What one game’s design reveals about capitalism

If you’ve never played the massive, player-driven space opera Eve Online, then you are missing out on one of the biggest microcosms of laissez-faire capitalism that exists on the Internet. This 16-year-plus game is set in a fictional future where humanity has settled a distant star-cluster (referred to in-game as New Eden). Every interaction in the game is player-driven, including its market-based economy.

The fact that slavery is featured so prominently at the core of this game’s economy and lore leads to some murky philosophical questions about the nature of capitalism in general. In looking at Eve Online, we can interrogate our current economic system scaled up to galactic proportions, and what that means for our present.

A Virtual History of Slavery

Something that must be stressed is that when we say that all interactions are player-driven, we do mean all of them. As one passionate fan described in their Eve Online fan fiction:

You want to sell scrap metal? You better hope that someone wants that scrap metal.

You want to buy a new ship because your last ship got reduced to dust by Amarr battleship’s famous laser broadside? You better hope that someone is manufacturing them.

Player-only economy. Boom.

Everything is about player interaction, and every decision you make literally has an impact on the community, small or large, market or warfare.

There are no Nonplayer Characters (NPC’s) hawking wares or enemy loot that is deleted from the game once the item is sold. The players (or capsuleers) do everything, which is why the game is sometimes jokingly referred to as “spreadsheets in space.” Eve Online has been studied extensively. Its history has been recorded. Actual economists have studied its economy. The game is a serious effort to bring capitalism into the future, and that includes slavery.

The biggest offender of this is the Amarr empire, which is a deeply authoritarian and theocratic government that has vast territorial claims throughout the galaxy. The Amarr have enslaved every group of humans they have encountered that weren’t already major empires with strong militaries. This includes the tribal Minmatar, who only recently gained some political autonomy in 2008. The laws and history of slavery within Eve’s history are exceedingly complicated, and pages upon pages have been written on it.

The Wikipedia-esque summary of slavery in the Amarr Empire starts with first contact. When the Udorians, another people that originated from the Amarr homeworld, first landed on Amarr Island (the current site of the empire’s capital) it created a philosophical shift in Amarr society called the Reclaiming. The Amarr branded all outside influences as heretical. The Empire defined its godly duty to bring all heathen races back into God’s grace…

…through slavery.

After the Amarr Empire absorbed all other cultures on its homeworld, it took to the stars and incorporated the Ealur, Ni-Kunni and Minmatar races. Its holy mission became the divine conquest of the galaxy. The Empire has suffered several significant defeats since then, and the practice of Reclaiming is both socially and politically on the decline, and yet, it still exists.

Source: G2G

To this day, the Amarr offer player capsuleers a hefty reward for transporting slaves to and from their various territorial holdings. Any player can do this, and slaves effectively serve as objects on the open market to be traded (although some territories do confiscate this “property” in the game). If you wanted to buy one of these “objects,” then you could do so now for real money, and resell them on Eve Online’s market for ISK (the game’s currency). Player forums are filled with discussions on what to do with such “objects,” and unsurprisingly not everyone is morally outraged over this subject matter. In a forum titled slaves and other livestock one player stated calmly:

I sell slaves at much less than regional average as part of my [Roleplay].
I mean yeah ok, slavery is bad, but money is money yo.

It might seem strange to fixate on what is effectively an in-game item (it feels gross typing that sentence), but the Amarr-Minmatar dynamic is central to Eve Online’s mythos. They are two of the four factions that a player must choose to be upon creating their initial character (the others being the Caldari and the Gallente), and slavery’s prominent existence in New Eden’s history has some striking parallels with our world as well.

Is Slavery A Quirk of Capitalism or a Feature?

IRL, there is a serious debate among Leftist economists on whether capitalism naturally suppresses the cost of human labor. The argument, in a nutshell, is that because capitalism is always trying to lower costs, there is a natural tension between labor and those who want to pay for it. The purchasers of work (i.e., those that own capital) want to reduce what they pay as much as humanly possible, and rarely do they care how that end is achieved.

Under this mindset, the capital that the privileged class in the United States and elsewhere enjoys today is the direct result of human exploitation. This is a viewpoint which can be summarized best in Eric Williams’ 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery:

“…Slavery was an economic institution of the first importance. It had been the basis of [the] Greek economy and had built up the Roman Empire. In modern times it provided the sugar for the tea and the coffee cups of the Western world. It produced the cotton to serve as a base for modern capitalism. It made the American South and the Caribbean islands.”

The chattel slavery of the Americas, Williams and others posit, was integral to the economic success of not only the United States but of the imperial powers of the entire “West.” The raw resources of the Americas were extracted by force, and nonwhite people were held in bondage to mine and grow them. Slaves were also used to build massive infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and important cultural sites such as the White House.

It should surprise no one that slave-built infrastructure, as well as the low price of cotton and other valuable resources that were maintained by slave hands, allowed Europeans and Americans to generate massive amounts of wealth. Many cities in Europe — such as Liverpool, England — still have streets bearing the names of famous slave traders. Sven Beckert speculated in Empire of Cotton: A Global History that the trade of slave-grown cotton was so valuable to Europe that the United State’s Civil War led to a global, economic downturn. Chattel slavery is retrospectively now framed as a moral issue, but as wrong as it was, from a capitalist perspective, there is a case to be made for the economics of reducing the cost of human labor down to zero.

That incentive is alarming.

The chattel slavery of the Americas was not an isolated incident, either. From the British Empire’s vast territorial holdings to the Portuguese’s global slave network, the imperial powers of Europe grew their fortunes from the exploitations of people all over the world. In the words of historian Richard Drayton:

“…the real debt [from imperialism] is incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions, the modern world as we know it would not exist…Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story. What mattered was how the pull and push from these industries transformed western Europe’s economies. English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations.”

The legacy of this imperialism has left ripple effects that are still felt today. In the United, black communities are, on average, more impoverished than their whiter counterparts. There is also a similar disparity for Latinos and certain Asian populations. Abroad, many countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America, and the Asia Pacific face systemic corruption, poverty, and a host of other issues that are too numerous to list.

White westerners have a habit of looking at these problems through a moralistic lens, often ignoring the centuries of exploitation that placed these communities in such a precarious position. This refusal to recognize the history behind such problems is because of the economic advantages that come with glossing over historical inequalities.

Whether you are the United States or the space-faring Amarr, it pays not to acknowledge your debts.

Proponents of capitalism will usually counter that the institutions of slavery and imperialism were historical anomalies that have “gone the way of the dinosaurs,” but such an accusation is debatable for several reasons:

  1. Capitalism is not very old. Capitalism’s political roots are argued ad nauseam, but, unless you want to make the case that feudalism was capitalism, it’s only known global dominance for a little over three centuries. Therefore, we have no way of asserting that slavery is a historical anomaly. There simply isn’t enough data.
  2. Slavery, especially slavery used in the manufacturing of goods, is still very much alive in our global economy. It also shows no sign of going away.

While millions of people have economically been “uplifted” in the last few decades, tens of millions of slaves still exist in the world. In 2018, the Global Slavery Index estimated 5.4 slaves for every 1,000 people. That’s over 30 million people or roughly the entire population of Canada, and it’s important to note that for obvious reasons, a hard count is next to impossible. These enslaved persons serve as the backbone for the production of many of the goods and services we enjoy today. From the sneakers we wear to our perfectly-manicured nails, a lot of the things we love are created with the exploitation of vulnerable persons. According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR):

“Slavery is most prevalent in impoverished countries and those with vulnerable minority communities, though it also exists in developed countries. Tens of thousands toil in slave-like conditions in industries such as mining, farming, and factories, producing goods for domestic consumption or export to more prosperous nations.”

Modern slavery is slightly different from the chattel slavery of the Americas. While some people are still captured and enslaved outright, at least initially, many enslaved persons enter into these arrangements “consensually.” A lot of modern day slaves are marginalized people from poor parts of the world looking for work, and because they have no good options, hastily enter into contracts that months later turn out to be unpaid and exploitive.

For example, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it’s not uncommon for migrant workers from countries like Nepal to have their passports seized, and to be forced into fixed contracts for several years. According to one Nepalese taxi driver’s description of his plight to the Pacific Standard:

“I can’t leave even if I want to. I’m under a contract and they have my passport.”

This type of labor exploitation happens all over the world, even in the United States. Capitalism’s requirement of working for subsistence, some might argue, makes many poor and desperate people ripe targets for enslavement. Large companies all over the world, especially those in the garment industry, continue to cash-in on that desperation in order to achieve a lower overhead. The politics and mechanisms of slavery may have changed in the last hundred or so years, but the economic incentives supporting it don’t seem to have shifted at all.

Similar to the US and Europe, the Amarr Empire grew to prominence on the back of slave labor. They are presently the largest polity in the game, representing an estimated 40% of New Eden’s inhabited solar systems. That immense growth could not have happened without slavery.

Now that their era of expansion is over, the Empire has started to legally reverse themselves on the issue of slavery. Empress Jamyl I recently announced the emancipation of all Minmatar slaves of lines who had been enslaved for nine generations or greater, but while the policy has shifted, human capsuleers are still transporting slaves in-game. The economic reality of slavery has not gone away.

This history is what makes Eve Online such an interesting subject of inquiry in the “capitalism leads to slavery” discourse. It is both a microcosm of a working market-based economy as well as an affirmation that technology will not in of itself solve the social dilemma of slavery. Even if humanity somehow manages to obtain the scientific ingenuity to traverse the galaxy, economics allowing, it will still be a galaxy filled to the brim with slavery, and other forms of labor exploitation.

That exploitation extends to human players as well.

Exploitation As A Game Feature

It’s all well in good to talk about the lore of a game and its historical parallels, but lore does not dictate player interactions. Anyone who has logged onto a First Person Shooter (FPS) like Call of Duty knows that while those games may reference their soldiers having honor and virtue on the battlefield, the behaviors many players exhibit in-game is often anything but virtuous. When we look at Eve Online, we see many of the same exploitive practices that are indicative of its in-game history.

Like in the real world, labor is needed to produce wealth in Eve Online. You need actual players taking on the role of miners to obtain the materials to run your Empire. The same goes for military fighters, shipbuilders, company leaders, and so forth. This relationship means there is a similar incentive to reduce the cost of in-game labor.

Take the now-defunct trade alliance Standing United run by player handle Scottmw15. Following Eve Online’s decision to include a free-to-play option in 2016, there was a veritable gold rush of new players, and consequently, new labor. Eve Online is not fun to do by yourself, and so the pressure to join a group is high. Standing United capitalized on this in-game change by recruiting novice players into its organization and taking advantage of them to mine resources.

Scottmw15 would bring English-speaking players to Russian space, effectively cutting off their ability to communicate with anyone but him. Players were then forced to do the repetitive, grinding work of killing low-level enemy NPC’s for hours on end. Scottmw15 held the corporate tax rate so high that no one could make a profit, which made paying for fuel difficult, though not impossible. If the miners tried to leave, then they would be stranded alone in Russian space, penniless, and vulnerable to Russian pirates. This most likely meant death in-game as well as the forfeiture of hundreds of invested hours in the game.

If that dynamic sounds similar to the real-world incidents of exploitation that we have already covered, its because it is. In the words of PC Gamer:

“On Standing United’s Discord chat server, Scottmw15 would frequently humiliate and terrorise players. He even spammed links to weird dating sites he owned and forced them to click on advertisements to generate ad revenue. Those that resisted were cut loose and left to die penniless and alone at the hands of the neighbouring Russians. Scottmw15 wasn’t running a corporation, he was running a forced labour camp.”

This incident was eventually rectified when a fellow scammer named Scooter McCabe infiltrated the company to collect a bounty on Scottmw15’s head. McCabe, a man who scams player’s money for a living, became so horrified by the treatment of these players that he reached out to other sects to organize a rescue operation. He organized a massive fleet of over 60 ships, which at the time constituted one of the most substantial rescue efforts in the history of the game.

Notice McCabe did not once think to consult a game master or a help desk to resolve this situation. This tactic wasn’t applied because such a thing doesn’t exist in the world of Eve Online. Exploitation isn’t a bug in the game’s trading mechanics, but, as with the real world, a feature. According to the games Scams page:

“A scam is what happens when someone takes advantage of a players [sic] misplaced trust, temporary confusion or ignorance of game rules, and robs players via legal in-game means. When this occurs, there is nothing the Support Team can do for the victim. Although low and despicable, scams do not violate any game mechanics and can not be compensated for by the GMs, nor can the scammers generally be punished for their actions.”

In essence, if you lose your in-game money (ISK, which is worth real dollars) to another player in the game, regardless of the circumstances, then it’s your own damn fault. There are exceptions of course — designated safe zones and so forth — but for the most part, Eve Online is a market fundamentalist Utopia.

Lies and deception are just good business.

In Eve Online, there are countless tales of crosses and double-crosses that can compete with any modern-day soap opera. There was the time someone scammed an entire corporation out of billions of ISK by promising the blueprints to a battlecruiser (the blueprints were fake) or how about when one person transferred the assets of a 4000-player company to themselves. The list of abuses is truly endless.

The only difference between the labor exploitation of Eve Online and the real world is that in Eve Online, you can log off. Unlike in some very real parts of the world, there is rarely a person pointing a gun to your head, forcing you to virtually mine asteroids. The incentive structure, however, is the same. If scammers like Scottmw15 could keep his players glued to their screens indefinitely, he probably would.

Video Games Have Laws

There is an excellent article by Chris Delon (first brought to my attention via Innuendo Studios) that posits a critical difference between video games and sports. Sports, he argues, are based on a series of agreed-upon rules and norms. You are not physically prevented from picking up a soccer ball. You agree to kick it to participate in a soccer match.

Video games, on the other hand, are governed by universal laws inside a simplified alternative reality. It’s not a question of what you cannot do, but what the mechanics of the game allow you to do. You can pick up a soccer ball in the real world. You cannot, though, in a soccer game like FIFA.

The brutal market-based mechanics that encourage labor exploitation in Eve Online do not have to exist. They are a choice enforced not only through internal policy but by the programming of the game itself. It is a controlled, capitalistic experiment that unwittingly tests the limits of what market-forces will tolerate. Sometimes these market forces can lead to operations that are truly massive in scale — companies, and empires made up of thousands of people. It can also encourage exploitative behavior that is similar to modern-day labor camps in our present day.

When we praise the ingenuity of players in games like Eve Online, we must recognize the bad that comes with the good. The exploitation of Eve Online isn’t a one-off incident perpetrated by a few Bad Apples. It’s a reality found in this game’s very DNA, which CAN BE CHANGED if some combination of players and developers had the will and desire to do so.

This leads to the question: isn’t that true of the REAL world, OUR world, as well?

UPDATE (06/29/20): a previous version of this article suggested that it would be impossible to escape Russian space without fuel. This is not true, though cultural power dynamics were still in play. Also, I mistakenly swapped the player Scooter’s name with Scottmw15.

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I write about pop culture and politics. Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/opinionsalexhas Write for me: https://medium.com/after-the-storm

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