EVE Online and the first graveyard in gaming

Cyno vigils, floating corpses, solar system cemeteries and virtual acts of remembrance: in the deep space of this MMO, everyone can hear you mourn – and everyone benefits.

Beacons shine like stars, in stark contrast to the surrounding blackness. Metal craft of all shapes and sizes hang in the sky, drifting lazily. Bright explosions rip through the air around me. 

But although this scene is distinctly sci-fi and typical of computer game worlds, I’ve not come to see some high-stakes space battle. It’s a funeral.

Funerals have been around for almost as long as humans. Throughout history and across cultures, the care we show for our dead has spawned thousands of different customs and rites. These change with the times. For example, where once cremation would have been condemned as a pagan practice, it’s now the most popular form of funeral in the UK.

So perhaps it’s only natural that in the 21st century, when so many of our interactions with other people are conveyed through screens, there are now funerals that are 100 per cent virtual, taking place within video games – and nowhere more regularly, not to mention inventively, than EVE Online.

This MMO is a strange and complex beast. It’s a space game containing much of what you’d expect: exploration, laser fights and the like. But it’s also home to an astoundingly detailed economy, complete with quarterly reviews, supply chains and player-run corporations. Its Icelandic creators CCP Games have even hired a real-life economist to prevent the whole thing coming off the rails.

  • Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.”  Trust becomes a really significant commodity.” 

To the wider gaming community, EVE Online is mostly known through the stories it produces: brutal tales of skulduggery, betrayal, revenge and billions in (fictional) currency lost or stolen. It’s a sandbox where players can partake in power games and heists without any real crimes being committed or real lives ruined.

But there’s a human side to EVE Online that is often forgotten. The average player spends close to three hours a day inhabiting a shared world, interacting with the same people. Though trust is a scarce commodity, over time genuine bonds are formed. When someone passes away in real life, it’s a real blow to those connected to them in the game. And so the EVE community has devised its own methods of mourning.

No one knows quite how soon after EVE’s 2003 release the first funeral took place, but they’ve been going long enough for clear customs to develop. Dubbed cyno vigils”, these ceremonies, where players gather together in acts of remembrance, are named after a piece of navigation equipment sold in the game, the cynosural beacon.

In regular gameplay, cyno beacons produce a signal that colossal spaceships can home in on as they travel, lighting their way, so to speak. At an EVE funeral, dozens of beacons are released at once, sending out a signal that’s visible from any of the 7,800 solar systems on EVE’s star map. It’s a lot like lighting candles in someone’s memory – though, according to an anonymous mourner at the 2013 funeral for a prominent player known as Vile Rat, the beacons also have a deeper meaning: They symbolise our wish: that VR would bridge home (travel at super-speed) and come back to us.” 

A cyno vigil can honour those outside the game as well as inside. Various Chinese alliances held one on 4th April this year, a national day of mourning for the country’s coronavirus victims. At the vigil I attended a few weeks ago, the BRAVE Alliance showed their support for a member of their group whose wife had passed away.

In many ways they resemble real life funerals. Eulogies are read, condolences shared; there’s even a traditional poem. Although tinged with sadness, vigils are occasions to celebrate the deceased. According to a BRAVE diplomat known as Ryu Isayeki, they’re a chance to remember their life and reminisce about fun times”. Some attendees come with fireworks, and it’s common to sacrifice large spaceships, Viking-style, as part of the ceremony.

Cyno vigils are public, boisterous celebrations, but EVE has its quieter rituals, too. In the system of Molea, as you approach the solitary moon of the second planet from the sun, thousands of dots appear on your radar. It’s a sobering sight, if you know what it means. Each one of those dots has been placed by another player. Each is a casket, anchored in space. This is Molea Cemetery, for those who wish to [mourn] in silence and with their thoughts”, as player Ezekiel Ezreal puts it. If vigils are a celebration of life, Molea is the burial proper.

  • The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”  The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.” 

Just like the vigils, the Molea cemetery grew from the actions of players, not developers. The site was started by Azia Burgi, a roleplaying gravedigger, collecting in-game corpses from characters who had perished in battles and interring them within floating cargo containers. Over time the cemetery’s meaning has shifted: it’s become a burial ground where real people are laid to rest in a virtual world.

In memory of Henkel, may he game on in the heavens” reads one grave marker. Another: In memory of Steve – I wish we knew each other more. Rest well. From your nephew.”

Despite major battles being fought over the cemetery in its earliest years, Molea has stood the test of time. So when a recent update to EVE threatened to remove it, the game’s creators knew they had to step in. For a while, community developer Dan Crone explains, they had planned to do something that would add significance to the site”. Thus, in late July, they unveiled an indestructible monument of basalt columns and shining cyno beacons that could preserve the cemetery and celebrate its significance.

It’s incredibly humbling when we see places and projects like this. And it just makes EVE a little more real,” says the game’s creative director Bergur Finnbogason. “[Molea] came from the players, so this is us paying the players back.”

It seems contradictory that a game like EVE, with its reputation for ruthlessness, has been able to foster these elaborate, emotional practices. As Finnbogason points out, even travelling from one place to another in the game is a daunting and difficult task”. Reaching Molea or a vigil requires braving dangerous sections of space, populated by pirates and gangsters who’ll think nothing of taking out weaker players.

And there are times when EVE lives up to its bad name. Player Martin Lockheart says his procession to Molea was attacked en route by a rival power, who then ran off with the corpse they’d been transporting. On the forums discussing the incident you’ll find every shade of opinion, from disgust to dismissal. Technically, the aggressors were using the game for its original purpose – space warfare – but it’s hard to ignore Martin’s point that for many of us, [this] is the only opportunity we’ll have to pay respects”.

Fortunately, the attention gained by this incident shows that it is the exception not the rule. EVE funerals are typically feats of cooperation, often between enemies as well as friends, and they regularly produce temporary ceasefires in otherwise bitter conflicts.

I was partially expecting to be attacked in transit, but it seemed the word had spread,” says an anonymous player, describing their journey to a vigil. Despite the presence of enemies at the ceremony, we put aside all differences to show support and just spend some time together.” Ezekiel Ezreal finds it touching that people are willing to drop petty squabbles for something more significant – they say it shows that even though I want to lay waste to everything you hold dear, I still give a damn about your livelihood outside of the game.”

EVE is a game of extremes in behaviour – both compassion and cruelty. But its developers believe the two go hand-in-hand. The darker the place becomes,” says Finnbogason, the brighter the beacons of hope shine.”

When you have a cold, dark, cruel universe like EVE Online, it is the perfect crucible for creating meaningful relationships,” Dan Crone explains. Trust becomes a really significant commodity. You only build that kind of trust through prolonged exposure to people, getting to know them and really understanding them.”

EVE has a lot of loss and destruction: hundreds of hours of work can be wiped out in a single act of betrayal. But because of this, the friendships that form have greater meaning.

It’s no surprise that something like a cemetery emerges in this universe,” thinks Finnbogason. The emotional bonds you create with the people that you fly with, they become so incredibly deep.”


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