Monday, July 9, 2012

The Cod Wars and Eve Online

History has a tremendous influence on how people look upon the world.  Indeed, that same experience influences our art, our literature and dare I say it, our video games.  I think that is one of the factors that makes Eve Online so fascinating.  How does a country like Iceland produce game designers who can produce a game with so much conflict, both military and diplomatic?  After all, Iceland is located in the middle of the North Atlantic and never comes into conflict with anyone, right?

Wrong.  In the mid-20th century the Icelandic government expanded its control of the waters around the island nation in a collection of 3 conflicts with the United Kingdom known as "The Cod Wars".  In 1958 Iceland established control of its waters from 4 miles from shore to 12.  In 1972 Iceland successfully expanded that control out to 50 miles from shore and in 1975-1976 finally established control out to 200 miles in the face of opposition from the Royal Navy, the only fleet capable of contesting the matter with the Icelandic Coast Guard. (1)

Over the weekend I found a BBC documentary, History of the Cod Wars, on YouTube and watched it when I wasn't watching Alliance Tournament X.  After watching the documentary and doing some additional research, I think I've found some aspects of the conflicts that fit nicely into the game design of Eve Online.

1.  Resources drive conflict.  For those of us who live in the United States, popular perception is that war and international conflict over the last 70 years was driven for the most part by ideology.  Whether the U.S. was fighting fascism in World War II, communism after that during the Cold War or radical Islam starting in the mid-1990s (some would claim that started in the early 1980s) the main driver of conflict was ideals, not wealth.

Not so for Iceland.  The island nation's international conflicts centered on natural resources, specifically cod.  In the 1970s, the fishing industry made up 15-20% of Iceland's GNP.  With such a dependence on fishing and fears that Icelandic cod would face the same fate as Icelandic herring, fishing for which utterly collapsed in 1969 due to over-fishing mainly by the Norwegians and Russians (2), the Icelandic government moved to protect a resource they considered a vital national interest.  British leaders, looking to protect their northern deep sea fishing fleet, responded with the Royal Navy.

When talking about Eve Online, game developer CCP will often make references to going to war with other players if, for instance, another corporation begins over-mining in a system a group of players considers home.  These references come straight out of the Icelandic experience concerning fishing resources and the Cod Wars.

2.  Resource scarcity will eventually make friends fight.  Many players in Eve Online look at the many NAPs (non-aggression pacts) as bad because they limit fighting.  Some even fear that all null security entities will sign NAPs and that will end conflict in New Eden.  Yet CCP doesn't seem that concerned with that particular issue.  Why?  Because the Icelandic experience is that non-agressions pacts do not prevent military conflict from occurring.  During the Cod Wars, both Iceland and the United Kingdom were members of NATO.  Indeed, while the U.K. is the United States' closest ally, the U.S. signed a treaty (in effect to this day) that pledges to protect Iceland militarily.  Does this sound like some of the actions we see when members of the CFC get bored and start fighting amongst each other?

3.  Resource gathering ships are a valid target.  Many players in Eve are dedicated industrialists and, like the shipowners of the U.K.'s deep sea fishing fleet during the Cod Wars, would like to see those in authority protect their ships.  Many in Eve's carebear community want to see suicide ganking in high sec totally eliminated.  Some go further and advocate a complete ban of formal wars in high security space. 

Based on Iceland's history, I cannot see CCP meeting those demands.  Sure, Iceland's economy depends on its fishing fleet, but the fishing fleets of other nations pose a threat to the health of the fish the island nation lives on.  Fortunately by the time the second Cod War began in 1972 the Icelandic Coast Guard had developed trawlwire cutters and so could just cut the trawling lines instead of trying to board ships as had occurred during the first Cod War.  That innovation probably prevented a lot of shooting between the two sides.  But Icelandic captains were not adverse to shooting unarmed fishing vessels poaching in their waters, as the captain of the C.S. Forester discovered on 19 July 1974.

Also, I was reminded of the call of supporters of suicide ganking to miners to tank (make a ship more resistant to damage) their ships.  During the Cod Wars the Icelandic Coast Guard utilized armed trawlers alongside their patrol vessels.  According to the documentary one of the converted fishing vessels, ICGV Baldur, had a reputation for giving better than she received in the bumping and ramming that characterized the battles of the Cod Wars.  Yes, the concept of the Battle Hulk pre-dates Eve in the Icelandic mind.

4.  Anyone can defend themselves.  A lot of players in Eve will state that a smaller corporation cannot defend themselves against a larger corporation or alliance.  Others will state that a large group of carebears cannot stand against a small group of PvP players.  Does anyone think that people who grew up with tales of their tiny coast guard taking on the powerful Royal Navy is really going to deep down in their heart believe that?  With no disrespect intended to the members of the Icelandic Coast Guard, they were outnumbered and outgunned by a better trained navy that had a tradition of victory stretching back centuries.  And yet, Iceland came out victorious in all three of the Cod Wars.

5.  Diplomacy is good.  One of the elements that allowed Iceland to come out on top of the Cod Wars was a strong diplomatic effort.  One reason that Iceland prevailed with the implementation of the 200 mile exclusion zone was that was the limit being decided on in the United Nations' Conference on the Law of the Sea that began in 1973.  A factor that helped is that the U.K. stood to benefit far more from receiving drilling rights in the North Sea than from any economic loss it sustained from the loss of its northern fishing fleet.

Other diplomatic efforts designed to put pressure on the U.K. leadership were overtures to the Soviet Union seeking to purchase additional patrol boats for the Icelandic Coast Guard and threats to deny access to NATO forces to the naval base in Keflavík.

While CCP has not implemented features like a binding treaty mechanic (see point 2 for one possible reason), players in Eve Online are aided by features that allow corporations to form alliances, grant and deny access to their facilities and to mark friendly players, corporations and alliances "blue" in order to prevent accidents from occurring. 

6.  Smack talk in local is normal.  We may have British fishermen to blame for CCP's acceptance of smack talk in local and on the forums.  According to the documentary whenever matters were going well for the fishermen, they would blare Rule Britannia! over the radio.  I don't know if the Icelanders responded in kind, but smack talk in local is possibly an Icelandic military tradition.

7.  Tears.  A lot of people outside the game don't like the fact that players in Eve enjoy others' tears and think that CCP needs to do something to stop the harvest.  Apparently they don't know Icelandic history.  Here is a clip describing a situation from the first Cod War that immediately reminded me of Eve.

I am sure I missed a lot of items from the Cod Wars that slipped into the philosophy and mechanics of Eve Online. I'm not a scholar and don't really know a lot about Iceland.  I traveled to Reykjavik for Fanfest and believe that getting to know a bit about Iceland helps in understanding Eve.  I received the first inkling that the Cod Wars were a big deal when I ran across a display about the ICGV Óðinn and its role in the Cod Wars when walking to the Harpa Center from my hotel.  Watching History of the Cod Wars helped me understand Iceland just a little bit more.

(1) It should also be noted that Iceland was invaded by Great Britain on 10 May 1940.
(2) Lobbying Activities of the European Union Common Fisheries Policies, GUÐNÝ AGLA JÓNSDÓTTIR, AARHUS SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, 2004.  p. 5


  1. A good read with my morning coffee. Well done. Yes I can see the parallel between some of the Eve game mechanics and the Cod Wars.

  2. A comparison stretched too far. (Doesn't mean the conclusions are not valid, just that you cannot draw them from this (not very well-fitting) real-life example ...)

  3. Excellent article.

    Wars also tend to start in order to distract from internal strife and keep the ruling party in power.

    It has been speculated that the Burn Jita events and the Goon's participation in the Hulkageddon was really spawned by theMittani's desire to fuse internal cracks in his power bloc. And now I take my tinfoil hat off.... ;-)

  4. Oooooo, this is an awesome article. Nothing's better than taking real history and applying it to Eve to make Eve more real. Well done! And as a side note, anyone who's studied US wars in the 20th and 21st century knows they're about resources. We didn't fight Japan because they bombed Pearl Harbor. That was the excuse. We were already countering their efforts semi-covertly in Asia. What we were really fighting for was rubber.

  5. Very interesting article. being British, I vaguely remember the disputes happening when I was a child.

  6. Very good post. Disagree with some of your assertions, but I learned something and it made me think, regardless. Kudos!