CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson is sitting in his office in Iceland one day when the phone rings – it’s a call from a foreign embassy. “Someone from our country has a problem with your game,” the voice on the other end of the line explains.
People are always having problems in EVE Online, a spaceship sim where corporate espionage and heists are as commonplace as star systems. But this feels different, and there’s something menacing about the tone of the conversation.
“I say, ‘Okay, well, people have problems all the time. What kind of problem?’” Pétursson recalls.
The caller gives him a vague explanation, Pétursson says he can’t help, and the call ends. Shortly after, the phone rings again.
“The problem with the game?” the voice says. “It’s a big problem. This person… their father is very powerful.”
Pétursson looks into their account. It turns out they’ve been banned for real-money trading, in which people buy and sell EVE Online’s in-game currency, called ISK.
“The person had attempted to buy a lot of ISK from a real-money trading website, and we found the person because that’s what we do,” Pétursson tells me. “So now I know the situation, they call again, and I say, ‘Okay, I looked into it, they did something which is not allowed, we banned them, end of story.”
“Well, this is a big problem,” the embassy replies. “And it will be a big problem for you if you don’t fix it.”
Despite the threat, Pétursson digs his heels in and ends the call. Shortly after, the line trills again. This time, the tone is different, more pleading.
“You have to unban them and give them their money back,” the embassy says. “It’s a problem for me that this hasn’t been fixed.”
“Sorry, this is against the terms of service,” Pétursson replies. “It’s a clear violation.”
“Well… maybe it would be very good for you,” the voice says, “if you worked to fix it.”
Despite the attempted bribe, Pétursson still doesn’t reinstate their account.
Sometime later, the banned player creates a new account and buys a million dollars of in-game currency via EVE Online’s PLEX system – the legitimate way – and uses it to fund an in-game war in a bid for intergalactic domination. The war rages inside EVE Online for four months, but the player eventually loses, all that money turning into virtual space debris.
“In my opinion, they got their money’s worth,” Pétursson says. “They had the time of their lives to have thousands of their friends wage war and try to take over EVE Online. And once they had tried to threaten me and use any other means to cheat the system… if they couldn’t do it with the help of their embassy, then nobody can.”
As is often the case with EVE Online, it’s hard to tell where the line is – where real-life actions stop being just another part of the game.
I’m in Iceland for EVE Fanfest, a yearly fan event that brings the community together for in-game announcements as well as drinks and other social activities. Here in the Laugardalshöll arena, its automatic doors now fashioned after airlocks and its corridors bathed in blue neon lights, alliances are forged and broken. People spy on rival corporations, and players who met their significant other in-game occasionally tie the knot. Wedding ceremonies are conducted by Max Singularity (AKA Charles White), a man the community call ‘Space Pope’, a real-life NASA employee, atheist, and ordained wedding officiant.
He’s sitting opposite me in full regalia, including a pope hat (papal mâché, anyone?). Next to him is a player who calls himself Silas Singularity, his in-game nephew and the pope’s inquisitor. Everywhere Space Pope walks at this event, his inquisitors clear the way, gripping a medieval-style banner bearing his insignia. Even when they’re not playing the game, they’re playing the game.
At NASA, Charles White is the chairman of the Lessons Learned Committee, where he looks into accidents and finds causes, in a bid to prevent them from happening again. “If you go to Google and type ‘premature wear of Mars rover wheel’, you will find my actual NASA report on how the rover wheel got holes in it,” he explains.
In EVE Online, Max Singularity has gone from troll to community legend.
“It changed me, this frickin character,” he says, “into a gentler, kinder person.
“I wanted to troll everybody. Somebody wrote me and says, ‘Oh, we just had a child,’ I’d want to go Charles Dickens and say, ‘Are there no poor houses? Why don’t you decrease the surplus population?’ But no, I didn’t. I thought about it, I wrote a really nice sermon, and I sent it to them.
“And then I have another guy write me and he says, ‘My grandmother just died,’ and they want me to speak at the funeral. I have no idea what to say. Again, do I troll them and say, ‘Ah, the b**** has gone’?”
Instead of insulting people’s dead relatives, he leans into his role as one of EVE’s older players, using his life experience to give players advice.
“So the whole origin of the Space Pope was… I didn’t have a choice,” he tells me. “I was 54 years old at the time, and in two years, I lost seven friends to suicide. That’s the dark side of this silly story. I would be on comms and then people would refer other people to me, and I’d just be this old man. You know, here’s all these teenagers and 20-somethings going through their life stresses and I’m like, ‘Shut up, kids.’”
Thanks to this choice, he has an entire merch range and can’t walk a few meters at EVE Fanfest without someone wanting to kneel down in faux piety. He’s even been involved with the creation of in-universe comic books, he’s helped shape the lore, and on one occasion, CCP was forced to change its plans with an NPC character, the Empress, because Space Pope branded her a heretic.
He pulls out his phone and shows me a video where he met a fan earlier in the day. In the video, the man tells the pope that he changed the course of his daughter’s life. Pope then flicks through his image gallery and shows me half a dozen people who have his insignia tattooed on their flesh. It’s just another way the game spills out into the meatspace.
Where other companies are fighting to create the world’s first metaverse, there’s already one sitting right here, and it’s been here for 19 years.
Before EVE Online, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson was working in virtual reality modeling language (VRML) to create the metaverse. “We had avatars, dances, space stations,” he explains. “We had customization, motion capture, voice communication – in 1996, 50 years too early.
“So we wanted to do something practical with EVE Online, entirely with the purpose to not make a metaverse. Just to make a game. When we were trying to make the metaverse, we got nowhere. And then we were specifically making a game, we accidentally made the metaverse. I think that is the story of this metaverse thing – it’s an emergent property of something else. Trying to literally make it happen will just end up in a lifeless animatronic that nobody cares about.”
It’s a bit like how games that aim to become popular esports rarely are, but those that aim to be good competitive games first and foremost are the ones that make it big as a spectator sport. Like many things in Iceland, CCP is doing its own thing in its own way, but its achievements are often overlooked by the wider world.
There aren’t any McDonald’s restaurants in Iceland – a country of 360,000 people – not since the financial collapse of 2008. You see, McDonald’s mandates that its ingredients are imported – a costly process for Icelanders who would struggle to turn a profit if ingredients aren’t sourced locally. So McDonald’s shut up shop and was replaced by a chain of restaurants called Metro.
Metro kept all of the staff in jobs, translated the menu to Icelandic, and carried on selling chicken nuggets and Heimsborgari, the Icelandic equivalent of a Big Mac. The last ever McDonald’s order is on display in a hostel in Southern Iceland.
“When players come to Iceland, they often say, ‘Ah, now we get it,’” Pétursson explains. “We live on a volcanic island in the North Atlantic. The environment is trying to kill you all the time and you’re forced to cooperate. EVE Online is evil, and it wants to kill you. Only through cooperation against these immense elements do you have a chance of survival. And Icelanders are a little bit like that. The people that haven’t collaborated are already dead or frozen to the ground 100 years ago. It’s a hostile place. If it isn’t like gale-force winds, it’s volcanoes and earthquakes, falling down a crevice, waterfalls, boiling in a geyser – there are 50 ways to die in Iceland.”
If you take a tour bus along the Golden Circle, you get to see some of the country’s natural wonders while a tour guide throws out facts – Iceland’s energy prices are fixed because the geothermal plants are publicly owned, don’t you know? – and there’s a real sense of local heroism in each one. It’s a land that’s essentially been terraformed to become livable, so people who planted trees over a century ago are considered local legends. It reminds me of Space Pope and the other famous players I meet at the event.