Although EVE Online is considered by many outsiders to be populated by the more Machiavellian, sociopathic elements of humanity, there's a surprising amount of camaraderie uniting the players who have travelled to the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik for this year's Fanfest convention.
For many, it's a pilgrimage: one that involves less backstabbing over bacon in the hotel breakfast room, more celebration of a world that has become every bit as real and meaningful to its inhabitants as their experience of Iceland itself.
The atmosphere is friendly and good-natured amongst the warring Alliance leaders now sitting across the table from each other – mischievously referencing old campaigns and poking gently at old wounds – but there are more twinkles in their eyes there are in Iceland's night sky.
Torfi Frans Olafsson, creative director at EVE developer CCP, has a clear vision about our misconceptions of what constitutes a reality. Sitting in his kitchen one evening, working out his budget through an internet banking service while dabbling with his EVE Online market orders, he found himself momentarily shocked at the similarities.
"It's become more real. We started with a simulator with basic mechanics from the real world – but analysing the social, political, and economical facets, it became evident that it was more than the game design," he says.
"We thought, in the eighties and nineties, that virtual reality would be lasers drawing pictures into your eyes, or like The Lawnmower Man. But we have virtual reality; we have realities which are shared. There are religious sects which have lower numbers than EVE Online. They can't touch their world any more than an EVE player can, but they believe it. Reality has become virtual."
Tony Gonzales, author of the EVE novels, considers the physical reality of playing in these virtual worlds: "Ask anyone who plays the game and has six months of work locked into their hold," he says. "Targeted at a gate, you get the blood-pressure rise, you start to sweat, the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in.
"From a design perspective, we've been saying 'EVE is real' all along. The game has a reputation for being very dark and very harsh, the strict death penalty and that kind of thing. Corporations only make the news when they get destroyed or screw up.
"We make The Times when these awful things happen, but what doesn't get told is how much people bond in response to that. The person who got screwed is in a Corporation – they'll help him, he'll remember what they did to help him get on his feet, and he'll remember it long after he forgets the bad thing that happened."
On the back of some very real economic troubles, the Mayor of Reykjavik appears on stage to welcome the Fanfest attendees to the city and kick off proceedings. EVE is as real economically to Iceland as it is in spirit to its army of loyal players. As the tiny country's third largest export after fishing and aluminium, EVE matters. CCP matters.
Talk to locals unfamiliar with EVE, and they'll profess an admiration for the company regardless. When you hear tales of developers landing in a pub during Fanfest and including the locals in a drinks free-for-all, it's easy to understand why: if you're not Icelandic and you think you can drink, you can't.
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