“I like to think of myself as the music, rather than someone listening to the music,” says Xenuria. His black hair is groomed in the style of 1990s Jon Bon Jovi, his oversized blood-red shirt damp with sweat. He’s sitting on a stool positioned on a balcony overlooking the wide, deep foyer of the Harpa, a concert hall and convention center of striking modern elegance in Reykjavík. Xenuria is part of EVE Online’s Council of Stellar Management, making him something akin to Vito Corleone here at the annual EVE Fanfest we’re all in Iceland’s capital to experience.
He has a girl standing on either side of him. I’m not sure if they’re with him or just want to be. One of them offers me up a plastic soda bottle filled with whiskey mixed with something that causes diabetes; the other says nothing.
It’s around 11 p.m., and Xenuria has just finished being the music to beats laid down by Kristian Nairn, the guy who played Hodor in Game of Thrones. Hodor says “Hodor” a couple of times throughout the set and a densely packed crowd—aliens, futuristic clergy, gothic space-fighter pilots and the female edition of Starman-era David Bowie—goes wild. There’s nothing like feeling as though you belong.
What is EVE Online? A single question with multiple answers. In video game jargon, it’s a persistent world massively multiplayer online roleplaying game based around trading, combat, exploration and communication, set in a fictional deep-space universe. In more familiar words, it’s a sci-fi game in which you pilot a space ship and create your own story amongst others doing the same.
Some players join alliances that are big enough to determine the economy of the world. Others go solo and feed off of weaker, newer players, and some roam the game as journalists and write news stories read by other players. Others still don’t play at all; instead they observe from afar, seeing EVE as a piece of living digital history, an anthropological study of what human behaviour looks like when not confined to the social regulations and physical limitations imposed by the real world.
It’s a game that means different things to different people, resulting in an avalanche of philosophical readings regarding what it means to be alive in this space and how are perception of reality informs how we act and contextualize our actions. Whether you play it or not, it’s a more interesting game than most to try to grasp.
And EVE Fanfest? It’s the most confusing, charming video game convention on the planet. It emits a warmth that mutes the Icelandic wind and rain, and it’s never anything less than humble in its celebration of the game around which it revolves. It’s a far cry from the self-indulgent enterprises that make up the majority of other such events around the world.
Everyone here is already a convert, of course, save for a few journalists and other hangers-on here to ogle the freaks dressed up as their in-game alter egos. Even this clique is welcomed with open arms, the hardcore players eager to talk about why they love the game and try to convince you to give it a shot.
There’s a middle-aged man under the employ of NASA who calls himself “The Space Pope.” He’s a celebrity around these parts, parading like a peacock around the hall in his cardinal robes and bestowing blessings upon his followers. Flanking him are two cyber-nuns, one young and one not, and a guy in humble monk robes.
Jin’taan is another star of the show, and a member of the Council of Stellar Management alongside Xenuria. If Xenuria is the calm poet of the Council, then Jin’taan is its ambitious, rambunctious joker. He’s in his late teens, his hair is awkwardly gelled, his moustache is barely ten hairs dense and he is a master of generating social unease through his love of telling people that they’re wrong.
A pack of writers, myself included, sits down with three of the Council to ascertain what it even is, and Jin’taan delights in undermining the thoughts of the other two at every turn. Get a few drinks in him and he softens a bit, though, declaring that Fanfest is a great place for him to “get his ‘d’ wet.”
The Council of Stellar Management, I should probably state now, is a board that is elected annually from the player base by the player base. EVE Online creators CCP Games, which turned 20 this month, then consults with the Council on a regular basis in a bid to understand the community, its wants and needs. That insight is fed back into the continual process that is keeping EVE Online up to date and fresh.
Others in attendance include couples that have met within EVE and eventually got married; sci-fi roleplayers in full cosplay who doggedly stay in character for the entire three-day Fanfest; employees of CCP and their affiliated marketing agencies; and fans who have come from around the world. I meet people from Russia, China, Australia, Germany, the USA and Canada.
Then we all go out and get really, really drunk.
Seemingly the most important character trait of being accepted into this menagerie is a loving of drinking copiously. The Hodor DJ set is apparently devised to encourage heavy imbibing, but it is a meek and subtle affair compared with the bar crawl. Each year the attendees of Fanfest are split into groups of about 20 and taken to various bars around Reykjavik, those still alive at midnight all coming together at the same venue to end the night and end a number of their brain cells.
Each crawl squad is led by a member of CCP staff and an attractive girl recruited for the night. Her job is to try and keep the group together between bars, and to funnel alcohol down our throats.
The first course of business is downing four or five shots of Brennivín, Iceland’s signature liquor.
We split into groups inside the Harpa. The first course of business is to bond with groupmates by downing four or five shots of Brennivín, Iceland’s signature liquor. It’s an evil clear liquid that makes you feel as though you’re being deep throated by a white-hot branding iron, followed by someone aggravating the resulting wound with a spear. The trauma works, though, and everyone is suitably numb and confusedly affable before heading into the town proper.
At the first bar I, along with a few other agitators, down a few cans of the local cheap beer we were given to wash the Brennivin down with. We’ve managed to smuggle the drinks into the place, making us popular with those who neglected to act on such thoughts. In Iceland beers are expensive, so giving out free ones scores you many points.
A German guy of about 20, seeing my press badge, asks me what Playboy is doing at EVE Fanfest. I mumble something about cultural interest and understanding niche communities whilst tapping my beer. I ask him why he plays EVE Online and what it is that he likes about Fanfest.
“I like to kill people,” he replies. “I like to kill new players who are just starting out in the game and take all of their stuff. It’s nice if I see some of the people that I’ve killed here at Fanfest.” The chill Icelandic night gets colder.
As the night wears on, our group finds itself in Lebowski Bar—an Americana-themed dive that the night before hosted a quiz based entirely around the TV show Friends. What is the name of Joey’s agent?
Friends is wildly popular in Iceland, apparently—the place packed and the attendees irritated as we moved past the TV screens running clips from the show. On bar-crawl night it’s just as busy, but faces are attuned to drinks or collapsed on tables this time around. The music is predictable pop from Britney Spears, Smash Mouth et al, inhibitions are waning and the lights are dimmed. If there’s anywhere Jin’taan is going to get his ‘d’ wet, it’s here.
At some point the night ends, groups shuffling back to hotels with convenience-store sandwiches in hand, some people alone as they came, others with new friends for company. For what are supposed to be a bunch of stereotypical nerds, they put on a better and friendlier bar crawl than your local neighborhood drunk.
The night next is the Hodor night, Xenuria on his stool and his girls beside him. Drinking is still happening but the tone is somewhat softer, perhaps due to the lack of free Brennivín or the fact that minds are still fried from the abundance of it the night before. Probably both.
Hodor’s set, with its strobe lights and terrible dancing, provides a chance to reflect on the faces in the crowd and try to get to the core of what it is that has brought people to rugged Iceland from around the globe.
It’s a cliché to say that EVE Online is a difficult game to understand, that it’s too complicated for anyone but the most dedicated to even begin to try and play. While that’s true on one level, at a deeper level it’s entirely false. EVE Online is a very simple game to understand because it’s a game about people and people coming together. EVE is just a cypher for human interaction on a global scale.
Just as Xenuria wants to be the music rather than listen to the music, EVE players want to be the game rather than play a game. That makes the game something we can relate to, whether we play it or not. It’s that sense of humanity and that wanting to connect as people that makes Fanfest such a pleasure to experience.