Over the weekend, a battle of epic proportions rocked a star system. Over 4,000 spacecraft of all shapes and sizes descended on a disputed region of the galaxy, culminating in the biggest interplanetary conflicts in history. Two huge alliances locked horns as their commanders formulated attack strategies for several hours on Sunday. Reports suggest that there was a clear winner, the disputed system is now under control by the victors, but 2,900 ships were lost — a result that will likely reverberate throughout the universe. It was the biggest battle in history. Yes, even bigger than The Battle of Asakai.

This could be the summary of a science fiction novel or some imagined future, but this scenario really did play out over the weekend inside the virtual universe EVE Online.

The Science and Fiction of ‘Oblivion’

EVE Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that is set in a fictional future where mankind left Earth to explore an unknown region of the universe after passing through a newly discovered wormhole. In an effort to exploit the new-found riches on the wormhole’s far side, millions of people went through, only for the wormhole to collapse, cutting them off from Earth. With their lifeline severed, the majority of human settlers died off. However, thousands of years later, a few pockets of civilization survived, thrived and evolved, creating the modern universe of warring factions that can be found inside EVE Online today.

Like any MMORPG, EVE allows players to customize their characters and creates a framework by which they can explore a universe of thousands of star systems. In February 2013, the game’s developer, Iceland-based CCP Games, announced that over 500,000 people had subscribed to the MMORPG.

And this weekend, months of tension, planning, propaganda and skirmishes between two of the largest factions — the CFC and TEST Alliance — came to a head. A battle erupted in the star system “6VDT.” A full account of the battle, that reads like a correspondent’s perspective on Operation Desert Storm, can be found on The Mittani.

Although these pages are normally accustomed to reporting on developments in spaceflight in real life, this virtual battle is notable for several reasons.

ANALYSIS: Interstellar Travel Is Hard, Why Bother?

Firstly, the developers of EVE Online are known for taking a step back from in-game policing (and if they are conceived as being heavy handed with their development of the game, riots ensue), allowing natural evolution of gameplay. The players, who are infamous for their often cut-throat strategies, have a huge degree of freedom as to the kind of explorer they want to become. Alliances, wars and politics inevitably bubble to the surface; a virtual representation of human nature. Corruption, piracy, even terrorism can be used to find vulnerabilities in the system so players can gain the upper hand. Many other MMORPGs control such behavior, but inside EVE Online, (almost) anything goes. Of course, more mainstream (and ‘legal’) ways of making some cash can be pursued — such as trading, mining, bounty hunting and taking contracts.

Secondly, there is a real world impact on players. Apart from the countless sleepless nights and potential relationship stresses, embarking on risky practices inside EVE can result in financial losses. The in-game currency, Interstellar Kredits (ISK), can be indirectly converted into real life dollars. For example, the most expensive supercarrier was destroyed in a battle earlier this year, costing the owner 309 billion ISK. Although CCP Games explicitly bans the purchase of ISK for real money, through the in-game purchase of pilot license extensions, the lost supercarrier was valued at nearly $11,000.

But it’s not just virtual monetary pain. In many cases, players build up years of training and resources, so reckless activities can result in a gut-wrenching loss.

Science vs. Fiction: ‘After Earth’

This is all well and good, and if you have hours to spare, EVE Online is an incredible experience. But it had me wondering: could this be an accurate depiction of what a futuristic human space empire could look like? In many MMORPGs, there is little consequence for your actions, but in EVE, if you lose, you lose. A lot. So when you see over 4,000 spacecraft warring over a star system for its (albeit virtual) resources, the gravity of this online battle has a certain degree of realism to it.

Of course, EVE is a game driven by Earth-bound humans in front of computers commanding futuristic avatars; like any science fiction imagining it fails to predict what a hypothetical future human race would have evolved into. Therefore, setting up virtual Ponzi Schemes (yep, even that’s allowed inside EVE), ‘griefing‘ noobs and building economies that are based on profit are practices that, in thousands of years time, will likely be outdated.

Regardless, EVE has generated real scientific interest that was all-too obvious during the EVE Fanfest in April when the likes of advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy (of Icarus Interstellar), Planetary Resources‘ Chris Lewicki and LiftPort Group‘s Michael Laine participated in discussing the real science behind the game.

What do you think? Are MMORPGs like EVE Online good models for human nature in an imagined universe? Or is it, for all intents and purposes, just a game?

In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a two week trial of EVE… I wonder how long it’ll be before I get ganked.

Image: Screenshot from this weeken’s epic battle around 6VDT. Credit: EVE Online