The Game: EVE Online
First launched in 2003, EVE Online is an expansive, space-based MMO developed and currently maintained by the Icelandic developer CCP Games. According to the game's Wikipedia entry, EVE Online has over 350,000 unique player accounts (including both active and trial accounts) as of December 2010, making it one of the more popular MMOs, discounting the World of Warcraft behemoth (a recent article by Alexander Gambotto-Burke in the online version of The Guardian stated that WoW's population has leveled off at around 10 million, while most other MMOs deemed "successful" garner in the neighborhood of 250,00 to 500,000 platyers). The game is set far off in the future, when humans have colonized space thanks to the initial discovery, and subsequent artificial development, of wormholes that allow for quick travel through the fabric of space-time. The gamespace itself is massive, containing well over seven thousand to-scale star systems, with many of those systems being conquerable by players and their comrades. Players can assume a variety of roles (miner, squadron leader, pirate, etc.) and vessels (frigate, fighter, battleship, etc.), developing skills, tools, and money (an in-game currency with a real-world exchange rate) through their labor, fighting, and spending efforts. Divided into five main "races" with further subdivisions into various alliances, federations, corporations, and rebel factions, the variety of community formations and motivations leads to a gamespace filled with rhetorical potential: communication between groups of thousands, widespread propaganda, espionage, and meta-gaming, all built around a synthetic universe with synthetic rule sets. This is a game where the smart survive and the charismatic rule. The complex social, cultural, and aesthetic interplay among player groups makes EVE Online a worthwhile site of analysis, something akin to an incubator or laboratory within which the extremes of rhetorical performance—in tone, in tactic, in terminology—are constantly on display.
GoonSwarm, along with its founding corporation GoonFleet, is one of the largest and most aggressive alliances within the EVE Online universe. Founded in 2006, the group quickly moved to control large portions of the game's interstellar territory as it has taken on some of the more prominent, established alliances (Band of Brothers, IRON, and RAZOR). In fact, as the official EVE wiki recounts, the recently concluded skirmish with rival alliance Band of Brothers (typically abbreviated "BoB") concluded in May 2009 with GoonSwarm ultimately victorious—this thanks to a gameplan that employed guerilla-style fighting tactics, suicide missions, dissemination of propaganda (internal and external), as well as espionage, psy-ops, and other covert intelligence strategies. Such moves, previously unseen in EVE Online to this extent, caught the more strategically conservative BoB off guard, ultimately leading to that alliance's dissolution. At the height of its empire, the alliance controlled the game's largest corporation, as well as a substantial amount of game territory, as the game's official wiki recounts. For additional information on the alliance, a presentation by former GoonSwarm CEO Darius Johnson at the 2009 FanFest Conference is hosted on the website TenTonHammer, located here.
The Theories: Rhetoric/Game/Media
As we initially began to examine and discuss the group dynamics of GoonSwarm in some detail—one of us as an insider, an actual member of the alliance with a growing interest in psychology, rhetoric, and military strategy, the other an outsider, an academic who looks at how digital cultures function rhetorically—certain theoretical perspectives emerged as potentially useful tools informing our observations. Among them:
In the course of our efforts to agitate the GoonSwarm hive in the rest of this webtext, we will allude to other works and theorists as well; these thinkers noted above, however, comprise what we see as a kind of central theoretical hub for our analysis.