Recent years have seen an increase in the popularity of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). This popularity is thanks in part to overcoming the technological hurdles causing bandwidth bottlenecks, developers bringing ports of MMOs to gaming consoles, better AI programming, and a growing interest in communal gaming in general. One of the most popular games, World of Warcraft, boasted nearly 11.5 million subscribers in 2008, according to the game's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment. We are currently in the midst of a kind of MMO Golden Age, an era when men and women, young and old alike are logging on to play.

In addition to popular MMO mainstays such as the aforementioned World of Warcraft and EverQuest, recent rising stars include the 18th-century swashbuckler Pirates of the Burning Sea or the comic-book inspired world of might and right in City of Heroes. And then there's the subject of our present study, EVE Online, an interstellar universe populated by warring space pirates who hyperjump their spacecrafts through the galaxy, seeking to plunder wealth and territory from warring factions in the process. Within gamespaces such as these, communities emerge—clans, gangs, posses, and battalions tied together by their common goals, motivations, and ideologies, as well as through their common behaviors and communication practices. MMOs therefore present the rhetorical critic with an excellent opportunity to study how distinct discourse communities initially form—and subsequently galvanize themselves—by enacting such behaviors and practices both inside and outside of the gamespace proper.

In this webtext, we look specifically at GoonSwarm, a fleet of EVE Online players that enjoy a somewhat infamous reputation among other players for being irreverent and sometimes downright reckless in their gaming tactics. By drawing upon different aspects of gaming theory, media theory, and rhetorical theory, we present a swarmlike series of observations on how the group coheres through such mechanisms as propaganda production, counter-intuitive gaming tactics and strategies, meticulous documentation and archival practices, and more.

As video game scholar and designer Ian Bogost argues in his book Persuasive Games, video games at their best are able to “disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world” (x). Therefore, studying a gamespace like EVE Online—including the paratextual activities that support it (player-generated wiki writing, video editing, and graphic design)—can give us insight into the rhetorical practices and procedures of other, real-world arenas, including: geopolitical discourse, political and military propaganda, consumer/corporation interaction, or hacker and youth cultures, among others. Anyone interested in movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring protests, or the hacktivist group Anonymous would be well served by studying GoonSwarm, since the rhetorical strategies of disruption, the use of particular technologies, the productive violation of rule sets, and the use of an ironic affect are remarkably similar (owing in more than a few cases to the overlapping membership of these groups—many GoonSwarm players are politically active in real life as well).

This approach, admittedly, is more of a broad spectrum sample of the rhetorical practices surrounding GoonSwarm, as it is very hard to examine only one piece without losing the greater context. As such, we have sought to point out some of the more intriguing themes and artifacts from within this community while still presenting a representative portrayal of the group.

(Or explore the site by clicking on the bitmap image to the right.)

Ben McCorkle is an Associate Professor in English at The Ohio State University-Marion whose interests include digital media studies, rhetorical theory, and video game culture.

Matthew Howard is a student at OSU Marion currently majoring in Psychology History Biology on hiatus. He is also a player of EVE Online and a member of GoonFleet.


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