Friday, January 10, 2014

The Butterfly Effect

Once upon a time, roughly 1,150 years ago, a pimply teen-aged boy did what pimply teen-aged boys have always done since pimply teen-aged boys first walked the earth.  He screwed up his courage, asked a girl if she'd go out with him, and got shot down in flames.  Then as now, the pimply teen-aged boy ego is prone to bruising and, by all accounts, the girl in question was less than gentle in administering the brush-back.  There is no doubt the young man took it to heart.  However, as I often say, it's an ill wind that blows no one good. 

Thanks to his humiliation we have EVE Online.

Now, some of you may know precisely what I'm going on about and already made the necessary logical leap from a bruised medieval ego to digital spaceships.  For most readers, however, some elucidation is in order.  Pull up a chair.

You see, the young man in question did not have the option of retreating to his parent's basement and treating his wounded ego to a week of non-stop video games, pizza and Nirvana.  In Northern Europe in the 860s there were no video games.  None.  Not even Pong.  Depressing music was available, but monks were required (Ew.);  lots of monks (double Ew) if you wanted to crank it up real loud.  I'm not sure about the pizza, but even if some corollary to pizza existed it would have been topped with stuff like unseasoned mutton or smoked fish.  Tomato sauce was certainly out of the question as was anything we'd recognize today as pizza delivery. 

Lacking the modern balms for a broken heart, he conquered Norway instead.

I am, of course, referring to Harald Hálfdanarson, better known to history as Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway.  Now in giving Harald the heave-ho, the cheeky object of his desire, one Gyda Eiriksdottir of Hordal, said something along the lines of “Sure, dweeb, I’ll go out with you. When you’re king of all Norway.”  

It should be pointed out that Norway at the time was comprised of a number of petty kingdoms, each with its own ruler. They were a proud, fractious and independent lot who, when they weren’t out raiding the rest of Europe, feuded mightily with each other.  The odds of anyone, let along a pimply teen-aged boy, subjugating this fierce collection of earls and petty kings under a single crown seemed so long as to be impossible.  Thus, Gyda was sending Harald off with the 862 CE equivalent of ‘When hell freezes over”.  It was a bit of girlish snark that would profoundly change the course of European history.

Like many young men of today, Harald was slow to take the hint.  As Gyda hadn’t said ‘no’ outright, and, being something of an optimist, Harald felt he was still in the game.  All he had to do, he reasoned, was become high king of Norway and date night with Gyda was on.  And he must have been looking forward to date night quite a lot, because a mere ten years later, at the battle of Hafrsfjord, the last significant opposition to his rule was vanquished.  Lo and huzzah, Harald was king of Norway.

And Harald was all “Yeah baby! How d’ya like me now?”
OK, loose translation.  But as it turns out, Gyda liked him well enough to become the first queen of Norway and bear him five sons.  In fact Harald would father no fewer than twenty one sons altogether (that we know of) with six different women.   So despite inauspicious beginnings, I like to think things turned out well for Herald.  He'd won the throne and he'd gotten the girl. Cue the triumphant end title music and run the credits.

Of course where there are winners, there are usually losers and the unification of Norway was no exception.  Things had decidedly not turned out well for the earls and petty kings who had opposed Harald to the bitter end.  At best they would be forced to submit to Harald and suffer the humiliation of accepting their place in the new order from his hand; a place likely beneath those earls and petty kings who had, through conquest, coercion or predisposition, joined Harald's side in his quest for date night.  At worst they would end up, like Ned Stark, an object lesson on the perils of opposing their sovereign.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, the leaders on the losing side were fierce, proud and independent.  Recall that, of all the fierce warlords of Norway, these were the guys least willing to bend the knee and play the game by someone else's rules.  As such, their chances of flourishing under Harald's rule, where the crown administered justice and held a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, were quite poor.   Fortunately for them, in addition to being fierce proud and independent, they were mobile.  Unlike losers in many sovereignty wars before and since, the holdouts to Harald's rule were among the best seafarers of the day. 

Following the defeat at Hafrsfjord, many of what were arguably Norway's most dynamic, colorful and entrepreneurial people packed up such goods and wealth in their ships would hold and sailed away.  They set their courses for viking settlements abroad where they could live according to their own rules.  The Norway they left behind, while more governable without them, would be a much duller place thereafter.

Some of the travelers emigrated West, to the then recently discovered island of Iceland.  There they settled and whiled away the years, farming, fishing and occasionally feuding.  Centuries later their descendents would finally bend their knee to a king, but not forever.  And one day, in a future the earls and petty kings of old could not have imagined, some of their descendents would find the true calling, software development, and go on to create EVE Online.

See?  Butterfly-effect.  The snubbing of a medieval teen results in digital spaceships over a thousand years later.

I often think of EVE Online's nullsec as analogous to Norway in the pre-unification days.  It is comprised of a number of petty kingdoms, each with its own ruler(s).  They are a proud, fractious and  independent lot who, when they aren't out raiding low and highsec space, feud mightily with each other.

As with Norway of old, there are forces in play that seek to consolidate power in nullsec under a single administrative structure; to exercise sovereignty over this patchwork of small kingdoms.  This is an old story, played out again and again over the course of real world history. Perhaps it's endemic to the human condition and thus an inevitable outcome in our digital realms as well.  As events currently playing out in New Eden unfold, we'll see if nullsec's mead-hall paradigm can thrive in competition with Nullsec Inc.  At present, the state of play doesn't look promising for the warlords, but one never knows.

Butterflies are capricious things.

If the mead-hall is supplanted by the board-room, some of the present earls and petty kings will doubtless take a place in the new order.   Others, however, who either refuse to bend the knee or, having bent it and finding themselves ill-suited to PVP in service of a Disneyfied nullsec, would likely leave.  Unlike their medieval counterparts, however, New Eden offers these digital warlords no nullsec version of Iceland, Orkneys, Scotland or Ireland to which they can retreat.   Should they leave, many would likely set their courses for other games.

The nullsec they leave behind, while more governable without them, would be a much duller place thereafter.


  1. Enjoyable read! Hope the New Year bodes well for you and yours!

  2. A couple thoughts:
    1) Could WH space be a place to retreat to as it seems to be almost that already? What changes do you think would be needed to be made to make that reasonable?
    2) Since Seagull appears to want to make new space in the future, what would it have to be like to be attractive to those who might leave?