There's a saying in the eve community, that there is only one way to win at EVE Online. To stop playing.
I've been in the sandbox for 2-3 years and as much as I have had amazing experiences in the game, none of those are worth describing in a vacuum. EVE is a game that changed me for the better with impact I could not have foreseen. It will forever be one of the best steps I'd have taken in life, and one of the hardest to explain.
You see, I have been a gamer for as long as I can remember, and I will continue to play for as long as I am alive (hopefully). Yet, at the time I started EVE, towards the end of my university, gaming came with a cost. The few friends I had made were few, and mostly all gamers and programmers. I still enjoyed the occasional party, don't get me wrong, but an introvert at heart was I.
And, along came EVE. I played the game for a few months as I would play any other game: as an intellectual pursuit. As if it were a Rubik's cube waiting to be 1) figured out, and 2) solved efficiently. I spent my time doing exploration, making some cash, and figuring the game out. It was a cold few months, and they did not happen in a single run, rather separated by years of inactivity when I would just follow the universe occasionally from afar. As a mild curiosity. Of course, my focus instantly changed the moment I went on my first fleet.
I had found the first community where I belonged. It would take over a year for me to understand this. Back then it would simply be awesome people, becoming friends and having great fights.
This is not the first online game where I had played with friends, nor is it the first game I felt the thrill of the chase pull me through. I had plenty of great experiences in games like League of Legends, pulling off exhilarating comebacks with my friends throughout the years. But, EVE brings more than people to the table, it's key strength is the high stakes it enforces upon it's player base.
For those who haven't played, almost every item in the game in the game is created by players, and whenever an item is destroyed it is removed from the game. If a ship blows up, you have to make or buy a new one. You also have to move it from the solar system you bought it in, to the place you want to use it. There's no magic gamey teleportation or spawning. Almost everything you see in the world took time to create, and someone had to make it.
When we brought down that Hurricane on my first fleet it had an impact, it had meaning. Every other game could give me joy that I executed something right, that I was able to predict what another player would do or outsmart them. This game, for the first time gave weight to that feeling. Some semblance of importance. If I'd have lost this ship I'd have to make a new one. It is so small, and so easy to describe, but ow so hard to grasp.
To picture it better, one of the first tips you get in order to start doing combat against other players in this game, is learn how to lose ships. And it hurts. So you go, buy 20 cheap ships, fully equip them, travel with them to a system you normally want to start roaming from, and detonate them. You lose those ships to on purpose to learn how to control and manage meaning, how to eventually decide what does and what does not matter. What is worth losing.
In a harsh environment, those communities I had met band together stronger than I'd imagine. And they organize, and form goals. We spent several weeks once planning to build a small citadel in a high traffic system to see if we could have a staging ground closer to fights in our neighborhood. You'd see less organized environments in most smaller companies in the real world. We'd keep track of who needs to know what, when we announce the move, who would supply the war effort for the battle that could follow, how we'd run fleets using those ships before the event so enough players would be familiar with them and would have the in-game skills required to pilot them... After hours of waiting, we undocked for the 15 minute window when the structure would be vulnerable not knowing even if a fight would take place. With 4 minutes left to go, foes started to gather as they attacked the structure. We traded blows for a short while, until they brought in capital ships and then we were unable to break anything. A small bloodbath followed where we lost a third of our ships, and eventually, the structure we were hoping to erect. The full story is not mine to write, and can be read here as written by the community, for the community (hopefully it will be available for a long time).
I was a tiny tiny part of that, many a greater man than I made it happen, but it mattered. A story was written, about a small group of underdogs who were unable to play with the big boys, but still tried and learned from it.
I won at EVE not because I stopped playing, but because I had learned how people create meaning. How communities can be formed and dive so much deeper than the clunky user interface placed in front of them. That whenever there were 30 purple dots flying together in a fleet, they'd have each other's backs. I won at EVE when I understood that knowledge would transcend the game. I won EVE, because it showed me what a community could do, where I didn't even know one existed.