Life in the State of Null-Sec: Or, Was Hobbes Right All Along?

I taught Introduction to Political Philosophy this past semester, so my students and I spent a fair bit of time parsing the long-standing debate in Western philosophy about “the state of nature.”  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the “state of nature” is a phrase used by several social contract theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe what they imagined the world was like before organized government came into being.  Thomas Hobbes, for instance, famously argued that prior to the development of government, every human being was perfectly free to do as they pleased, but that this freedom led to a “war of all against all.”  Accordingly, the life of men and women in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Eventually, though, human beings realized there had to be a better way of doing things, and turned over complete power to the Sovereign, who maintained peace between them with an iron fist.

His counterpart, John Locke, had a more sanguine view about what human existence might have been like prior to the emergence of government.  Locke, influenced by Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, suggested that the state of nature was a condition of abundance, where humans co-existed more or less peacefully.  In his view, government was simply established to adjudicate between competing rights claims, like when my right to freedom runs counter to your right to private property.

IR scholars have long been interested in this debate because they have traditionally claimed that in many ways the contemporary international system resembles a state of nature: there is no government or authority above states that can require them to act against their wishes.  Accordingly, if we want to properly understand the current state (and likely trajectory) of global politics, we should have an opinion about what life in the state of nature was actually like.

There are a number of ways to go about such a project, of course.  The easiest would be to carefully consider the findings of Anthropology (I’m personally partial to Steven Pinker’s summary of the main findings of prehistoric anthropologists in The Better Angels of Our Nature), but IR has never been particularly good at taking another discipline’s word for it.  Some IR scholars have looked at “failed states” like Somalia for clues, while others have studied how the modern state emerged historically.  But the secret wish of many IR scholars working in this area would be to organize massive social experiments that would place people in pre-governmental situations and observe their interactions.  Sadly, post the Stanford Prison experiments, this is something that no Institutional Review Board in the world is going to allow.  So large-scale observational studies of people living in a state of nature just don’t seem possible anymore in the 21st century… or do they?

It’s with all of this in mind that I recently came across a just published paper in Games & Culture by Oskar Milik about the (in)famous computer game EVE Online.  Like me, you’ve probably never played EVE, but you might have read about it: it’s the game that routinely garners headlines like “Inside the Epic Online Space Battle That Cost Gamers $300,000” and “‘You Will Lose Both Hands’ — How the Biggest Theft in EVE Online History Ended in Death Threats.”  At its core, EVE is a space opera-themed MMO with very minimal rules.  The game’s developer, Iceland-based CCP Games, prohibits using external software to manipulate things in-game, but besides that pretty much anything goes: you can lie, cheat, trade, scam, build, spy, intrigue, extort, fight, and murder as you please… and so can everyone around you.  It is arguably a classic state of nature, with all 500,000 active players having near-total freedom (and considerable anonymity).  As Milik writes,

The nature of EVE Online would suggest that large organized systems would not readily emerge in this sort of environment, and that in fact, it would be far more likely for the whole system to collapse into a collection of small groups that break apart frequently for short-term gain.  In practice, however, this social breakdown has not occurred.  In fact, the organizations that form in Eve Online are massive, strict hierarchies that have complex leadership and bureaucratic structures.

Milik reports that players have banded together in corporations ruled over by self-styled “warlords,” who make high-level political decisions about war and peace, leading to frequently shifting alliances and coalitions.  At the same time, however, the warlords must ensure that their corporation members actually log into the game often enough and perform certain actions for their political decisions to have any effect.  The warlords attempt to motivate their subordinates via “propaganda” broadcasts, some of which are explicitly modeled after the “State of the Union” speeches American presidents traditionally give.  A sample excerpt, from a past leader of the Goonswarm coalition:

As you know, Goonswarm is involved in a war with enemies that truly hate us.  The war isn’t about space, or moons.  The war is about the Goons.  Our enemies hate our culture.  They hate our propaganda, they hate our posting, and they hate us as people.  This is not a war for resources.  This is a war to wipe out our culture.

As Milik notes, this doesn’t sound terribly different from what leaders on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict routinely claim.  Another quote from a different leader’s speech would make Niccolò Machiavelli proud:

I can either be a nice upstanding citizen and screw over Goonswarm by not being allowed to use the kind of tactics that are necessary to have us succeed and survive in null-sec [“no security” space, the most dangerous areas of the game], which people in the media don’t understand, is basically like lawless Somalia.  You can’t show weakness in null-sec, you can’t behave like a good citizen, or you end up like Attendant Frontier did–those wonderful citizens who got of course rolled over by a stronger power at the first opportunity.

Following successful wars of conquest, it’s also the warlords who get to decide to divide up the territorial gains among their followers, in true feudal style, which is the other major way warlords have of maintaining control over corporation members.  Indeed, when you compare this time-lapse video of territorial changes in the Eve Online universe with this video history of Western Europe, it seems rather clear to me that some of the same fundamental processes are at work in both.

But a fun wrinkle for would-be warlords is that they often don’t know who in their organization they can trust, as apparently spies and double-agents are rife among players: “misplaced trust [can] have huge repercussions.  A single person, given proper access, can instantly dissolve an organization with a thousand members, as seen in multiple game-changing spy actions in the history of the game.”  Despite these difficulties, the corporations persist and are a central element of players’ experiences of EVE.

All in all, then, it would seem that the core insight of Hobbes’ take on the state of nature seems to hold in the case of EVE, namely that in an anarchic state of nature individuals will voluntarily surrender their freedom and band together for safety from one another.

Could IR scholars gain additional insights into how human beings act in anarchic situations by studying virtual worlds in a serious manner?  Could MMO games provide social scientists with quasi-experimental set-ups for deeper explorations into how individuals act under a variety of conditions?  I’d argue it’s worth looking into.  Milik closes his article by noting that perhaps more than the near-total absence of rules in EVE Online, it’s arguably other features of the game that lead to its Hobbesian outcomes, such as the fact that territoriality was hard-coded into the game.  Indeed, in one of the most famous IR articles of all-time, Alexander Wendt suggested that when actors encounter anarchic situations, the anarchy per se doesn’t determine their behavior, but rather the actors’ mindsets going into it.  Are there other popular MMOs out there whose game developers have chosen to emphasize different aspects of human behavior (say, Second Life)?  If so, what could those games also reveal about human nature?  Social scientists should find out.