Introduction: so who is this player? What is he?
I have played EVE more or less continuously for almost 5 years. For the great majority of that time, I have been focused on nullsec play, but like most "nullsec players", I actually maintain several empire characters as well, and spend a significant part of my game time on Empire based activities. I also twice spent a couple of months as a pirate in lo-sec, which I found enjoyably relaxing after the constraints of the 0.0 lifestyle. Throughout that time, I have been in a fair few alliances, starting in FLA in 2006, passing through various others which affiliated me to (in turn) RedSwarm Federation, the Greater BoB Community, The Insurgency, The Northern Coalition, GBC again, NC again, and finally landing me in my ultimate EVE home, The Initiative.
Activities which I have barely dipped a toe in the water of, so to speak include manufacturing, W-space, blueprints. I have run a corp, been a spy, suicide ganked (badly), I even mined back in the day, I have hauled T2 mods to the edge of 0.0 in a blockade runner. These days I make my ISK - when I can trouble myself to do so - running the odd Angel mission, engaging in the occasional market opportunity that's so positive-sum that even I can make ISK at it and by unearthing assets I bought years ago whilst blind drunk and selling them.
But arguably my primary EVE activity, rated by time and effort, is writing about EVE. Until now in forum posts, which EVE-Search is good enough to tell me that I have at the time of writing this, made 19,922 of on the EVE-Online forums alone, totalling almost 19 million characters.
The greatest failure of forum posting is its evanescence: however great your post is, it's almost certain to be forgotten within a few days, lost in the swirl of the latest scandal or nerf or buff. With the fragmentary, limited attention span for the forum community, it's actually very difficult to have a proper discussion even between willing participants in such a limited format. Of late I have become interested in what is probably the most contentious and interesting topic in EVE (certainly if one were to judge by forum noise): our own dearly beloved Goonswarm Federation.
Part of my fascination derives from the sheer hysteria they elicit from that demographic of the EVE community who are, to put it kindly, less inclined to apply critical thinking to subjects they perceive as affecting them. But mostly I am interested in the apparent paradoxes that seem to seperate the common perception of Goons (including their own) and the objective reality of what they have accomplished and how they operate: they do everything wrong but get so many things right! Writing this article gives me an opportunity to discuss them in a coherent and complete way, and I hope it might promote a more rational debate. I have written this to give an outside perspective on who Goons are and how they actually effect the game. This series will consider Goon culture, leadership, strategies, their effects on the game and lastly the future of Goonswarm Federation. I make no claim to "getting Goons," and I'm certainly not here to judge them; I will only state how I have perceived them.
It's a large topic, so let's get started.
EVE Goons, as we all know, originate from the forum community of the Somthing Awful website, an ancient (in internet terms) repository of student humour, in-jokes, running gags and dogged political incorrectness. The major cultural attraction of SA site is that it will never leave you behind. Behind the SA website, though, is the real deal: the SA forums, where we find something not just awful but something curious.
It is a truism of the internet that anywhere one can make anonymous comments, one finds a fetid cesspool of ignorance, racism, dreadful spelling and grammar, and the dreary, endless repetition of the very lowest level of American political discourse.
The SA forums are slightly different. One can find ignorance, and the community often goes out of its way to be militantly offensive, but the forums are actually moderated with the aim of containing not bad ideas, but bad posting. Scabrous, sexist and slanderous you may be, but your spelling and grammar must be good enough to satisfy the guardians. The penalty is the loss of one's account, and that means the loss of the famous :tenbux: - the ten dollars that the site charges you to register an account. It is from this garden, where they will defend to the death your right to say what you want, but execute you without trial if you say it in text-speak, that EVE's Goonswarm Federation originated and is continually replanted from.
Coming from such a vigorous internet sub-culture, EVE's goons hold themselves as a race apart - the Outsiders. Almost from the very beginning of their EVE career goons have consciously rejected and attacked the dominant EVE cultural memes. Basic EVE dogmas were mocked and ridiculed as self-serving hypocrisy. Goons have been largely responsible for discrediting the aristocratic notion of "Elite PvP" as a respectable gamestyle. The EVE roleplaying community has not been spared their attention either, and what was a valid and respected activity in 2004 is now something to be done furtively - barely more acceptable than yiffing and if to be done at all, to be done knowingly and ironically (ie: not to be done as roleplaying). And most of all, Goons loudly, actively and mercilessly led the campaign to destroy the meme of "e-honour." In Captain Sparrow's words: "Take everything, give nothing back!"
From the Goon point of view, these concepts were meaningless, bourgeois, self-imposed limits which contradicted the essential point of EVE: to interact with your fellow "pod pilots" - that is to say fellow white middle class gamers sat behind a computer - in a setting which imposed the bare minimum of restraints. "E-honour" and "Elite PvP" are to them as ridiculous as assigning names and personalities to individual checkers, and making decisions about whether or not to jump your opponents' checker based on those characteristics. Honouring a ransom is objectively not an optimal strategy given the low probability that you'll be able to ransom that same player again. Mercilessly scamming a player out of everything he owns is a rational course of action if you've defined yourself by membership of a group which rejects everyone not in it. Goons effectively played the game by applying game theory to it, but I think that this was less a conscious decision to do so and more of a cultural imperative: goons gain great status amongst other goons by "hilariously" taking advantage of non-goons this way. Rational calculations are secondary at best.
Even if Goons had originated from a different outside culture, one without such a caustic rejection of our normal mores, I think it's quite likely that they would have evolved in similar ways due to the heirachical, aristocratic culture that prevailed in EVE at the time, as exemplified by Band of Brothers who broadcasted their arrogant "better than you" attitude at every opportunity. As a large, poor, unskilled but culturally cohesive group of EVE-proletariat, their rejection of and attack on the class-system and culture which defined them as inferior and exploitable was inevitable. Goons have not been slow to adopt the imagery and terminology of revolutionary communism (in an EVE where CCP was less militant about censoring national socialist references, I rather suspect that Goons would have delighted even more in employing Nazi themes, but on the other hand there's a very significant objectivist community on the internet and in EVE who are far more hostile to communist imagery. Who can say?) As we shall see later, Goons have also employed not just agitprop images, but also Communist economics and realpolitik.
One interesting and curiously constructive outcome of EVE Goons nailing their flag to the mast of "Elite PvP" rejection has been the fetishization of the "shobon newbie" - the 3 day old newgoon in a rifter who gets in fleet on his first day in 0.0 and attempts to warp scramble a Nyx. Of all player organisations in EVE, perhaps the only one that rivals Goonswarm's intensity of support and encouragment of new players is EVE University. Goons hold regular recruitment drives on the SA forums; the Goonwiki is an incredible resource; new goons who demonstrate "shobon" are showered with ISK, Rifters, and postive encouragement (admittedly they're also frequently called "nigger spies", "mongoloid faggots" and "useless shitfuckers" and so on, but amongst fellow Goons one would not be advised to take such terms of endearment in the same spirit as one might in, say, a South Carolina truckstop).
However, one should not mistake this shobon-love as any kind of love of newbies in general, still less an interest in the wider game community. Goons only recruit from the SA forums (their registration page is very specific about this), yet they regularly reap a harvest of tears and sometimes quite remarkable ISK values from people who believe that, for some reason, they're special enough for the rule not to apply to them. So widely known, so cliched is this scam, and so often has the aftermath been played out on the EVE forums, that even the bitterest goon haters have little sympathy for the victims these days. And after all, why should they sympathise with those who have tried to join the hated goons?
This constant focus on renewing the alliance with new players, immersed in goon culture from the very start of their EVE career has given Goon culture a vitality and longevity that has served them well (ref. Mittani's "The EVE-Born article") and illustrated a fundamental truth of EVE: the strength of any alliance in EVE rests ultimately not on its ISK reserves, or the quality of its space, but on the commitment of its members to log in and play the game. If there is one Soviet concept that goons have wholly embraced it is Stalin's notorious line, "Quantity has a quality all of its own." Although Goon alliance leadership are currently going through a phase of extreme dedication to securing the financial situation of the alliance, this is the gilding on the lily. The basic unit of Goonswarm Federation power is the goon.
Another powerful instance of goon culture reinforcing their goals has been the ongoing "Goons are bad at EVE" meme. As an outsider to goonswarm, and often hostile at that, I have witnessed the same scene acted out over and over again: Goons fight some alliance or group that prides itself on the skill and capability of their pilots - it's Psychology 101 that to build up group morale and esprit de corps, you tell the members that they're exceptional, elite, better than the outside world. Goons, on the other hand don't just admit that they're individually bad, but make it a rallying cry. Thus any losses to hostiles are handwaved away or even denigrated for not being as devastating as they should have been. Meanwhile, goon victories are reinforced with the message "we're so bad and you still lost to us - what does that make you?" Rather than build up the individual goon, Goons tear down the individual hostile. Again and again I see similar groups - often groups composed of the same corps and pilots who fell for the same rhetorical trick in the last campaign - walk into this elementary kulturkampf ambush.
Of course, Goons don't believe that they're worse at playing EVE than other alliances - they believe that they are - as an organisation even if not individually - the best. It was famously said that whilst goons don't take EVE seriously, they take not taking it seriously very seriously indeed. But their conception of playing EVE is not limited to prowess at Vagabond 1v1s, or even Maelstrom 200v200s. They have extended their conception from winning the fight to attaining the goal. No glorious Cavaliers these, but a New Model Army. Who cares about losing a belt ratting Drake when your goon brosef has just scammed a pubbie out of a Wyvern? What does it matter if a hundred insured T1 battleships were welped if the station system has been taken?
The last and strangest evolution of goon culture that we have seen over the last 15 months or so dates from the election of The Mittani to the CSM. Insulted by the jump bridge nerf that CSM 5 cheerfully agreed with, and faced with enduring an extra session change or two to cross a nullsec region - then injured by the great anomaly nerf - the Goon leadership put up two candidates to "reclaim" the CSM in the name of the average sov space player. Vile Rat and The Mittani were both elected, with The Mittani claiming the Chairman's seat. Although the chairman's role in the CSM actually counts for very little, The Mittani made acquiring it a political issue, claiming that it would give him a "mandate". While the success of CSM 6 is open to furious, partisan debate, it is beyond dispute that it was the most important CSM to date, and that the Mittani, despite the expectations of those who may have expected him to conform to the Goon stereotype, was an effective leader and organiser of the CSM, welding them into an effective team who pulled together and kept any ego-driven disagreements discretely out of sight.
As a weird result of this, EVE-O's forums have seen the Outsider goons, the threadnaughting goons, the T20-hounding, Band-of-Devs outing goons, scamming, smacktalking, dishonourable badpiloting goons... those goons became public CSM supporters, and by extension, generally supportive of EVE - at least their version of EVE - and even CCP. It is often said in EVE that yesterday's red is tomorrow's blue and vice versa, but I doubt anyone would have predicted this in 2010. It is anyone's guess how long this state of affairs will last after The Fall Of Mittani in Reykjavik. On the one hand: the traditional goon posture of cynicism and despite; on the other hand: the rage they can provoke on the EVE-O forums by defending the status quo which currently benefits them a great deal.