The Goonswarm

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2011

I’ve lost the attribution note for where I found this piece, so apologies for the lack of source (it’s been sat in my Evernote inbox waiting to be read for a couple of weeks now), but given Monday’s mention of EVE I thought it well worth dragging out into the sunlight, even though it’s a few months old. So: gamer blog Rock Paper Shotgun did a long interview with an EVE player known as The Mittani – CEO of Goon Fleet, the Something Awful forum’s in-game clade – shortly before his election as chair of the Council of Stellar Management, which is CCP’s mechnaism for enfranchising EVE players as stakeholders in its long-term development, and it’s well worth a read.

If you’re thinking “why would I want to read an interview with some MMO ubergeek?”, I hazard to suggest you’re making a category error; The Mittani is more than just a player of games, he’s the figurehead and autocratic leader of a virtual corporation comprised of over ten thousand real people… and that corporation has, it would appear, engendered a significant cultural shift in the imaginary galaxy where it resides, as well as in parts of the real world in which that virtuality is embedded. He is shamelessly cocky yet also disarmingly modest, and talks more common sense about leadership than the vast majority of the biz-speak hucksters that the blogosphere teems with.

I’m not suggesting you need to admire him, or even like him. But I’m saying with certainty he’s a fascinating character. A few snips to tempt you with:

RPS: So what happened to Band of Brothers?

MT: I, uh, disbanded them.

RPS: What? How was that even your choice?

MT: At the beginning of the second stage of the Great War we had a defector from the executor corporation of Band of Brothers who thought that we were cooler guys. Basically he thought that his alliance was full of assholes, because their leadership structure was full of guys who wanted to be in “the most elite alliance in Eve”. Whereas Goonswarm, a lot of the time, were bad. We had a lot of newbies and no pretentions.

The disbanding itself was covered by the BBC. Ordinarily when you have a defector you do smash and grabs, just getting the other guy to steal everything that’s not nailed down and come over to your side. Now, I was still just the spymaster at this point, and I was sitting there in my office and I had this brain fart – with the access that this guy had, he had the authority to kick out every single corporation in the alliance and then shut down his own corporation, thus disbanding the alliance, which has the impact of disabling all the sovereignty defenses in their region. This had never been done before. All of a sudden I was like, “Holy shit! I can do this!”

Also, at the time Goonswarm owned half the galaxy. We controlled all of these regions, but as soon as we disbanded Band of Brothers we abandoned everything and all moved into what had been their territory. Over the course of two very bloody months we purged them and took all their space.

RPS: You hated them that much?

MT: Well, this goes back to the T20 scandal and these people declaring us a cancer on Eve. The entire Great War took four years, so yeah, maybe we were a little vengeful.

[…]

RPS: Do you think the Great War happened because you guys needed something to keep you entertained?

MT: No, it really was a bitter grudge war. They took it outside of the game. When they invaded Syndicate space it wasn’t a retaliation, it was them saying that Goons are bad human beings. …one higher up at Band of Brothers said “this is as personal as it ever gets”. And then it came out that one of their leaders was a CCP developer who was giving them items, which ignited a huge firestorm of controversy. You had these elite players who were the paragons of the old guard telling everybody, quite literally, “We’re better than you”, and then it turns out they’re a bunch of disgusting cheaters who are being given some of the most valuable items in the game by the developers.

RPS: What’s next for you guys?

MT: People ask us that a lot, but we don’t plan more than a month or two in advance… we do scheme a lot, because thanks to our spy network, we know what the other alliances are doing. But fanfest usually brings everything to a crashing halt. The game gets really boring around fanfest, because everyone’s planning on coming here.

We are griefers. If nothing is going to happen then we’re going to try to find something that screams and bleeds and poke at it.

[…]

RPS: Do you feel like expanding on what you said as we were walking over here, about Eve being a terrible game and that it’s the players who make it interesting?

MT: Well, I suppose since I’m going to be on the Council of Stellar Management and I’m probably going to be the Chairman I should probably clarify that.

Eve, for Goons, is fun because we play with Goons. By itself, it’s a game where you have to jump through a lot of hoops to have fun. I think all the small fixes CCP are doing at present are good. Eve players make fun of World of Warcraft a lot, but if you look at what Blizzard has done ironing out all those flaws and annoyances, it’s a tremendous achievement. Eve’s learning curve is vertical, and full of spikes, and the beautiful side of Eve is the image of it that players have in their heads.

The best analogy for Eve is this: 1% of the time, when you take part in a massive fleet fight, or take part in some epic espionage caper or something, it is the most fun game you will ever encounter. 99% of the time you’re just waiting for something to happen. But it’s that 1% that hooks people like crack cocaine. I mean, you don’t get interviewed by the BBC when you win a WoW raid.

RPS: For my money, Eve might be the most fascinating game in existence today. But that doesn’t stop it from being interminably boring as well.

MT: Right. I mean most Eve players are stuck in high security space mining, and a lot of the core PvE in Eve has you sitting there are watching three grey bars slowly turn red.

Lots more interesting stuff in there, not least of which is the revelation – not entirely surprising in retrospect, I suppose – that CCP has its own in-house professor of economics. Wow.

I really need to stop admiring this world from afar and get my hands dirty, don’t I? Are there any EVErs in the Futurismic readership who’d be willing to show me the ropes?


Narrative warfare: Operation Sockpuppet

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

It’s all coming out about Operation Sockpuppet, sorry, Operation Earnest Voice, the Pentagon’s online psyops software grab (which lends a certain level of extra credence to that HuffPo analysis of the HBGary fallout, of which I said at the time ‘my first reaction to reading that piece was “what took them so long?”’ – sometimes being right is no fun at all). I’ll look forward to the concise explanation of how this is totally different to the sort of state espionage upon civilians that goes on in China (which I expect will boil down to “it’s bad because it’s Them doing it”).

But you’ve little cause for alarm, as it’s honestly only going to be used on brown people who speak funny:

Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”

He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks, CentCom; it’s very comforting to take your word for it! Certainly more comforting than, ah, not doing so.

My favourite paragraph from the Guardian piece linked is this one, though (emphasis mine):

This month Petraeus’s successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV “supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities”.

That’s pretty much an open admission that modern warfare is fought with stories for weapons. Granted, a close reading of history will show you that’s always been the case, but the internet provides unprecedented new opportunities for weaponizing narrative… which means we need to wrestle ownership of the world’s narrative back from those who want to write hackneyed and blood-spattered rise-of-the-Roman-Empire stories over and over again.


New market for near-future mil-SF stories! Erm, US Central Command?

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2010

Major General (retired) Robert Scales is a big fan of Orson Scott Card, and he’s found a receptive market for his own fictionalised visions of the future: the guy who may well end up in charge of US Central Command.

Earlier this year, Scales and Mattis were sharing ideas about the next generation of small units — something the two iconoclastic senior officers have done repeatedly over the last six years.

But rather than codify the notions into a formal policy paper or into a PowerPoint briefing, Mattis asked Scales to write him a story. “One of his favorite pieces is Ender’s Game,” Scales says, referring to the science-fiction classic. In that spirit, Scales penned “Jerry Smith’s War: 2025.”

I’m not sure he’s quite up to the prose standard we choose to publish here at Futurismic… 😉

In truth, Scales has been doing futurist work for the US military for years, and this latest effort is part of his push to upgrade small in-the-field units with networked technologies: head-up displays, multiple channels of communication between memebers of the unit as well as between the unit and the command and support infrastructure, so on and so forth.The sort of stuff we’ve been reading about in novels for decades, in other words.

In fact, I wonder just how many ideas Scales has pitched which were thought up by (proper) sf writers first? I hope he does his due diligence searches on Technovelgy so he can give credit where it’s due… after all, I bet he’s raking down much more than SFWA professional per-word rates from his buddies at the Pentagon.


Legislating against orbital warfare

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2010

Those of you of a certain age will remember Star Wars… not the movies (though you probably remember those pretty well, too) but the Reagan-era space weapons program that took its name from them. And maybe you remember 2008’s brief spate of chest-thumping from the US and China as they demonstrated their abilities to destroy satellites using missiles launched from Earth.

Well, the Obama administration is putting orbital warfare back on the agenda, but in a slightly more positive way – namely by reversing the Bush administration’s previous refusal to discuss potential arms control measures against the weaponisation of near-Earth space. It’s a fine gesture, but there’s a problem – in that swords and ploughshares are very hard to tell apart in this particular domain. Think of it, perhaps, as a nation-state scale version of the street finding its own use for things.

“Dual-use technology will hugely complicate the issue of agreements,” says Joan Johnson-Freese of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. For example, missiles that can shoot down other missiles to shield a country from attack could also be used to destroy a satellite in space. Indeed, there is “no fundamental difference” between the missiles used in each application, says Ray Williamson of the Secure World Foundation (SWF) in Washington DC.

[…]

Other double-edged swords are satellites designed to autonomously navigate their way to the vicinity of another satellite in space, a technology that the US demonstrated by flying a mission called XSS-11 in 2005.

A country could use such technology to inspect and repair one of its own malfunctioning satellites or to grab it and drag it into the atmosphere to dispose of it without adding to space junk. But the technology could also be used to interfere with or damage another country’s satellite, says Brian Weeden of SWF. “If you can remove a piece of debris from orbit, then if you really wanted to you could probably remove an active satellite maliciously,” he says. “The rendezvous technology is spreading to a lot of places, because people are seeing economic incentive in on-orbit servicing.”

So, how to prevent warfare in orbit? Call in the lawyers and policy wonks!

“I think the key is in trying to constrain behaviours rather than capabilities, because the capabilities are not going to be constrained,” says Krepon. So even if missile interceptors themselves remain legal, an agreement could outlaw their use in tests that destroy satellites.

To deal with the issue of malicious satellites with autonomous rendezvous technology, spacefaring nations might agree to a code of conduct requiring a country to provide advance notice if it expects one of its satellites to closely approach one belonging to another country.

Lots of sensible and noble thinking going on there… but as with all such agreements, the end result is rather dependent on there being no nation-state (or corporation, or other entity) that’s willing to risk international opprobrium by breaking the rules (O HAI, North Korea!). It’s not too big a deal at the moment, perhaps, but if (as seems likely) we start finding good ways to get valuable resources from beyond the gravity well, the economic incentives for playing it fast and loose in Satellite Town will become a whole lot stronger. (Always assuming, of course, that more immediate and mundane economic concerns don’t distract us from peering at the stars from our vantage point in the gutter, so to speak.)

Also worth remembering that there is a genuine need for destructive intervention in orbit; remember us mentioning the rogue zombiesat that no one could switch off? Still wandering about up there, apparently.


Is killing a drone operator a legitimate act of war?

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

Here’s a tricky modern conundrum for you, via Cheryl Morgan. Over at Crooked Timber, people are discussing a recent BBC radio program about the increasing use of remote-controlled drones and UAVs by Western military forces, specifically in theatres of the “War on Terror”; I’ve not had the chance to sit down and listen to the re-run of the program, but the post at CT raises the titular question:

Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve always found the notion of “legal warfare” to be more than a little ludicrous (as surely the laws of war are set by whoever won the last one, designed to maintain the geopolitical status quo, and hence inherently partisan), it’s an interesting question. The line between combatant and non-combatant has become increasingly blurred over the course of the last century, and the remote operations afforded by drone technology (not to mention guided missiles, and arguably any technology superior in accurate range to that of the opposition) are firmly planted in a sort of moral no-man’s-land. Is there a quantifiable difference between pulling a trigger to kill a man who you can see through your rifle sight, and pressing a button that kills a man who you can see on your computer monitor, thousands of miles away in a country you’ve never even been to?

It seems perfectly clear to me that there’s no moral difference whatsoever: to kill is to kill, no matter how it is accomplished or mediated. So the final question stands – is the drone operator a legitimate military target for the faction or nation he is deployed against? If not, why not? And where does that legitimacy spring from? Is it a genuine ethical construct, or is it a sort of retrospective justification after the fact? “Kill ’em all – let God the lawyers sort ’em out.”


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