As the roar of revellers reverberates around a rowdy Reykjavik, you would be forgiven for thinking this was an average Friday night. Yet among the bearded Icelanders quietly sipping their Einstök is a different kind of drinker: multiplayer spaceship game EVE Online’s intergalactic elite. On one May weekend each year, this island becomes the playground of the world’s most devoted gaming community.
For those who don’t know their Minmatar from their Caldari, EVE Online is a hugely complex player-led video game, a virtual spaceship sandbox where – in the right hands – spreadsheets are as powerful as space fleets. Its complex history has been written by its players, with numerous fascinating tales of wars, betrayals and heists. Because the developers of the game rarely interfere, EVE is an experience that often feels less like a video game and more like a libertarian social experiment. As such, it attracts an intellectual – and extremely driven – player base.
EVE’s warring player groups – or corporations – are usually confined to windows and Discord chats, yet as 350 players from 40 countries swarm this Atlantic isle, EVE’s fictional universe becomes very real. In the throng, drinks are spilled and jokes exchanged by flag-waving alliance members. By the time the last bar shuts on Fanfest’s infamous Reykjavik pub crawl, some longstanding rivalries are settled, while whispers of interstellar betrayals emerge from darkened corners.
For many of EVE Online’s 50 million players, this complex virtual world is simply another space to succeed in. Real-world experience of stock trading, marketing and graphic design make you a powerful asset to player-run corporations – and a large section of EVE’s player base are hugely successful outside the game.
“I was at Disney for a long time – 16 years,” says Dunk Dinkle, the interim CEO of Brave Collective, an in-game group with more than 8,500 members. “Now, I’m at NBC, where I oversee technology for their marketing group.” For Dinkle, EVE Online slowly morphed from a hobby into a second job, in which he presides over his ever-growing intergalactic fleet. “If you’re a leader, the game never stops,” he says. “You wake up and there’s a whole new list of problems. The Australians are mad at the Europeans, and you have to deal with it. It’s like work in that way.”
EVE Online’s most influential players often find that this complex, alluring virtual space slowly starts to claim more of their real-world time. “It’s about that balance between relaxation and responsibility. In the morning I spend 45 minutes to an hour just checking on my EVE Slacks and Discords to catch up,” Dinkle says. “I go to work, come home, and for two to three hours, I log in. When it’s a big battle, we’ll be up all night.”
For Dunk, it seems the appeal of EVE is that it isn’t just a brief distraction, a way to unwind for a while, as video games are for most players. Instead, it’s a place where his professional skills are keenly rewarded.
“A lot of those skills of being a corporate executive – going to events, conflict management, resource allocation, spreadsheets – you use in EVE,” he says. “In your professional life, it’s hard to feel those wins on a regular basis. If you’re a high achiever, you want that reward system. In television, it’s a never-ending treadmill. You always need another promo. In EVE I built this gigantic thing that not many people can. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I get that feeling in my career, sure, but not once a week.”
While EVE markets itself on jaw-dropping space battles, for the finance bros who flock to the game it’s the sophisticated simulated economy that’s the real draw. EVE is often self-deprecatingly called “spreadsheets in space”. During this year’s Fanfest, CCP announced an official partnership with Microsoft Excel, to rapturous applause.
“EVE feels like trading,” says investment guru OZ_Eve, AKA Jari Vilhjalmer. “I can pull the data, look for trends, build tools around it … I have a big Bloomberg terminal-type tool that I look at in the morning to see where the market’s at. There’s no other game where you can do that.”
Thanks to his finance background, Vilhjalmer has become the most successful private investor in EVE, teaching other players how to accumulate via his popular Twitchstreams. “I was just playing the game to be the richest player – and I succeeded,” he says. “I can’t compete in space combat, but I can take everyone’s money.”
When it comes to wielding influence, we all know real power lies in governance – and where would a virtual society be without its own politicians? “Before I flew out here, I was trying to fight a proposal that the Senate’s pushing through. That’s how I spend the days. Then I goof off at night playing EVE Online,” says Brisc Rubal, a Virginian Maritime Union lawyer and lobbyist who served in the Bush administration.
“I’ve been in Washington for about 25 years now,” Rubal says. “I ran elections in the largest county in Virginia for two years, and that was my shtick when I first ran for EVE’s player council: I’m the real-life politician running for the EVE political body.”
Rubal’s tenure as part of EVE’s in-game council has been controversial. Elected EVE players are privy to confidential changes to the game, which means council members know crucial details that can be leveraged to influence the market and make real-world money. It’s a goldmine for insider trading – a crime of which Rubal was accused.
The scandal tarnished his real-world image, too. “My wife lost clients at work, Fox News called, the Washington Post was asking my office for comment. It was crazy. I had to explain to my 83-year-old boss why the press was calling me. ‘Well, boss, I play this video game, and got accused of some stuff, but I’m working it out.’”
Thankfully for Rubal, he did work it out. After finding the evidence to clear his name, his player account was eventually reinstated, and in 2020 he ran again – successfully.
EVE is home not just to businesspeople and politicians, it has its own spiritual leaders, too. “I have married people, I have done funerals, I have blessed babies,” says Charles White, better known as the Space Pope. At the Lessons Learned division of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, White’s day job is to comb through fatal errors from previous space missions, publishing reports that could help save lives on the next lunar outing. He also likes dressing up in papal robes.
“It’s a lot of fun,” White smiles, with his silent, cloaked disciple sitting beside him. Coming to EVE Online at the age of 54, he found himself quickly doling out life advice to younger players. Thanks to his perceived wisdom, devotion and friendliness, a player made a meme of him as the pope. White embraced it, rocking up to his first Fanfest in full papal garb. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Because I have a high-stress job, I play a high-stress game,” says White. “It’s not this giant leap between the two. If I screw up in EVE, it’s stressful. It has the same adrenaline that keeps me going, but without the devastating consequences. I can lose an entire Keepstar [citadel] and laugh at it, and that’s what attracts me to EVE.”
It’s EVE’s unique brand of space stress that appeals to another real-life rocket scientist, Scott, better known as Ithica Hawk. While he’s hesitant to reveal too many specifics about his role in fear of “getting doxed”, he works with some pretty important satellites. While he tinkers with essential tech by day, in EVE he’s a tournament-winning space pilot, and a popular face in the community. Having hosted several events at the EVE Fanfest, Scott says the game has givenhim a confidence he didn’t know he had.
“When I was younger, I was quite shy, and now I’m on stage in front of hundreds of people and doing tournaments that are streamed to thousands. I’ve discovered that I’m very good at it, and I wouldn’t have had any chance to experience that if it wasn’t for EVE.”
As someone who has run corporations, Scott sees being able to motivate hundreds of people as one of EVE’s most important transferable skills: “That’s a huge amount of people management. It’s basically a medium-sized company, but people are paying to be there. If you’re not delivering, the whole thing will fall apart. It’s probably harder to run EVE corporations than actual businesses.”
Much like the Space Pope uses EVE to take risks he’d never dare at Nasa, another appeal of this seductive sandbox for otherwise law-abiding people is the space it makes for virtual villainy.
“Most people decide you can’t be the bad guy in real life, but in EVE you can be the bad guy,” says Rubal. “Mittani is probably the most famous player of all time, and he’s a great guy.” Alex “the Mittani” Gianturco, a Washington DC attorney, is EVE’s resident troublemaker, responsible for starting wars, orchestrating year-long espionage missions, allegedly bribing the game’s developers and leading EVE’s most fearsome alliance: Goonswarm.
“[Mittani] gets to role-play as the big mean tyrant. Ever wanted to play Darth Vader in Star Wars? Well, here you get the ability to do that. I think that’s what attracts people to EVE, too: you can do what you want in a way that you would never get away with in real life.”