All About EVE: What Virtual Forever Wars Can Teach Us About the Future of Combat
It’s 2 p.m. on a Sunday, several months into a war that I’ve been fighting in as a remotely piloted vehicle operator. While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I receive a notification that an enemy fleet has been detected moving toward the expeditionary base that our forces recently established on the edge of their territory. Tapping on the notification for details, I see that it calls for me to log in and join a designated defensive fleet. Using dense shorthand, it also tells me who my fleet commander will be, which communications circuit to join, and what kind of vessel I should undock. Within minutes, hundreds of pilots at terminals around the world, all responding to similar notifications, have logged in and are being briefed on our mission objectives.
One might think that this is a fanciful vision of the future of warfare conducted remotely by networked military forces. But in fact it’s happening right now, albeit virtually, in the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games—specifically, in the universe of EVE Online. For some time now there has been interest from the defense sector in looking at video games as a source of innovation. Certainly, as anyone knows who has spent much time both playing modern computer games and using military hardware, the defense world could learn a lot from the gaming world. In some cases, it already has.
But learning from multiplayer online gaming could go deeper than that. In particular, defense thinkers could visit EVE and other online games for new ideas about how to organize, fight, and think in a future likely to be deeply affected by trends such as the increasing prevalence of unmanned and autonomous systems, the growing centrality of information warfare, and threats to traditional command and control. Military organizations are struggling to come to grips with the mind-boggling complexity and speed of warfare between advanced armed forces. The lack of relevant combat experience — as a data point, the only currently commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy that has sunk another warship in combat is the USS Constitution, from the War of 1812 — makes this struggle harder. While multiplayer online games may not have to contend with some of the complexities and constraints of real-world operations, they could still contain troves of insights that have evolved organically through years of constant fighting and refinement — and in the absence of the impedimenta of legacy defense bureaucracies.
An Overview of the EVE Universe
The observations I will discuss here are derived from several months investigating EVE, a persistent-world online game focused on virtual spacefaring, and in particular focused on combat between virtual spaceships. First released in 2003, the game has millions of subscribers, with more than 300,000 players per day. The EVE universe has a highly complex virtual economic system, with an open economy mostly run by players. The universe is so detailed and demanding that players have been known to joke that playing EVE is like having a second job. In larger-scale fleet combat, many of the ships involved have specialized roles including logistics and repair, command and control, electronic warfare, and reconnaissance. With piracy, espionage, bounty hunting, and more occurring as a matter of routine, among those in the online gaming community EVE is legendary for its complexity and remorselessness. The game even has grief counselors available to help new players overcome and learn from the mental adversity associated with losing ships.
Safety in Numbers: Joining a Player Corporation
Warfighting is the ultimate team endeavor. It doesn’t take long exploring in EVE to learn that solo combat against more-experienced human players is a losing proposition. To even the odds, many players will join what are called “corporations,” self-organized groups ranging in size from dozens to thousands of members. Back in the real world, military organizations have worked for thousands of years to find the best ways to build their teams, ones that can succeed on the battlefield. But while traditional personnel processes have focused on instilling uniformity, discipline, and physical resilience, the demands of future virtual or remotely operated warfare may call for very different ways to select, recruit, and onboard new members. To observe how EVE’s virtual teams fulfill these functions, I joined one of its biggest corporations, with more than 10,000 members.
The corporation I joined is known for particularly being “newbie-friendly,” relying on large numbers of new pilots to swarm and overwhelm adversaries. From those numbers, the group has been successful at growing a select cadre of experienced leaders. Upon acceptance to the group, the corporation directed me into its onboarding program, which starts with hyperlinked instructions from the group’s in-game bulletin and then sends new pilots to a dedicated website containing pages of detailed instructions required to get started as part of the fleet. These instructions provide standardized guidance on communications channels and formats, fleet operations, logistics, intelligence reporting, alliance management, rules of engagement, correspondence, and more. They also provide hyperlinks for files to upload and import to ensure screen configurations are set up for fleet operations. Some of the pages include animations of actual screen manipulations to show a new pilot exactly how to proceed with various portions of the setup process. Other pages include links to download third-party applications used for communications, both via voice and mobile and desktop text notifications. Compared to the clunkiness often associated with military information systems, everything just seems to work — and work well.
Corporation guidance focuses distinctly on standardizing and clarifying information flows. Members are warned that they can be kicked out for using improper means of communication. Aside from that sort of discipline, though, I have seen none of the hazing or belittling of new members that can be found in real-world military units. In fact, more experienced members are painstakingly receptive to questions, often offering to jump down into chat subgroups to answer questions in detail when it’s apparent that a new member is struggling or when an explanation becomes involved. This innate friendliness up and down the group is itself endemic, and breeds what I’ve found to be a surprising amount of loyalty within what would otherwise be a group of strangers. It seems to be what causes hundreds of volunteers to show up when called for from their real-world lives (I have seen a 200-person fleet logged on, organized, and on the move in less than five minutes), and causes members who leave the group to often come back after time spent in other corporations.
Information in Virtual Warfare
Information is one of the most important parts of virtual warfare, just as it is in warfare in the real world. This can be seen within the game in the form of a distinct focus on obtaining key information and denying it to adversaries, as well as organizing it in ways that are useful at the pace of battle. Within the game, fleet commanders use tools such as stealthy reconnaissance ships flown by specialized pilots, disguised “neutral” ships that are really under friendly control, and networks of moles within adversary corporations. Real-time video streams put online by other players, whether friendly or not, are used to gain information on forces in neighboring systems (one wonders immediately what use could be put to the plethora of internet-connected cameras in the real world). An awareness of the near-certainty of spying from within a corporation’s own ranks and systems colors the nature of fleet operations, with information about more valuable fleet assets conducted via separate communication circuits — accessible only to members who are trusted and have granted access to their in-game transactions and communications.
Another key aspect of information management within the EVE universe is real-time information presentation. In large fleet engagements, a player could be presented with a completely unmanageable flood of information to include thousands of items within a single solar system. To present this data in a useful form, the EVE user interface provides tabs and sorting mechanisms, which have been further customized and promulgated for corporation use. These allow pilots to sort information for traveling or combat, to quickly select a designated ship to target or maintain station with, or to warp to a celestial body if a fleet needs to immediately disperse.
Information management techniques such as these — which have developed within the game over years of competition — may illuminate ideas useful in the real world for dealing with factors such as known (or potential) penetrations of information systems, warfare conducted within sight and sound of the Internet of Things, and problems related to an oversupply — rather than a paucity — of information.
Command and Control of a Virtual Expeditionary Force
With what is likely to be an ever-increasing real-world focus on distributed and unmanned forces, EVE also shows a command-and-control model that could translate to the real world in useful ways. After all, how could hundreds (or even thousands) of people effectively team up to conduct organized and remotely operated large-scale operations without ever meeting each other? Could groups of strangers from around the world, with only garden-variety computers at hand, conduct effective and coordinated operations in large groups? What I have found has surprised me with its sophistication and flexibility.
Within my EVE corporation, fleet command and control is executed via multiple means, all internet-enabled. Members join voice chat, with subchannels set up for groups such as fleet command, reconnaissance, logistics, and electronic warfare. The in-game interface also includes a fleet “broadcast window” through which a fleet commander can issue commands via single clicks. In-game text chat channels are used for fleet operations, force coordination, general chat discussion, and intelligence reporting, and I have seen a separate text chat channel set up to relay verbally-issued instructions to a hearing-impaired player. The group’s command-and-control arrangements are highly flexible, able to support operations ranging from tens of pilots to more than a thousand at a time, spread throughout multiple fleets.
In an era of increased focus on disruption of information and the facilities that distribute it, perhaps a command-and-control model inspired by the EVE universe — or something like it — could provide a new vision for distributed command and control. In ways somewhat analogous to those envisioned for greater distribution of naval, air, and land forces in the era of precision strike, a construct of hundreds of operators logging on to unremarkable computers, located at many different locations, could be a way to reduce the vulnerability of command-and-control functions. No longer could an adversary cripple friendly command-and-control by striking, kinetically or by other means, a single or a few fixed headquarters. Instead, these functions could hide within the clutter of cities and civilian information technology systems, with operators logging in from locations throughout the world. Military forces that leverage the use of large numbers of remotely piloted vehicles in this manner could also recruit operators with radically different skill sets, casting a wider net to include people who live with physical limitations that would otherwise rule them out of military service, but that have no effect on their ability to operate a computer. (One has only to be savaged so many times by pilots who sound like preteens to understand that physical capacity may have little to do with combat success in the use of remotely piloted vehicles, and in fact may be inversely related.)
A Hybrid Training Model
Finally, EVE’s training model is one the military could learn from. The push to reduce training costs — and more recently, to deal with the reality of COVID-19 — by replacing some in-person training with computer-based training has at times produced decidedly mixed results. But human teachers drawing on whiteboards — or presenting dull PowerPoint slides — are unlikely to be an effective model in today’s world, as many digital natives have become used to processing information online at their own pace. A crucial ingredient to my group’s success (and trust me, they are good at what they do) has been a training program that can rapidly train them to a reasonably consistent standard of competence. This program is flexible and accessible enough to serve pilots (all unpaid volunteers) hailing from many demographic backgrounds, across multiple time zones, and often with English as a second language. It is not a product of traditional bureaucratic imperatives—rather, it has been continuously honed by the harsh reality of EVE’s virtual combat.
The result is a multilayered experience that includes online reading assignments and training videos (the corporation has a dedicated YouTube training channel), interactive team training, extensive instructor feedback and follow-up, and near-ubiquitous access to instructors and experienced pilots. Within the game, instructors are available in a dedicated chat channel so that new players can, at any time, resolve questions and concerns. During fleet engagements, a dedicated voice channel is set up for new members, with an experienced pilot available for consultation. By providing this instant access to a source of knowledge, new pilots are able to contribute and gain experience without being hopelessly lost or gumming up communications. This helps to allay one of the most timeless challenges of military operations: how to integrate new recruits into combat without leaving them ineffective or subject to excess attrition. On a longer-term basis, instructors actively reach out to newer pilots to see how they are doing, offering help and answering any questions the new pilot may have. I had the same instructor reach out to me at about the two-week and one-month points, indicating that the training component of my corporation was tracking me carefully.
In terms of “career” progression, I am still just beginning to grasp how my group selects its leaders, but a few principles are starting to come into focus. First, the selection of players to higher levels of access and responsibility is initially highly data-driven. Application for membership to more trusted levels of the group is limited strictly by factors such as time in service, completed skills, participation in fleet action, and generation of combat results. Collection of data on all of these factors is automated, with data harvested from EVE’s servers. Quite simply, if you qualify you can press Apply—if not, that button is grayed out until you do. The process of selection to higher-level command functions looks to be more nuanced. Players who aspire to fleet command can submit online requests delineating their experience, goals, and interests, at which point they may be selected to be groomed for command. When space becomes available, they may be assigned a specific mentor (based on time zone, style of play, experience level, etc.), with whom they will apprentice until they are allowed to begin commanding fleets on their own.
Questions of Relevance
As some observers are sure to point out, there are many ways that EVE is not the real world. The first is the obvious fact that the stakes are low, consisting merely of lost pixels and virtual currency, rather than real-world blood and treasure. To this I can fairly say that, while the ships in EVE are virtual, the emotions are often quite real. Many of the people I have encountered in the EVE universe are at least as invested and motivated about what they are doing as a fair portion of the military personnel I encountered over my years of service. I can certainly say that as measured by heart rate, some of my moments driving pixelated ships have been comparable in intensity to many I experienced operating real-world nuclear submarines. The reasons for this seemingly defy logic, but I cannot deny the reality.
Others may argue that the dynamics of warfare between fleets of computer-generated spaceships may bear little relation to combat involving actual weapon systems. To this I would point out that some of those same observers might be quite willing to use 18th-century naval combat between wooden sailing ships or combined-arms campaigns fought with rowed ships and massed spearmen in ancient Greece as sources of lessons for modern battles likely to involve electronic warfare, rail guns, and missiles, all of which EVE simulates to some degree. If one adheres to the Clausewitzian belief that war’s nature is enduring and comprises the trinity of enmity, chance, and subordination to rational objectives, then EVE certainly qualifies, even if the character of the simulated conflicts may be far removed from the Napoleonic land battles of Clausewitz’s day.
Finally, one should acknowledge that the creators of the slick processes and user interfaces seen within the EVE universe are not required to labor under many of the restrictions and requirements that often make information management difficult in the real defense world. For one thing, factors such as hacking and communications disruption are not normally a significant concern in EVE’s gameplay, as players caught engaging in them are subject to permanent banning from the game. Also, the competitive organizations within EVE do not labor under legacies such as interservice rivalry, domestic political considerations, or counter-productive bureaucratic imperatives (though one wonders if that would become the case if the game were to continue for long enough). Despite this, I believe that value can still be gained by seeing what, absent those constraints, might at least be possible were one able to overcome real-world obstacles and capture the fruits of the creative and competitive environment found in multiplayer online gaming.
Today’s defense thinkers face an unsettling paradox. The character of warfare is changing drastically, and the pace of change appears to be accelerating with the rapid development of new technologies and the reemergence of great-power military competition. When I began my Navy career in the 1990s, for example, the internet as we know it today did not exist, mobile phones were a luxury item that worked only in certain urban areas, and searching for information required physically looking for references on cards and in indexes. At the same time that the rate of change is accelerating, the repository of relevant military experiences is becoming increasingly dated. The last major conflict involving joint air-sea-land operations between modern military forces was the Falklands War in 1982, almost 40 years ago. The last direct clash between advanced, first-rank peer military forces was World War II, over 75 years ago.
Military organizations are trying to navigate an uncertain and rapidly changing future using badly outdated maps. Defense thinkers are using a variety of means to fill this widening chasm in knowledge including wargames, models, simulations, and inferences from peripheral conflicts like the 2006 Lebanon War or the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. All of these methods have their uses, as well as their flaws. I would argue that, properly studied and placed in context, studying the remorselessly competitive crucible of multiplayer online games like EVE could provide a useful source of insights and information on how to deal with particular aspects of future warfare, specifically information processing, organization, training, personnel integration, and command-and-control.
In the end, if defense thinkers have the time and inclination, they can take a look and judge for themselves. Just remember this: If you wander into EVE’s lawless space and don’t show up as blue on my screen, my friends and I will be waiting to warmly welcome you! Don’t worry, though, grief counselors are standing by.
Capt. (ret.) Thomas Shugart, U.S. Navy, is a former submarine warfare officer and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Within EVE Online, he is a line member of A Blessed Bean, a corporation operating as part of the Pandemic Horde Alliance.