Friday, July 31, 2015

Leaders Who Don't Play The Game

From the peculiar world of online gaming, there came a story this last week that caught my eye.

It was the tale of a battle in the game Eve: Online, the single most massive conflict ever to occur in the virtual world.  Eve: Online, if you're not aware of it, is a science fiction game.  Players construct spacecraft, which then explore, mine and trade...and battle over territory.  It's wildly complex, with a steep learning curve and a deep level of sophistication.  I've been tempted, on and off over the years, to get into it...but it feels like the sort of thing that would disappear me from the real world.

Over 500,000 people play it on a regular basis, and the coupling of in-game currency and real world dollars means that Eve is now a complex economy in and of itself.  The battle in question, which I'd read about last year, was a war over territory that involved four corporate coalitions of gamers.  Meaning, it was a strategically coordinated battle involving upwards of 7,000 individuals, as thousands of ships engaged for close to a day. These ships cost real money in the real world, and the real-economy losses from the Bloodbath of B-R5RB totalled nearly $300,000...enough to merit an article in Forbes.  

This ain't Call of Duty, folks.

One interesting detail emerged from the recounting of this event, though: Eve: Online is dominated by a tyrant.  Not a made up tyrant, either.  A real dictator.  Meaning, there is a single gamer who has risen to a position of political and economic control.  He goes by the in-game name The Mittani (an apparent reference to an obscure ancient Near Eastern empire), and as the leader of the Goonswarm/Cl**terf**kCoalition, he is the single most powerful person in the game.

Meaning he gives orders, and tens of thousands of actual human beings do what he says.  He has a complex communications and administrative apparatus in place to maintain control.  More significantly, he developed a sophisticated intelligence operation, spies and informers and moles in other coalitions, which he uses to dominate and intimidate.  And by the thousands upon thousands, his subjects maintain his empire.  He is a despotic warlord, by every measure of the term.

Some might giggle at this, because, well, shoot, it's a game.

But what the Mittani does is no more or less real than what the CEO of any midsized internet business does.  He maintains control, directs activities, and the battle in the B-R5RB system proved...mobilize millions of dollars worth of resources towards a particular end.

That and motivate close to to twenty thousand people to follow him.

These are real people, choosing to play as subjects of a mildly sociopathic intergalactic overlord.  Choosing it.  Uncoerced, they fight for him, create resources for him, create propaganda for the Goonswarm, spy for him, you name it.

That in and of itself is fascinating, and would seem the kind of thing worthy of study by anthropologists and sociologists.  But having recently gotten a doctorate in leadership dynamics, there was a spin on this tale that I found remarkable:

The Mittani does not actually play the game.
"The Balcony"

Meaning, the real human being who created this character never logs into the game's servers.  He has an account, sure.  But he does not use it.

He can't be directly impacted by actions in Eve: Online.  His systems of command and control exist entirely outside of the game, on websites and forums where he coordinates his rule.  It's metagaming, I suppose, playing the game above the game.

In corporate leadership literature, there is much talk of "being on the balcony," or being able to rise above your organization in order to effectively observe, direct and transform it.  Leaders of this type influence a system, but they are not themselves a part of the system they control.

And what higher balcony could there be than not actually inhabiting the world you control?