Inside EVE Online’s fear of a Russian star cluster

My ship pulls out of warp just beside the stargate. I’m moving through a heavily populated area with high security. I’m not carrying cargo valuable enough to risk a suicide attack so I’m running on autopilot.

A string of cyrillic in my overview catches my eye. Suddenly I’m alert, my cheeks flushed, eyes wide open. I scan my monitor, searching for the source. It turns out to be just a labeled cargo canister, the de facto recruitment billboards of EVE Online’s universe, New Eden. The tension falls away but so has my comfort. I take my ship home on manual.

I am not alone in this fear. Catherine Goodfellow has even written an academic essay for the University of Manchester on the topic. “The game EVE Online,” she says, “has a relatively small Russian population, but there is a trend in the surrounding community to perceive Russian players as a disproportionately large threat to game stability.”

The Russians of EVE Online have a reputation—one I’m not always above falling prey to. Russians are gold farmers; Russians don’t play by the rules; Russians are aggressive.

Russians are the enemy.

Recently, EVE Online concluded the largest conflict in its 10-year history. The “Halloween War,” as it’s being called, was the sum of a decade’s aggression between Western European/American and Eastern European/Russian coalitions.

Ten years is a long time to hold a grudge. What fuels that sort of friction for so long?

Unfortunately, it might just be human nature. As the comics writer and journalist Andrew Wheeler puts it, “If you want to make people act against their own interests, you present them with a bogeyman and you tell them that every awful thing you’re doing is to protect them from a common enemy.”

Unfortunately, it might just be human nature. 

In World of Warcraft, the perception of Chinese gold farmers paves the way for sinophobia. In the gangster-themed Omerta, Turkish players’ in-game loyalties are constantly called into question over real-life ones.

The real-world analogs for these attitudes are unique to each and easy to spot. The West has been afraid of Asian economic expansion for decades. Middle-Eastern culture, meanwhile, is often poorly understood.

The Russians have their share of traditional gold farming stereotypes—likely due to high instances of malware and fraud on their corner of the internet.

They’re an “RMT/Botting empire who have amassed a large % of all the supercapitals in the game do to their EULA breaking habits,” according to an EVE player by the name of Eternum Praetorian on the game’s own forums.

But it’s also more than that. Russia isn’t just a headquarters for real-money trading in New Eden. They have a reputation for discipline, aggressiveness and solidarity. That’s what happens when you’re one of two superpowers caught in a 40-year military pissing match called the Cold War.

Russia, Turkey and China do have a few things in common. The language barrier is one. It’s difficult to trust someone you can’t understand. Easy identification is another. In reality it would be difficult to tell what country someone hails from at a glance. Online, however, players using Chinese characters, Turkish imagery and, of course, the Cyrillic alphabet can be identified straight away.

In her examination of cultural issues in Omerta, Melinda Jacobs quotes one Dutch player about the stereotypes.

“Turkish players put their nationality before everything and fill their profiles with Turkish symbols and pictures of Atatürk,” he said, referring to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey. “They’ve totally changed Omerta. Before the Turks came, none of this ever was an issue.”

It’s interesting that the player mentions the visual characteristics, not the attitudes, of the accused first. He seizes on the part of the players that mark them as The Other; the accusations are secondary.

In this way EVE Online is just like every other MMO. What sets it apart is the way Russian stereotypes become useful, and are eventually appropriated by the Western player base.

Caghji, another EVE player on the game’s forums, points out how “playing Russian” can dissuade hostility from other players. This separates the stereotyping culture of EVE from other games. After all, there’s no benefit to being called a gold farmer, but having someone think you’re one of the biggest bullies in a galaxy full of them has its perks.

“We had very limited (read none) PvP protection—so in our Corp description we wrote in English and in Russian that we were a null sec Russian logistics corporation,” Caghji wrote. Null-sec encompasses the sectors of space undefended by non-player factions. “Needless to say, we were neither Russian nor had any of our 5 corp members ever lived in null […] We went untouched for 6 months.”

The maneuver works for imitators, but it’s twice as effective when wielded by actual Russian players.

 Fear, like everything else in EVE Online, is a currency. 

“Russian players also freely associate themselves with many of these traits,” Goodfellow writes, “often mockingly employing stereotypes about their nationality into the bargain.”

They aren’t blind to the culture that has built up around them, and while many take offense there is an equal number that sees the benefit of exploiting it. Fear, like everything else in EVE Online, is a currency.

Caghji’s anecdote about “playing Russian” is a very direct example, but there are more subtle hints of Russian (more specifically, Soviet) influence.

EVE factions are notorious for their well-crafted, overly dramatic propaganda. You only need to Google “EVE Online Propaganda” to see the prominent reds and square-jawed laborers. Many of the posters are directly augmented from Soviet fliers.

Useful or not, there’s still a great deal of cultural tension in the game.

Roman Kebkalo, a Russian player of ten years, told me that he is “constantly faced with manifestations of nationalism and contempt from Western players to Russian, especially in claim wars.”

“Frequent insults in local chat by [sic] ethnicity. So I do not like English-speaking community of Eve as a whole,” he said. He cited former in-game factions like Band of Brothers, Lotka Volterra, and Veritas Immortalis as the “most intolerant,” and the modern superpower, N3 Coalition, as a more recent perpetrator.

It’s almost impossible not to mention Alexander “The Mittani” Gianturco while discussing EVE Online’s political landscape these days. He was a major player in “The Halloween War” and many now consider him the most powerful figure in the game. He’s most famous for his far-reaching network of spies, but occasionally his skullduggery gives way to the softer side of his personality.

According to Gianturco, enemies of Russian factions take to forums and chat channels to spread “Really over-the-top, obvious racist stuff, like ‘They’re feeding their families by selling isk for money over Ebay,’ jokes about buying Russian brides, calling them ‘Russian Dogs.’ “RA [The Real Red Alliance] gets very offended about attacks on their ethnicity…”

These kinds of comments have nothing to do with the game itself. They highlight the real damage that this sort of generalized thinking can inflict.

My apprehension at seeing a Russian artifact in space wouldn’t have surprised anyone 50 years ago. Today, however, I’m ashamed I was part of that scapegoating culture. If it works inside EVE Online, then it can (and has, and will continue to) work in reality.

No amount of virtual benefits can make up for the real-world implications.