THEORY AND BACKGROUND

Before diving headlong into the question of what makes the GoonSwarm alliance buzz, rhetorically speaking, we first find it necessary to explain the context surrounding this collective in general. This includes not only an explanation of EVE Online—the gamespace, gameplay, and basic objectives—but also a brief history of GoonSwarm itself, from its origins in the somethingawful web community through its major campaigns up to present day. Additionally, this section offers a helpful catalog of the various theoretical influences that help give shape to our thinking about the cultural makeup and communication practices of GoonSwarm.

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.


The Players: GoonSwarm

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.


GoonSwarm has a reputation of being friendly to new players (alternatively known as "newbies" or "n00bs") and with good reason. Early on in the alliance's history, great emphasis was placed on getting new players from the forums of the rather raucous, oftentimes vulgar humor website somethingawful.com to the great frontier sectors of EVE as quickly as possible (in fact, the GoonSwarm logo even incorporates the somethingawful hand grenade into its design). To this end, the alliance has created a members-only web forum and a wiki not only to guide the new recruits up the Everest-like learning curve that EVE Online is notorious for, but also to store information about the history of the swarm, as well as ship fittings, training suggestions, and information about the multitude of esoteric little bits and bobs that must be fully grasped in order to continue to advance within the game and within the swarm's organization. Much of this material is player generated, creating a community ethos that is characterized by irreverence, crude humor, an agit-prop aesthetic, and a political philosophy that melds populist, libertarian, and anarchist political sentiments.

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:


Rhetoric: A rhetorical analysis of GoonSwarm naturally seems to lead to the work of Kenneth Burke, who was concerned with how communities took shape owing to their common terminology or terminsitic screens, their attempts to forge identification with one another through symbolic acts, such as scapegoating the "other," and drawing upon shared ideological assumptions to foster solidarity, or "consubstantiality" in Burke's terminology. Considering a group as ill-behaved, cacophonous, and fast-moving as GoonSwarm, Burke's notion of the "human barnyard"—the image underscoring how communication often happens in unpredictable, uncontrollable, and competitive contexts—seems like an especially appropriate metaphor to apply here.

Gaming Theory: As video and computer gaming has become an increasingly integral part of our cultural landscape, scholars have begun taking the medium more seriously, studying how narrative structures are complicated in gamespaces, how literacy skills are developed through playing games, how players negotiate elements of risk and reward, and other topics. Mackenzie Wark's recent book Gamer Theory is a particularly insightful addition to our thinking about GoonSwarm, particularly his notion of agonism as well as how one defines the often uncertain boundaries of the gamespace. Additionally, Ian Bogost's work on gaming, primarily from his book Persuasive Games, also offers us important concepts of how members are motivated to participate in the community in ways that sometimes run counter to the game's formal rule set.

Media theory:One particularly salient area to draw upon when studying a group that exists in and around online gamespaces, web forums, wikis, and produces digital videos, posters, etc., is media theory. In particular, Steven Johnson's notion of "emergence" and Kevin Kelly's concept of "swarm theory" are especially useful, as they help explain how group behavior forms and is subsequently shaped through a combination of top-down and bottom-up forces, creating a community dynamic that, while cohesive, is highly mutable, flexible, and able to carry on multiple tasks at any given time.

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.

 

 

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