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Is Eve Online the world’s most important game?

How scientists, universities, and even governments look to the space MMO for answers

Developer CCP probably didn’t set out to create the most important game of all time, but it’s certainly vying for the title with Eve Online. Since 2003, roughly 300,000 players have been fighting, trading, mining, and exploring the gigantic shared universe of this space MMO. Such an open-ended environment makes the perfect petri dish for testing a range of scientific, social, and political theories. Quite simply, Eve Online is making our lives better.

No one is more aware of Eve Online’s influence than CCP senior strategist Tryggvi Hjaltason. “What fascinates me about Eve is this is a socio-economic system, and it now has 16 years’ worth of data. If like me you’re into human behaviour and why people do stuff, and how they respond to different stimuli and different economic impacts, Eve is the perfect spot to study this.”

Whether it’s collaborating with universities on projects, sharing vast quantities of data with scientists, or simply meeting up with representatives of the Icelandic government for a chat, here’s exactly how Eve Online is changing the world.

One field Eve Online is helping to advance is sociology. Several years ago, a sociology professor from the University of Maryland contacted CCP with a request. He wanted to know whether the gender you select for your pilot affects your in-game behaviour. After careful analysis, this indeed turned out to be the case. If you inhabit a female role in the game, you become less aggressive. You’re also less likely to seek out conflict, and tend towards more diplomatic solutions. This isn’t a theory. Data, says Hjaltason, bears this out.

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CCP has partnered with a PhD student from the University of Oxford who’s keen to chart the journey of a single in-game particle. Specifically, tritanium, a primary construction material. The study examines the mining of a tritanium unit, what happens when it’s processed at a station, how it’s used to build a module, which is then attached to a ship and deployed for combat, and then ultimately destroyed. “When he presented this case to us,” Hjaltason says, “I thought it was super interesting, and that our players probably could benefit from these insights. So we partnered with him because we saw value in this type of research.”

Other examinations of Eve Online could dramatically accelerate our understanding of astronomy. Take Project Discovery, a 2017 initiative that tasked players with hunting for real-life exoplanets (planets beyond the Solar System). Players analysed in-game luminosity graphs, which measure the changing brightness of stars when planets pass in front of them, before submitting their findings for skins and ship blueprints.

Reykjavik University and the University of Geneva collaborated on Project Discovery. Such was its success that Eve Online graced the September 2018 cover of Nature Biotechnology, an offshoot of one of the longest-running scientific journals in the world. So, just as Eve Online players can produce quantitative data merely by playing the game as intended, they can also pool their collective manpower. Either way, they’re an invaluable resource.

If strides in sociology and astronomy weren’t enough, Eve Online is also helping improve the Icelandic economy. Monitoring players’ habits of declaring war on newly formed corporations revealed a disturbing trend: fewer corporations formed, corporate activity dropped, and players ultimately left the game. “There are loads of lessons here that a government could take and consider. For instance: are we doing something with our tax policy that is disincentivising new corporations from emerging in our economy?” says Hjaltason. “Are we allowing the Apples and Googles of the world to be too dominant, and can they just kill every new successful company?’” Eve Online has plenty to say about appropriate regulation and healthy competition in the crucially important tech sector. You just have to know where to look.

Changing PC as we know it: our list of the most important games of the last decade (Eve came out in 2003)

What’s special about Eve Online is its transparency. Laws prohibit governments prying too deeply into the workings of real world companies, but Hjaltason can access data in abundance. He has the keys to the universe, able to monitor corporate supply lines, fleet rooms, and how active group chats are. Or, if he’d prefer, he can just send out surveys – the community is always more than willing to fill them in. You likely wouldn’t see that same openness from most people on the Fortune 500.

“I can get super accurate, valuable data that no government can,” Hjaltason tells us. “No government can measure the activity of their corps like this. Which means that we definitely have an interesting tool when it comes to understanding the real world, and I actually think we’re ahead of the game.”

Even the Icelandic government recognises the value of CCP’s work. Right now, it’s working to refine its innovation policy. This policy aims to support new companies forming. Grants and IP patents sound about as far removed from laser battles as you can get, but really, CCP is perfectly positioned to act as an advisor.

That’s exactly what it did when Iceland’s biggest party, the Independence Party, visited the studio earlier this year. “We’re not the only company – they’re talking to the universities and other companies – but they recognise we have some valuable input,” Hjaltason says. “So they asked us to join the debate, and CCP currently is contributing to building a new innovation policy in Iceland. And part of that reason is because of insights like this.” Only the biggest videogames are even noticed by politicians, and few if any can boast of making an active, positive contribution quite like this.

And no one is more surprised than Hjaltason. He joined CCP in 2015, and it wasn’t until the following year that he saw Eve Online as anything more than a game about spaceships. “When I started delving into this, I saw these massively strong connections being made. Purposeful, meaningful journeys that broke the boundaries between the virtual world and the real world. That translates into activity in the game: appearances on the cover of Nature magazine; us helping the human race advance in mapping of the human protein atlas; finding exoplanets; contributing to a point of improving innovation policy in Iceland. I mean, these are really good things that are making the world better.”

Videogames can be entertaining, challenging, moving, thought-provoking, and time-consuming, but rarely do they matter in quite the same way as Eve Online. The vast quantities of data it produces have the potential to change the fields of sociology, astronomy, biology, the economy, and who knows what else? Its advocacy of healthy competition could foster the rise of innovative new corporations. If we’re lucky, its crowdsourced hunt for exoplanets might reveal new habitable worlds.

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And even if you strip all this away, Eve Online remains, at the very least, an MMO that entertains thousands of people every day.