One of the most divisive aspects of EVE, something that tends so separate those who love the game from those who hate it. is the "metagame." Metagaming has lead EVE players to some dark places in the name of victory - Third party programs, spreadsheets, and worse. (Though there isn’t much worse than spreadsheets, in this writer’s opinion). Still, it's important to consider how to approach this most misunderstood of subjects. Today, I hope to give you a crash course in strategic thinking, specifically a concept known as “Game Theory," and show you how you can apply this to EVE.
Don’t Forget Your Script!
“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence to support this” - Bernard Manning
The first concept I’m going to introduce you to is the “rational actor." For game theory to work, both you and the other “player” must be what is known in game theory as “rational actors." Now, if you were to hazard a guess, you might say that this means the other player is smart, or "gets" the nature of the game. This is not necessarily true: while a rational actor needs to understand the rules of the game and the outcomes they can achieve, this alone is not enough.
A rational actor must know the rules of the game, the outcomes they can achieve, AND they must also know their opponent’s knowledge of the game and the outcomes THEY can achieve. Here’s where it gets confusing, but it's a point worth making: Your opponent must know the game, the outcomes they can achieve, they must know the your knowledge of the game AND they must know that you know they know this.
As you can tell, I could go on forever like that. What it boils down to is that a rational actor is in possession of all the information they need to make an informed decision. Furthermore, rational actors only ever make decisions that result in the best outcome for them.
Without rational actors, there can be no game theory. The purpose of the exercise is to be able to predict actions and choices based on the outcomes an individual can receive. If you have no idea what your opponent knows, or your opponent has no idea what the rules of the game are, how can you ever hope to do anything other then rely on luck to second guess them?
Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200.
“A game is like a mirror that allows you to look at yourself.” - Robert Kiyosaki
You are in jail.
You have been accused of treason. Specifically, spying against your country in collaboration with your friend, Miss B. You can’t speak to Miss B and you have no contact with her; she is in a different cell. You sit there in the interrogation room all alone until a member of the government’s intelligence agency enters. He offers you the following deal:
- If neither you or your partner confess, they cannot prove you were stealing state secrets, and so will lock you up for breaking and entering. Sentence: 1 year in jail.
- If you snitch on your partner, and she says nothing, you can claim she forced you to go along with it. The government will be grateful and you will get off scott free, while Miss B gets 20 years in jail. However, if she snitches on you and you say nothing, YOU will get the 20 years and she will be released without penalty.
- If you BOTH confess, well then you’re both bang to rights and you’ll both be locked up for 5 years.
What would you do? Your choices look like this:
A) Confess: You will either get 5 years (oh no!) or 0 years (Yay!)
B) Don’t Confess: You will get 20 years (*&$#%!) or 1 year (meh).
The clear choice for a rational actor is that you confess. This is because if you confess and she confesses, you get 5 years - the second worst option on the list. However, if you don’t confess and she does, you get 20 years, which is the worst option. If you stay quiet the very best you can do is get 1 year in jail, whereas by confessing you get a potential of 0 years!
Now, the problem is of course, that Miss B is ALSO a rational actor, and therefore she will also always pick confess. This is called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” and it worked very well for the KGB when they offered this option to Soviet political criminals. By knowing your opponent will pick the best outcome for themselves (confess) you are forced by default to pick confess to maximise your outcome (while they are thinking the same as you).
The prisoner’s dilemma is used as an introduction to game theory as it is simple, at a much more in depth level you can use complex computer models to formulate games with a vast array of choices to help you predict real life outcomes.
Applying This To Your Spaceships
Unless you intend to become an expert in both computer programming and game theory, and then complete full, in-depth research into your rival EVE players, actual game theory models will be of no use to you in the game.
What is useful is the mindset of remembering to think about your opponent in order to second guess them. At this point you may be saying “Kitchner, this seems obvious! Of course I need to guess what my opponent knows!”... Alas! If only it were that simple! Part of the spying metagame in EVE is finding out things your opponents are doing. This can be taken to the next level though: Ask your spies to find out what their spies know about what you are doing to help you understand better what decision they are likely to make.
The beautiful thing about game theory is this can continue to spiral up level after level of meta-gaming as you constantly see to find more information about “what they know that we know” while they find out “what we know that they know”. This is the key to thinking strategically.
Next time you are trying to second guess your opponent, be it on the field of battle or in the heart of a coalition war room, try to think about that exercise. What does my opponent think I will do? How does this affect my decision?