If You Weren’t There, You Missed It—Journalism Inside Video Games

Forget the history of video games. Now, there's history in video games.

EVE Online
Mining in space underway inside EVE Online, from the release of Carnyx, a gameplay update for the theater of war. (Image: Courtesy of CCP)

I’ve seen the future of journalism and it’s reporting on virtual worlds.

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Right now, there’s a robust if mostly volunteer journalistic infrastructure that’s covering the world of EVE Online. That is, the actual events that occur inside the game that players have been mining, battling and conquering in for more than a decade now. With newer, bigger sandbox games, it seems obvious that these journalists will only professionalize.

Reporters and sites are covering everything from the markets for fictional materials inside the game, to war reporting on the conflicts that take place across organized teams of spaceships, to behind the scenes reporting on how EVE’s many alliances, corporations and societies are communicating, planning and spying on each other on other sites, such as Reddit.

There are lots of sites out there (like Killscreen, IGN and Giant Bomb) that cover video games. They write about what games are like, what games are coming, whether or not you might like it if you play the game and whether new games are similar to old ones.

EVE Online opens itself up to a different kind of reporting. In other games, if you reported too much on what actually happened inside a game, you’d be accused of spoiling it. That can’t happen in EVE, though. If something happens in EVE, it will never happen quite that way ever again. It’s a part of the past of the game, and no one can go there and do it over. If you weren’t there, you missed it.

“One of the things I find so interesting about wars in EVE Online is you’re playing for keeps.”

EVE Online is a sandbox. It’s a place where players can go and do whatever they like, based on their own priorities. It has rules, conventions and expansions, but what its creators, Iceland’s CCP, didn’t build for it is a plot. It’s a place where players can go and trade, fight, mine, spy and steal, but the game doesn’t guide them in any particular direction. It’s up to the players to decide.

Thousands and thousands of players subscribe and pursue their own priorities, usually joining up with others whose agendas square with their own. Now, years in, these players have self-organized into enormous alliances that team up to a wide variety of ends. For example, here’s a look at the map of space from The Mittani’s YouTube reports on what factions control which different parts of the game’s galaxies.

Image: Screenshot from The Mittani's NullSec report on YouTube, January 2015.
Image: Screenshot from The Mittani’s NullSec report on YouTube, January 2015.

Here’s some kinds of reporting that are going on about the events inside EVE:

    • Markets. EVE is affectionately referred to by some as “spreadsheets in space.” An enormous amount of data gets shared and traded among its users, and, in its early days, the company had an economist on staff to help them build and monitor its commodity markets. EVE Central is a real time market report on commodities in the game. For example, EVE commodity Mexallon is selling at 44.14 Isk at the Jita tradehub and 43.19 Isk at Dodoxie. Related, other users are publishing a killboard, which is similar.
    • Cartography. If the Internet had existed in pre-border age of early history, reports like this on the territories of different kings and dukes might have made sense in the real world. Now on Earth we believe in respecting acknowledged borders, but, in EVE, borders are defined by space cannons, and they move. So, The Mittani has been putting out monthly YouTube reports on shifting territories inside EVE, such as this one for January.
    • Narrative. For a nonplayer (like this reporter) these reports can be tough to read, because they assume a large amount of EVE background knowledge. This story from the site EveNews24 attempts to explain how a player, Toasty Biggums, joined a powerful corporation in the game and fomented an insurrection against its leader, Lychton Kondur, only to have it later become clear that Mr. Biggums did it to serve the end of some other, still unknown group inside the game. The writer takes purely digital events and attempts to explain them from both the perspective of inside the metaphorical UN and out in the battle fields. EveNews24 puts out stories like this constantly, including this report about what its writer refers to as a minor war in a “space ghetto” and how it spread to a neighboring sector.
    • In house. CCP does a lot of its own self-reporting, including running a Twitch channel.
    • Podcasts. Naturally. Here’s a list.
    • Opinion. Speaking of Twitch, like every other popular games, Eve is big on the Amazon owned website where people watch other people play video games. The EVE players popular on Twitch are usually loaded with ISK, the in game currency. On Crossing Zebras, one writer raises the question if EVE players might be using that ISK to monetize their Twitch streams in unethical ways.
    • History. Andrew Groen has devoted himself fully to writing a book, A History of the Great Empires of EVE Online, raising almost $100,000 to do so on Kickstarter. He’s writing it in order “to treat it like real events and talk about the human motivations,” he told the Observer in a phone interview. “One of the things I find so interesting about wars in EVE Online is you’re playing for keeps.”
Battle imagery released with CCP's December 2014 Rhea update. (Image: Courtesy of CCP)
Battle imagery released with CCP’s December 2014 Rhea update. (Image: Courtesy of CCP)

At times, the game’s events get big enough to spill over into the regular press. The New York Times took it upon themselves to explain how history works in a sandbox game in 2007. Forbes covered the loss of one spaceship in 2013, because the spaceship was (very, very theoretically) worth $9,000 in real dollars. When a war itself set a record in the game, it made it onto Polygon. And The Wall Street Journal did a profile of the man sometimes called the game’s greatest player, Alex Gianturco, known as The Mittani in the game and CEO of Goonswarm, a hugely powerful alliance in EVE. Mr. Gianturco was a spymaster, proving that information is more powerful than Titan warships, which might mean that journalists inside games could have the effect of leveling the playing field.

EVE Online appears to be the only massively multiplayer online game that’s a big enough pure sandbox to make reporting worthwhile right now. New games on the horizon might be ripe for reporting such that this kind of writing will become more professionalized. Two of the buzziest games on the horizon, No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen, describe themselves as sandboxes.

From the forthcoming Star Citizen. (Photo: Courtesy of Cloud Imperium Games)
From the forthcoming Star Citizen. (Photo: Courtesy of Cloud Imperium Games)

No Man’s Sky is so interesting it just got covered in The New Yorker. It’s a beautiful, enormous space where new players get randomly dropped on planets at the universe’s outer reaches. The planets are all procedurally generated, which means computers design planets as new players join. No Man’s Sky does have a goal, though. There is some secret at the center of the universe. Players have to reach it; however its creators, Hello Games, appear to argue that there will be a lot of ways to play, and some people may choose to explore for years without pursuing that goal.

Star Citizen is the most successful crowdfunding project of all time, nearing $84 million as of this writing. It’s going to be like EVE with Doom (first person shooter) and Wing Commander (dogfighter) built in. Like EVE, players could choose to be traders, diplomats, battle hungry grunts or maybe even in-game journalists. We’ll see.

Release date for both games? When they’re ready.

No one knows exactly what these games will be yet, other than to say they will be huge. They will both make history as games, but if each, like EVE Online, creates a true in-game history, then we could see much more work for journalists and historians (amateur and probably otherwise) documenting the events that really only take place on servers but, critically, mean a great deal to their players nonetheless.

If You Weren’t There, You Missed It—Journalism Inside Video Games