Over the last couple of days, headlines have been appearing all over—even in mainstream newspapers—about EVE Online‘s latest mega-battle. (It’s not the first, but it is the biggest.) After a mistake, a 21-hour war broke out in the game involving over 7,000 players and costing an estimated 300,000 real dollars in damage.

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Disclaimer: I’ve never played the game. I’m a bit intimidated, to be  honest—EVE players, the ones who have been doing it for years, are extremely accomplished, with powerful ships and weaponry, and the game takes a fair amount of work.

A little background: EVE Online is a sci-fi space MMORPG, where players can customize ships and travel across a galaxy with 7,500 star systems (i.e., this game is huge—massive, even). It’s been around since 2003, but it’s less known than some of the MMORPGs with similar longevity due to the complexity and time necessary to play it.

EVE Online has a complicated economic infrastructure wherein players adopt professions, only one of which is combat—others include mining, exploration, trading and manufacturing, and even piracy. The economy is player-driven and operates under supply and demand. In-game currency is not transferable to real-world currency, but players can pay real money for in-game products. (At least, legally. Of course eBay thrives in these shades-of-gray scenarios.)

From what I understand—do correct me if I’m wrong—the way players spend money in the game is by paying a monthly, $20 subscription fee. That money is tradeable for in-game items, and those items can be sold for in-game currency (ISK). ISK can then be used to purchase other items, such as ships or materials. Players can also spend extra cash on items if they choose, but it’s not integral to play.

(Addendum: I’ve been informed that players can also spend real money on PLEX, a token equal to a month in gameplay–they can can then sell PLEX for ISK. It is from this system that the conversion rates are derived.)

This is the $300,000 that has been lost in the war. While potentially devastating to players, it’s not a loss in the same way that burning a pile of bills is. That money was used to pay for hours of play (or PLEX). The main difference between EVE Online and, say, World of Warcraft, is that it’s very difficult to lose your epic gear in WoW unless you hit a glitch or someone hacks your account. In EVE, anything is possible.

People who play EVE are fully aware of the consequences of playing EVE—losing your stuff to stronger players, sacrificing ships to war, being subject to pirate raids—it’s all part of the game. It might be heartbreaking to lose that much progress, but that’s what makes the play so thrilling. A lot of people, myself included, stay away for these very same reasons. High-risk, time-consuming games like EVE Online can feel more like a second job than play.

My feeling is that the intricacies and issues of a virtual war—an in-game conflict involving hundreds of thousands of players who are ostensibly spending time on this game for fun—is much more intriguing than the amount of money that has been “lost” in that war. This  incident and others like it raise questions about the nature of conflict and about those who orchestrate it. Did this conflict break out because human nature is such that we can’t avoid war? Or was this a case of thousands of people writing an engaging story through their play?

EVE Online is a great example of a game where older teens can explore complex strategic and economic motivations. However, if they’re playing or interested in playing, make sure they’re aware of the potential costs! If you’re a parent of a teen, the EVE Online war is a good opportunity to discuss the motivations for conflict in the real world.

This article was written by

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.