March 26, 2012 by jamtime
Murder Incorporated: The story of Eve Online’s most devastating assassins.
In 2005, game journalist Tom Francis published an outstanding article in PC Gamer magazine chronicling in detail a rather notorious event which took place in the massively multiplayer game Eve Online (CCP Games) in which one of the largest player controlled companies within the game, through acts of corporate espionage and sabotage, fell victim to the heist of billions of ISK, the in game currency, and the assassination of its CEO. The article was only published in the UK version of the magazine, however, and subsequently it wasn’t until 2008 when the article was re-published online and circulated throughout the gaming blogosphere that it began to be read by a larger gaming audience and gained the notoriety it holds today. In my opinion the article will become hugely important within the academic study of video games because it both challenges Joan Huizinga’s notion of a “magic circle” (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen, 2008, p. 24) and raises important ethical issues in regards to social behaviour in an online game. In defending the assassination and theft, Francis also makes interesting arguments in regards to the potential for simulation, although he does not specifically use that term, within MMO’s, arguing for developers to give players more control within these game, in addition to keeping things as open ended as possible.
So what’s all the fuss about? In June of 2004, a well know mercenary group within the game, The Guiding Hand Social Club, received a contract to execute an attack on Mirial, CEO of the Ubiqua Seraph Corporation. The next ten months were spent “secreting … operatives among her ranks, [and] steering her organization through a number of insidiously engineered events meant to engender trust” (Francis, 2008). The Guiding Hand had operatives in every level of the corporation, including several on the board of directors. The primary agent, Arenis Xemdal, a valentine operative known for his skills of seduction, eventually became Mirial’s most trusted lieutenant. On April 18th, 2005 at 5.A.M, Arenis Xemdal convinced Mirial to fly her most valuable ship, “a Navy Apocalypse worth billions of ISK” into a remote system with him. As Mirial flew into the trap, a go code was sent to every Guiding Hand double-agent who had gained enouph trust within the corporation to be given access to one of the company’s communal storage hangars, signaling them to completely empty them of their contents. “By 6am … every Ubiqua Seraph office in the galaxy was raided, the contents of every shared hangar – not to mention their corporate coffers – gone. Mirial’s prize ship was annihilated, her escape pod nuked and her vacuum-frozen corpse sucked into the cargo bay of a Guiding Hand Social Club vessel” (Francis, 2008).
The operation “inflicted financial damage upwards of 30 billion ISK,” and here is where the magic circle breaks down. Eve’s currency, like the currency of most massively multiplayer games, can be easily translated to real currency. People buy and sell ISK online with great regularity, and given the conversion rate at the time of the theft, the 30 billion ISK which was stolen or lost was equivalent to “$16,500 US dollars at IGE.com’s prices” (Francis, 2008) . This clearly destroys the notion that “playing a game… means setting oneself apart from the outside world” (Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen, 2008, p. 22) and to this point, Francis raises the following questions. Is it “really still just a game when you inflict th[at] kind of damage,” and furthermore, “at what point does an in-game act become morally wrong in real life?” (Francis, 2008). In the wake of the theft, similar questions of morality were raised and hotly debated on the Eve Online forums. While many players on the message boards voiced their congratulations towards the Guiding Hand Social Club, others, others expressed their opinion that a line had been crossed. In the words of one player, “I don’t see an awful lot to be proud of. [My company] fights wars all the time but we fight them within the bounds of the game mechanics. We don’t cheat people out of the effort they put in like this” Another player, who actually had a known grudge against the target, posted the following: “no-one deserves this” (Francis, 2008). In fact, many even called for the developers to step in and rectify the situation.
When developers CCP developed Eve Online, they sought to “simply create a world… and let people do what they may within it” (Francis, 2008).While many players complained after the heist, Francis argues that if the developers were to step in and prevent such actions from happening again, the game would be robbed of what makes it special. To him the incident was simultaneously a “testament to both the virtues and the evils of a truly open-ended massively multiplayer game” and argues that having the developers step in and “stop people from doing horrible things to each other in [the game],” would be to “lose the full scope of what a game can be” (Francis, 2008). Here Francis seems to imply that MMO’s possess an untapped potential to act as simulations of society, and that in order to tap into this developers need to adopt a hands off approach whenever possible. He is essentially arguing that if you want a game to be truly open ended, events like this are necessary evil. I would argue, however, that this is ultimately an invalid argument as to why CCP shouldn’t step in, because, even if we are to consider them simauthors, this does not mean they don’t have an influence on what happens in the game. Through the “modeling of difficulty” (Frasca, 2003, p. 228) simauthors can introduce rules which favor certain outcomes. This means that CCP could theoretically introduce rules which would highly discourage players from carrying out similar acts of theft in the future, without actually limiting their ability to do so. In terms of the decision whether or not to step in, what it ultimately boils down is what kind of a game the developers want Eve Online to be.
Francis, T. (2008, January 9). Murder Incorporated:The story of Eve Online’s most devastating assassins. Retrieved from PC Gamer: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/180867/features/murder-incorporated/?site=pcg
Frasca, G. (2003). Simulation versus Narrative. In The Video Game Theory Reader (pp. 221-234). New York City: Routledge.
Simon Egenfeldt Nielsen, J. H. (2008). Understanding Video Games. New York City: Routledge .