the sci-fi virtual world and the book tour is befitting its subject. "Flying around and doing it in EVE space is very futuristic," says Groen.
EVE Online is a relatively niche game, but one that often makes headlines thanks to its massive battles, which can involve thousands of real people piloting thousands of spaceships. Damages from these virtual wars can often cost the equivalent of thousands of real-world dollars. Unlike most massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), EVE Online is largely shaped by its players, not the developers. Its inhabitants create their own alliances and governments, even religions, and this in turn leads to strife, conflict, and eventually warfare. For Groen, this sense of permanence — unlike most online games, EVE players can build and destroy things that impact the rest of the community — is what made the game an ideal fit for a history book.
"We can look at EVE, and we can say this looks just like human history. Human history is playing out inside of this virtual world," he explains. "We’re seeing all of these real, amazing aspects of humanity — revenge and greed and friendship and love — inside of this virtual space. That to me is a harbinger of things to come."
His book Empires of EVE, which released earlier this month after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, isn’t a complete history of the game, but instead puts into context a cataclysmic battle known as the "Great War," an event that spanned nearly two years from 2007 to 2009. Though it’s a book about a video game, it reads more like a sci-fi Game of Thrones, with iconic leaders, shocking betrayals, and devastating battles. The book does a fantastic job of putting events into context, letting you understand the bigger picture, while focusing on the key personalities. By the end, tens of thousands of people — from the miners gathering materials to build new ships to the leaders spouting propaganda on the game’s forums — have been involved in the virtual conflict in some form. And the outcome ultimately shaped the future of EVE Online’s power structure.
"Two years ago nobody was even intending to write these stories down."
Groen, a former journalist who has written for places like Wired and Ars Technica, spent the past two years researching the book. That included talking to more than 70 players, poring over forum posts, and analyzing data from sites like Dotlan, which tracks things like the number of ships destroyed in a battle or which corporations owned which star systems on which dates. Now that the book is out, he’s found that — outside of a few outliers unhappy with how they were portrayed — the EVE community has largely embraced the book. "It’s easy to forget now that there is a history book. Two years ago nobody was even intending to write these stories down," he says. "They were going to be lost. Hardcore players in the EVE community understand that, and I think are pretty thankful for that." He adds that "EVE is in the unfortunate position where there is only one historian right now, so there’s not that many people to have debates with."
One of the most fascinating things about reading Empires of EVE is the various ways the barriers between the real world and EVE Online can blur. Sometimes the results of a large-scale battle involving thousands of people will come down to a technical error, as one side experiences more lag than the other, thus dooming them to defeat. Other times, a huge influx of players will occur simply because another online game shut down, resulting in a shift in the game’s power structure. Groen found found that the real and virtual world can blur when it comes to the players, too. Though people often played as characters very different from their real personalities, they’d often slip back into the role they used to play, becoming a mixture of the two.
That’s particularly true of the book’s main character, Groen says, a controversial figure known as SirMolle. "He’s very nice, very kind," he says of his time interviewing him, "but every once in awhile he’ll dip into that space dictator character, known as SirMolle, and suddenly he’s a very formidable person. He’s a little bit mean, he has mean things to say about his enemies, things like that. When the emotion takes over, that kind of teleports people back into that moment."
"He wouldn’t talk to me because my in-game character was not the right race."
It wasn’t easy to find all of the key figures in the story. "It’s an incredibly difficult reporting challenge to get in touch with somebody when the only thing that you know about them is the alias with which they played a video game 12 years ago," Groen notes. But for the most part he says people were more than willing to talk. In some cases, the emotion was still raw from those who were defeated and still hold grudges. A few people wanted to keep their identities secret, because they didn’t want to be associated with their virtual life. And in one instance a player refused to talk to Groen simply because he had the wrong avatar. "He wouldn’t talk to me because my in-game character was not the right race, and his in-game character was racist against my in-game character," Groen says. "This was a guy who was so deeply into his role play character that he refused to talk to a historian because our in-game characters were racist against each other."
EVE Online is sometimes described by critics as boring. Despite the grand stories told within its virtual space, the actual act of playing isn’t all that exciting; it’s filled with complicated menus and a lot of busy work. For this reason the game seems to attract a certain kind of player. "If there’s one thing that I really took away from talking to a lot of EVE players, it’s that they are uncommonly intelligent," Groen says. "It is disturbingly common to be talking to an EVE Online player who is a famous fleet commander, or a grand leader of men, and you say ‘Well, what do you do in the real world?’ and they’ll say ‘Oh, I run a nuclear reactor up in Portland’ just nonchalantly, or ‘I run an international logistics company’ or ‘I used to be a DC attorney.’" A well-placed source has told Groen there’s a corporation in the game made up entirely of Fortune 500 CEOs, though he hasn’t been able to confirm this for himself.
The biggest takeaway from reading Empires of EVE is that, while the events are set in a video game, they’re still real in a lot of ways — especially for those who experienced them firsthand. The emotions are real, and years after the events took place people still feel strongly about them, whether it’s the thrill of victory or the despair of loss. "It’s not quite as significant as something that happens in the real world, but it’s friggin’ close." Groen says. "The things that you’re able to achieve within this game are staggeringly large. When you are a human being who can rise to a level in EVE where 20,000 people will do what you say, that’s not a digital accomplishment. These accomplishments don’t really need to have an asterisk beside them to be interesting."