Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In which, despite my best efforts, I have responsibility inflicted upon me...

The story of how I became an Interstellar Politician begins almost 30 years ago, back in the Dark Ages, when Men were Real Men, Women were Real Women, and Computers were Real Slow.

At that time, I was busily engaged in designing and coding computer games, with some success. It was a heady time to be a computer game design nerd -- we were all convinced that we'd be the Rock Stars of the 80's, with all the perks associated with such exalted status, in particular the groupies. And we were right! There were groupies! Hundreds of them -- and all of them guys who looked just like us.

By 1992 I was pretty much out of the game business. I'd gone to Japan to build what probably would have been the first MMORPG (that's "Modestly Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game") and chase a girl. The project failed when the funding dried up (damn you, Japanese Economic Bubble!), but the girl... ah, the girl, she was everything I was looking for: brilliant, witty, equipped with a twisted sense of humor, and most important of all, she had absolutely atrocious taste in men.

So began my second career: bringing japanese anime and live-action films to America, raising two children, and desperately trying to ensure that my wife didn't realize how fail I was (so far, so good). And the funny thing was, during most of that time, I didn't play computer games at all.

Sure, the graphics were better. But by and large, the games were boring, derivative, evolutionary. They just weren't interesting.

Skip ahead a few years, my kids are teenagers, and they start playing WoW. I decide to play with them to make sure it's OK. It's slick and polished, but it's clear that its a theme-park ride. Within a few months, the only thing keeping me playing is there is a meta-game of building addons that appeals to my programmer side.

Meh. Nothing's changed.

Then over the winter holidays a couple of years ago, I hear about this space game called EVE-Online. I have a weakness for space games because at one time I was totally addicted to the first significant multiplayer space combat game, Empire -- so much so that it got me kicked out of Cornell for a year -- with one semester left to go (which turned out to be a blessing, since that's when Wizardry got written).

So I downloaded the client... and 2.5 years later I'm still playing.

Why? Because despite its many flaws, EVE is the most significant advance in computer gaming in the last decade. The combination of a single world model (no realms) and a dedication to a "sandbox" philosophy (as opposed to a theme-park design) means it is the most immersive and social game environment available today. You don't play EVE, you go to EVE to play.

That made it worth my time.

Fast-forward to a few months ago. One of the things that makes EVE unique is a player-elected Council of Stellar Management, or CSM. The players elect 9 of their peers to represent their concerns to CCP, the producers of EVE.

A lot of Eve players, in particular the bitter old vets, consider the CSM to be nothing but a PR exercise for CCP and a free trip to Iceland for the delegates, and quite frankly, they've had a point (about the lack of power; as for the value of the trips, to be honest, if first prize is a free trip to Iceland to sit in a Conference room for 30 hours arguing with Viking Computer Geeks, then second prize is two free trips to Iceland to sit in a Conference room for 30 hours arguing with Viking Computer Geeks).

But starting with the current council, CSM5, the CSM has stakeholder status within the company, which is a "chicken" role within CCPs "scrum methodology". This means it has the potential to do more than just beg the company to address player concerns.

As election season was approaching, I was becoming more and more concerned about the long-term future of the game. Here I had finally found a game that I considered worthy of my time, and I was wondering if it was still going to be around in 5 years. Fleet fights in EVE already can have more than 1000 players duking it out in a single engagement, resulting in the dreaded "lag". What would happen if EVE grows to have twice as many players? The UI was becoming more and more dated. How will it adapt to an environment where more and more people want to play games on iPad-style devices?

I decided to run for CSM without any expectation of actually getting elected, but because I wanted to use the election process to raise these and other issues without them simply getting lost in the noise of regular forum chatter, and maybe, if I was lucky, influence a few of the people who might actually have a chance of getting elected. Even though I campaigned pretty seriously, I was pretty light-hearted about it. My major campaign promise to the members of my own in-game Alliance was that, if elected, I would provide them with a massive supply of Exotic Dancers, and in the case of one particular person with "special needs", Livestock.

So you can imagine my shock when, the day after the election, I get an email that reads:

Subject: [Confidential] You have been elected to the fifth CSM


Congratulations on being elected to the Council of Stellar Management...

The first thing I do is check the headers...

Received: from ( [])
by with ESMTP id x1si12662595wei.102.2010.;
Thu, 20 May 2010 06:36:37 -0700 (PDT)
Received-SPF: pass ( domain of designates as permitted sender) client-ip=;
Authentication-Results:; spf=pass ( domain of designates as permitted sender)
Received: from ([]) by with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.4675);
Thu, 20 May 2010 13:36:36 +0000
Received: from ([]) by
([]) with mapi; Thu, 20 May 2010 13:36:35 +0000

Wow, they actually look legit. However, I am still unconvinced. Until I actually see a public announcement (due the next week), I remain entirely dubious. This could just be a very elegant punk.

The week goes by. My corporation and alliance mates are constantly pumping me for details. Did you get in? Have they told you anything? I decide that my best play is to grumble and groan about how I haven't heard anything, so clearly I didn't get in, but maybe I got one of the alternate standby slots. As the week goes on, I get more and more depressed online. "Nah, guys, nothing. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted."

I am much consoled by my soon-to-be ex-friends.

While this is all going on, I start to construct elaborate conspiracy theories to explain just how in hell I got myself elected. These include:
  1. Computer Error in Your Favor. Collect 1,463 votes. Go to Iceland. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
  2. Someone at CCP has decided to punk me. They will "discover" their error just before the official announcement.
  3. The Goons (an alliance in the game famous for their "hijinks") have voted me in for the LOLs.
  4. People actually thought my ideas were decent (I reject this one immediately as ludicrous).
The big day comes. The official announcement is made -- and I really am elected, or so it seems. I immediately revise my opinion; I am now sure that someone at CCP has decided to seriously punk me. They will now "discover" their error just before I get on the plane to Iceland. I receive several death-threats from my Alliance-mates for stringing them along, and one email demanding "where the hell are my 50,000,000 iskies worth of Livestock?" Strippers and sheep are dispatched on long interstellar journeys to provide a little comfort to lonely starship pilots.

Over the next few weeks, I spend 2-4 hours a day preparing for the first CSM meeting in Iceland. I have practically no time to actually play the game.

The big day arrives. I got to the airport. The tickets are real. I fly to Iceland.

I revise my opinon; I am now sure that this is an Epic Punk, and that the big reveal will be at the start of the first meeting. Everyone is in on it, including the other CSMs that I meet. I write "I knew it was a punk, you bastards" on a 3x5 card and put it in my pocket, just in case.

I enter the conference room. I sit down. The meeting starts. And the true enormity of what has happened hits me.

I have just committed to spending 20 hours a week for the next year doing a job for which the compensation is 3 trips to Iceland and the pleasure of having hundreds of thousands of people think I'm totally clueless.

And then I realize what really happened in the election.

Those Goon bastards have griefed me.