LaveCon 2017


Last year I went to LaveCon, and I’m going again this year. It’s a small conference held in Northampton, devoted to Elite: Dangerous. There, I will probably make an ass of myself, because that is traditional.

I’m going out of a sort of a sense of obligation. First off, I enjoy the game, though – let me be frank – it’s boring. That, to me, is part of the charm: I can be exploring some region of space or duddling about catching the sights, while also working on a paper, or doing my email, or watching a documentary or even doing a blog post.

Something very naughty killed these capital ships. Still a mystery.

For me, it’s a good game, but I probably won’t say it’s a great game, though it’s got remarkable staying-power. Games like Elite: Dangerous and World of Warcraft are notable because some people just … stay. Better, more creative and challenging, plot-driven games like Grand Theft Auto V, run out of plot eventually. World of Warcraft and a handful of other games collect long-term players because of the in-game activities that are possible, rather than the game itself. Which is why I’m going to LaveCon.

Right when Elite:Dangerous was coming out, I had just quit a 3-year stint of playing World of Warcraft, because of politics: the war-clan I was in had poor leadership and a mis-managed succession and I just hated the divisiveness and nonsense that ensued, so I left. (Ironically, my raiding partner wound up in charge of the clan, and they will do very well under her leadership, I am sure)    I loved the fact that Elite didn’t really expect much interaction with people, and the occasional griefer could be shrugged off – once you get away from the more populated systems you will almost never encounter anything or anyone, which is exactly how I like it. My beat became long-distance exploration, I went to the galactic core and back and more or less had a good time wandering about making screenshots.

Rat.01 Extended Dismissive Scorn discovers a blue-white giant that’s just like all the others.

When Frontier decided to add a feature to the July 2015 release, consisting of a refuelling limpet/probe that could be used to transfer fuel to someone who was out, I had a brain-flash and did a posting announcing that I was starting an organization called “The Fuel Rats” who would undertake to rescue people in-game who ran out of fuel. And, The Fuel Rats were an unexpected success – leaving a war-clan with 20 members, to get away from politics, I found myself having started a fuel-clan that now has over 2,000 members, an IT infrastructure that dovetails into the game’s (we have had 24/7 dispatchers online in our IRC channel constantly since August 2015) numerous accolades, a lot of very funny and weird stories, dramatic rescues, and – best of all, we’ve saved over 50,000 in-game fuel emergencies. The Fuel Rats’ ethos is “If we can save you, we probably will.” and the harder and more unusual the rescue is, the more glorious.

Art by Uvelius Sang

As usually happens, I got so bogged down in bureaucracy that I hardly play at all, even more rarely run a rescue, and haven’t served as dispatcher since the early days. But: that’s why I am going to LaveCon – I’ll get to hoist a few beers with some of The Fuel Rats stalwarts, who are – hands down – some of the best and most thoughtful gamers I’ve ever played online with.

When I realized The Fuel Rats were going to be a presence in the game, I remembered the grief of guild politics, and quickly decided to do an experiment with the group – I didn’t want to be important, or central to operations, and I didn’t want to be a critical decision-maker. I also didn’t want politics (nor did any of the First Rats) so I branded us as an “Anarchic Collective” and established The Doctrine of Individual Excellence, which says that each of us is responsible for our own decisions but since our actions reflect on the collective, we should be as awesome as possible, and try to always make decisions that are awesome, clever, or funny. Eventually, we dropped the word “Anarchic” because a lot of the younger generation interpret “Anarchy” to mean “we do whatever we want” not “without leaders” – a subtle but important difference. After the 20th time I caught myself lecturing about anarchism 101 in IRC, I did an update on the website about anarchic collectivism, and let the Rat Dispatchers take over from there. So far, it has worked: Rats come and go (including me) and are welcomed when they return and welcomed when they go. The group has amazing morale and esprit de corps, but I know that part of the reason it does is because we implicitly recognize that it’s just a game and none of it matters. Politics, after all, is the art of dealing with things that matter.

A ringed methane world with basic life, 1010ly from human space

Among the things that matter in life are the accidental friendships we make.

So I’ll be making a whirlwind hop from Heathrow to Northampton Friday, then heading home on the reverse path late Sunday. Usually when I travel, it’s tightly focused point-to-point “get me there” on a schedule, so I don’t know if I’ll have any time to divert to say hi, but if any of you are in Northampton, I’d love to buy you a pint or 5 and give you some Fuel Rats stickers. As official Fuel Rats Quartermaster, I’m going to be hauling a huge load of mugs and stickers and assorted propaganda for The Mischief.

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When I named the Fuel Rats, I did not know that the collective noun for rats is “Mischief.” That was an incredible bit of luck. Mischievous, we are!

In the Fuel Rats we have very few rules but homophobic, racist, or sexist speech is right out. I embedded that on in the culture from the beginning and periodically we have to rap someone’s knuckles. There is never a second offense, because nobody gets a second chance. In the 2 years that the Fuel Rats have been operating, we have had a little bit of drama, but generally it’s been pretty smooth. We did have to figure out an interesting conundrum, which is: “how do you throw someone out of an anarchy?”  The answer turned out to be pretty simple: if enough people start suggesting “maybe you should find another hobby than being a Fuel Rat” that means that, pretty soon, nobody will fly with you and the dispatchers won’t assign you to any rescues. We are quite open about applying peer pressure under the doctrine of individual excellence, “hey, you’re making us look bad” is a serious offense. It does make me wish we could run real politics that way. Don’t you?

The Fuel Rats have some amazing propaganda. One of the great things about a group so large is that we represent a very wide range of skills. There are at least a dozen professional artists, a dozen software engineers, some web designers, a poet, a couple corporate executives, several ex-military non-commissioned officers, a radio announcer, reporters, and who knows what all else.

What a glorious bunch! I salute you all! 07!

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    That’s pretty much the approach that The Culture take to… well, let’s say “breaches of etiquette”, up to and including murder. Worst case, they’ll assign a drone to follow you around and make sure you don’t do it again, which is really bad, because then you probably won’t get invited to any parties.

  2. bmiller says

    Have no real interest in gaming, but this is fascinating nonetheless. Have a safe trip!

    Dunc: I actually teared-up when Iain M. Banks passed away. I’m not sure why, but there was something about The Culture that really resonated with me. I know the physics and the simple reality of the universe make the Culture ultimately nonsense, but what a better vision than any religious version.

  3. says

    Dunc@#2:
    The name of my ship might be a giveaway as to how The Culture has influenced me.

    One nice thing about gaming is you can role-play explore things in a way that doesn’t matter. I think anarchism in a gaming group can work – actually I have come to believe it’s necessary – but that’s only because there is so little at stake, and any would-be authoritarian has to confront the easiness with which their subjects can quit. It’s a lot different in the real world, when authority can hold you hostage.

  4. Owlmirror says

    I wonder if the “rats” part has a (perhaps unconscious) connection to “The Rescuers”; either the Disney films, or the books by Margery Sharp.

  5. Dunc says

    Marcus @5: Banks makes an argument in one of his essays about The Culture about how that sort of authoritarianism becomes much more difficult in a space-faring civilisation. Once you can live in space, it becomes more-or-less impossible to stop people from just breaking off to do their own thing… It’s one of the best arguments for space colonisation that I’ve heard.

  6. invivoMark says

    50,000 people helped? Wow, that’s 50,000 people who really f***ed up! But I’m sure they’re all damn glad you guys were around. Mindlessly running out of fuel because you didn’t check the star types on your plotted path is one of the only dangers of deep space in E:D. I’ve been fortunate never to have done it myself.

    I really like that sort of emergent gameplay that arises when many players band together to solve problems in a game (another game series that has a sort of emergent group-problem-solving, though mechanically very different, is the Dark Souls series).

    But these days, everyone’s just talking about the thargoids, and when are we going to get to shoot them, and how many months do we have to wait until the next pointless two-minute experience with them meticulously designed by the developers.

  7. says

    Um, I’m not a gamer, but as someone who has multiple mischiefs of rats, could I get one of those stickers? Please?

  8. says

    Owlmirror@#6:
    I wonder if the “rats” part has a (perhaps unconscious) connection to “The Rescuers”; either the Disney films, or the books by Margery Sharp.

    The name popped into my head because of a cartoon I saw when I was a kid, reading a bunch of WWII propaganda. There was a drawing of a “desert rat” standing with a jerrican of water, wearing an Aussie-style broad-brimmed hat, and a sign saying: “water, $5”

    I must say in favor of marketing, the name “The Fuel Rats” seems to have had a lot to do with our success, and robinjb’s riff off of Banksy’s mouse cartoon, which was our orignal logo, really gave us a visual identity that was pretty immediately popular. When we started off, I came up with a few snappy slogans, and those also seem to have gotten us attention. So – as much as I hate marketing – I’d say The Fuel Rats are at least partially a success because I accidentally created us a great brand identity. Now, we are one of the main in-game brands.

  9. says

    Dunc@#7:
    Banks makes an argument in one of his essays about The Culture about how that sort of authoritarianism becomes much more difficult in a space-faring civilisation. Once you can live in space, it becomes more-or-less impossible to stop people from just breaking off to do their own thing… It’s one of the best arguments for space colonisation that I’ve heard.

    That must be where I’d encountered that idea before!! Thank you!

    There have been several times in the Elite:Dangerous forums where I’ve pointed out that that’s a huge flaw in the game. As it stands, the economics are completely whacked because you go from zero credits and a low-end ship to very wealthy indeed. Usually. But the part that bothers me is there’d be no reason not to just buy a great big ship full of food and head off and never come back. Nobody can stop or control you and you have jump drives and guns and life support and infinite fuel if you’re careful. So, there’s no way to shackle people into the economy – everyone who didn’t like their job could just leave, any time. It’d make it hard to be The Man.

    Another problem is that the stations are great big sitting ducks and anyone who wanted to kill a station could just boost up a rock and let it go from a distance.

  10. says

    InvivoMark@#8:
    50,000 people helped? Wow, that’s 50,000 people who really f***ed up! But I’m sure they’re all damn glad you guys were around. Mindlessly running out of fuel because you didn’t check the star types on your plotted path is one of the only dangers of deep space in E:D. I’ve been fortunate never to have done it myself.

    Some of the coder rats have built a database system for tracking rescues. When we started, I used to do it by hand (for about a month) then I switched to Google docs and when Google docs couldn’t handle the load someone else built a forms app using a database and thank goodness it was no longer my problem. It’s been interesting to see how our IT infrastructure had to grow and evolve as our service level continued to rise.

    We also track failures. Basically, we are playing a game against the game’s instancing engine, which we now understand much better than the game’s developers. We have about a 1% failure rate (a bit lower than that) because there are a few people who call when they are on their last breath of air, and if we experience instancing problems, then… oh well, as we say:
    The Fuel Rats: if we can save you we probably will.

    If you’ve never been to Hutton Orbital in the Alpha Centauri system – it’s a 1+hr flight from the jump-in point by the star. Once, early on, I took a mission there and ran out of fuel practically within sight of the orbital. Back in the day before refuelling was possible. So I had to self-destruct. That’s the official origin-story of The Mischief.

    It’s actually not too hard to run out of fuel. I nearly did last week, trying to haul a ‘conda full of mining gear out to Tabby’s Star – you get into a belt of T-Tauri stars and aren’t careful and you can get pretty embarrassed.

    Last summer I had been drinking a bit and was distracted by something and got stuck. So I went on Ratchat “ratsignal. Be advised this is not a drill.” There was much laughter and a great fleet of Fuel Rats descended upon me and shot fuel at me.

    the Dark Souls series

    I quit halfway through the last one. It’s really good stuff but I don’t have the necessary twitch reflexes any more.

    how many months do we have to wait until the next pointless two-minute experience with them meticulously designed by the developers

    Frontier is not brilliantly creative about many things. I fully expect the Thargoid rollout to be pretty badly handled. For a while I was thinking they were going to hook a full on Thargoid invasion in through the powerplay engine but it looks like they won’t (which is fine, because powerplay is just a pretty grind interface) There is a lot to love about the game but, ugh.

    I played EVE for a while – there is some amazing emergent gameplay there – but it’s a bit too much Hobbes’ playground for me. I don’t need constant reminders of how horrible people can be.

  11. says

    Marcus:

    ’ll make sure to set aside a bunch of Fuel Rats propaganda for you.

    *Happy* Thank you! And I’ll be sure to keep the loot away from the actual rats, who would probably have a good time wrecking it. They have a thing for stickers, it’s the adhesive, I think.

  12. says

    bmiller@#3:
    Have no real interest in gaming, but this is fascinating nonetheless.

    Good to know! I try pretty hard to be sensitive to the range of topics I go into and (as Shiv says) “nerd” I try to keep it interesting.

  13. komarov says

    But the part that bothers me is there’d be no reason not to just buy a great big ship full of food and head off and never come back. Nobody can stop or control you and you have jump drives and guns and life support and infinite fuel if you’re careful. So, there’s no way to shackle people into the economy – everyone who didn’t like their job could just leave, any time. It’d make it hard to be The Man.

    The Long Earth books by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett actually have a similar theme.
    [Spoilers!]
    After humans realise they can ‘step’ into adjacent worlds – versions of Earth untouched by humans – people start to increasingly drift away from the original (“Datum Earth”). While there are some attempts to build industry and cities in adjacent worlds and certain hotspots, a lot of people trek across the Long Earth to found their own little colonies. Others just drift around, living off whatever they find in the endless wilderness. The Datum society struggles with the resulting drain. People who don’t like their lives on the Datum suddenly have the opportunity to slip away, without any control whatsoever. Anyone with a simple piece of kit (a stepper box) can step to an ajdacent Earth, and they can keep going further and further.

  14. jimb says

    I’m not familiar with the game but really like The Fuel Rats ethos. Very cool.

    And it’s great to see something else that The Culture has influenced – love those books.

  15. says

    jimb@#19:
    I’m not familiar with the game but really like The Fuel Rats ethos. Very cool.

    Thanks! I am very proud of the Rats. A couple days ago, one of them did his 1000th rescue.

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