Alex Gianturco doesn’t really look like a dictator. Sitting in his chair, arms behind his head, smirking as he talks, his image is more reminiscent of Ferris Bueller than of Stalin. But don’t let that fool you. Gianturco commands the loyalty and dedication of over 20,000 armed and dangerous fighters who wage cataclysmic wars across space. He has dismantled empires with a snap of his fingers, plundered vast sums of wealth, and works tirelessly to create a tribe so tightly knit that they threaten others just by existing.
If this doesn’t sound immediately familiar to you, it’s because it all happened in the virtual world of EVE Online, a vast galaxy where Gianturco, better known as The Mittani, rules with an iron fist.
“EVE Online attracts fascinating people,” Gianturco tells me. “It is the hardest game in the world. As a result, to succeed and thrive and have talent in EVE, you must also have talent in the real world.”
Since launching back in 2003, EVE Online has become a gaming phenomenon. Its stories of endless wars, crippling betrayals, and vast layers of espionage have become regular kindling for headlines and articles exploring its unique nature. Glancing at a screenshot of the game, it looks like a thoroughly obtuse spaceship combat simulator. And while that isn’t necessarily a false assumption, it fails to glimpse the true heart of EVE Online.
Though it might technically sit in the same category as other “massively multiplayer online” games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV, the truth is that EVE Online is very different from those. Typical online games segment their populations onto separate servers to limit how many players can be in one virtual place at a time (imagine if the millions of World of Warcraft players were able to converge on one town all at once—no server could handle that).
In EVE Online, however, every single player shares the same universe and feels the same ripples as they emanate from the maneuvering of the vast player organizations constantly feuding with each other.
“In most games, the narratives that are constructed and the way in which the game mechanics are set shields everyone from anything that would run counter to the narratives that we collectively tell ourselves about how people in society work,” Gianturco says. “In EVE Online, there are none of those barriers.”
Part of what propelled EVE Online to the position it holds today is the way the game opens itself to activities that would be restricted or punishable in other games. Players are not only free to lie, steal, and cheat to get ahead but are downright encouraged to do so. The galaxy of EVE Online, which you navigate by piloting one of over two hundred different types of spaceship, is built to be a brutal and unforgiving place where the strong claw their way to the top over the corpses of their enemies. Nowhere is safe, and if someone wants desperately enough to kill you, very little prevents them from doing so—a lesson countless new players learn the hard way when days, weeks, or months of hard work melt under a barrage of unexpected laser fire.
Gianturco plays EVE Online at a level only a handful of the roughly three hundred thousand pilots in EVE will ever experience. While some might stay chained to the relative safety of the game’s four computer-controlled empires, where strict rules are enforced by virtual police, The Mittani and the legions he commands set out to build an empire of their own.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
The four computer-controlled, main empires are referred to as “High-sec” because of the high amount of security offered by an imposing police force known as “CONCORD”. Beyond them exists a vast expanse of star systems known as “Null-sec.” Here, there is no police force to restrict what a player can and cannot do. Here, players like The Mittani and countless others form massive alliances and clash in epic campaigns that can last years. Sometimes they fight for resources, sometimes they fight for honor, and sometimes, as The Mittani suggests of his alliance, they fight for survival.
“The moment that we decided we wanted to reach out into Null-sec and get a chance to take some territory,” he tells me, “The EVE Online community banded together and said that we were aliens and we were outsiders.”
“They didn’t just want to take our space away from us or prevent us from taking space, they, quite explicitly, tried to drive our little group of friends out of the game entirely.”
Gianturco describes to me a time in EVE Online when his alliance, known as the Goonswarm Federation, weren’t at the top of the food chain. Coming from a message board community known as SomethingAwful, Gianturco and his fellow “goons” were seen as outsiders in the world of EVE. During a conflict known as The Great War, Goonswarm fought tooth and nail against the indomitable Band of Brothers alliance. The war was an interstellar conflict unlike anything ever seen before as every major player in Null-sec flocked to one side or the other.
After years of gruelling conflict, Goonswarm, and by extension Gianturco, were given an invaluable gift. A senior leader of Band of Brothers had placed one of his alternate characters within Goonswarm’s ranks. Stricken by the difference between his home alliance and Goonswarm’s culture, this leader wanted to defect. Even better, he just so happened to have the keys to Band of Brothers.
The Mittani, using this unrestricted access to Band of Brothers, hatched a devastating plan. In the space of minutes, Band of Brothers were disbanded, every member was kicked from the alliance, and the regions of space that the alliance held sovereignty over were suddenly up for grabs. It was pandemonium. At the center of that chaos was The Mittani, sitting with his hands behind his back, no doubt flashing that same disarming smile.
“As an autocrat, particularly when you have other hostile autocrats pointing fingers at you, trying to dissolve your people—to hurt them, you must display strength, you must display ruthlessness,” Gianturco says. “You must defend your people with that reputation.”
That reputation—his reputation—is perhaps the most infamous in all of EVE Online. His exploits in this virtual galaxy have garnered the attention of the mainstream press, his victories and scandals have reached beyond the borders of the computer monitors where pixels arranged as spaceships fly from one system to another. In many ways, the Mittani is the true potential of EVE Online fully realized: a person, no different from you or me, who has risen to stardom through his virtual exploits.
Understanding how he achieved that, however, could fill the pages of a college textbook. For as exciting as the events in EVE Online undoubtedly can be, the game itself remains a dense and challenging pursuit—one that buckles the will of many players. EVE Online is a harsh meritocracy, where players must earn the right to exist.
REVENGE OF THE SCRUB
EVE Online is a “sandbox game”. Instead of giving players a static set of attractions to conquer like in World of Warcraft with its dungeons and highly scripted group content, EVE gives players tools and expects them to build their own fun. As a result, your emotional investment in EVE Online extends far beyond the binary states of whether you’re having fun or not. The game is nuanced in ways that have led real world professionals to study it. CCP Games, the developer of EVE Online, keeps an economist on staff to monitor EVE’s very real in-game economy.
In New Eden, the galaxy where EVE Online is set, you’re not just building your own fun, you’re building the story of your virtual self and those you fly alongside. The big catch is that, for a sandbox, EVE Online only has so much sand to pass around. If you want some, you’d better be prepared to take it.
“A lot of times people will come into EVE with notions and those notions will become violently disabused,” Gianturco says.
Death in EVE can be catastrophic. When you die in other online games, the armor and equipment you have on you often survives to fight another day. Death is merely a slap on the wrist. In EVE, the loss of a ship can be a financial disaster that has forced more than one player to abandon the game in a fit of rage. Perhaps the most important rule a new pilot can learn is to “never fly what you can’t afford to lose.”
One aspect of EVE that can never be adequately expressed by its developers is the way the game has given rise to secondary professions in the game. Though a character might consider themself a miner or a trader, a pirate or a soldier, the community surrounding EVE has given rise to a host of specialties that have very little to do with the game itself. The Imperium has players who act as diplomats to other alliances, accountants who track the spending of the in-game currency known as “ISK”, and even graphic designers who create propaganda to inspire the frontline troops.
The list goes on and on, but one thing is always true: People with real talent, whether that is crunching numbers or being a good leader, can find a meaningful place to explore that talent in EVE. With a median player age of 31 years old and an overwhelming 96% of those players being male, EVE attracts a very specific audience. As Gianturco bluntly puts it: “If you do not have ambition, you will not play EVE.”
The Mittani’s ambition is so great that, somewhat ironically, he barely even has time to play the game. “I’m known in some circles as having only really played EVE within the client back in 2006 and 2005. I very rarely log into the game itself and fly around because I just deal with people,” he tells me. As it turns out, leading a coalition comprised of more players than the average American town can be quite time consuming.
“Every day is different, but the one thing that is consistent is talking to people,” Gianturco says. He tells me that an average day consists of him talking to allied leaders in other alliances and his own directors, and working on new projects and initiatives for his own people. Hearing him talk, it is hard to remember that Gianturco is discussing a video game. But therein lies the true beauty of EVE Online: though it might be an aging game about spaceships, it is also the foundation for a virtual reality that intersects our own in a very tangible way, a phenomenon of people dedicating their time and energy to contribute to a living, breathing work of science fiction.
While some might view EVE Online as an alarmingly organized game of “make believe,” it is so much more than that. For Gianturco, it is also a career. Earlier this year he managed to turn his dictatorship into a business. Dissatisfied with the manner in which the traditional gaming press covered EVE, Gianturco in 2012 launched TheMittani.com, a website dedicated to covering the events that happen daily in EVE Online. Since then, it has grown into more than just a blog but a profitable business and brand aiming to connect EVE Online and its audience.
But the question remains: What can inspire a player to dedicate so much of their time and effort to existing in a virtual world? For Gianturco, the answer is simple: “The community—the bonding that comes from EVE. The fact that you succeed or fail based upon your ability to have a tribe look out for your fellow man,” he says. “The experiences that you get in EVE Online are unlike any other game.”
“People who are engaged in the EVE community want to befriend their [virtual] friends in the real world because they have gone through hell and back together,” he continues. “They’ve won, they’ve lost, they’ve had a unique experience with a great deal of adversity and risk, and that forms a bond unlike anything in the gaming community…It has nothing to do with EVE Online at all. It has everything to do with their friends.”
A NEW HOPE
Gianturco knows this experience firsthand. Those bonds are what pushed him before EVE Online was ever a career. But even though EVE’s reputation as a cutthroat social simulator can lure you into thinking that its community is filled with nothing but ruthless egomaniacs, that assumption would be profoundly wrong. Though EVE Online’s influence can extend well beyond the screen that you play it on, the community playing it has always retained a sobering humanity and compassion in moments of tragedy.
On September 11, 2012, EVE Online lost one of its most renowned pilots to the Benghazi Attacks in Libya. Sean Smith, known in EVE Online as Vile Rat, was one of four Americans murdered in the attack. He was online using a communication program known as “Jabber” to talk with his friends in EVE when the attacks happened. After making a statement about gunfire, Vile Rat disappeared from the chat channel. It wasn’t until the next day that his friends learned of his death.
Vile Rat was one of the most famous players in EVE, the diplomatic “yang” to The Mittani’s spying “yin”. In the aftermath of the attack, pilots of every affiliation stopped their conflicts to honor Sean. Across the galaxy, player-owned space stations were renamed to honor him. You couldn’t fly very far before finding some sort of memorial, no matter how small, paying tribute to Sean. But outside, in the real world, players weren’t sitting still. A charity was organized that raised over $127,000 for Sean’s family. And that’s only one example of the generosity of the EVE community.
“We band together because, in this game, we are in it together.”
There are times when the strangeness of EVE can eclipse every aspect of it, when you stare at your lone ship floating in space and wonder what the point of it all is. It’s a question that, like the sandbox nature of EVE, is up for you to decide. Some will scratch at the surface of the game’s depths and shrug their shoulders, mystified by those who could ever waste their time on such a seemingly boring game. But for people like Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco, EVE Online is a crucible in which a purpose isn’t given but forged, a game where the right to exist isn’t an expectation but something to be earned. For those willing to fight for it, a whole galaxy of opportunity awaits.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
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This article was edited after publication to correct two minor factual errors.