Two weeks ago at EVE Fanfest, a convention for players of space MMO EVE Online, I began hearing odd snatches of conversation: "Dude, the pope's in our hotel." "Did you kiss the ring?" This is at the same time as the real pope is out in Greece meeting with refugees, so, clearly, we're talking about a different pope. This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, on 28 April 2016.
Then, on the third day of Fanfest, while another person is telling me about their pope sighting, a man taps me on the back and introduces himself as Charles White, saying "I think you're talking about me." He didn't look like a pope. In his mid-50s, with a soft face and firm handshake, Charles is immediately likeable but, at the time, he was wearing a shirt and trousers, nothing identifiably papal.
Despite this un-pope-like appearance, we find a quiet corner where Charles starts to tell me the story of how he killed an empress.
Charles started playing EVE Online back in 2008; he'd seen the game the year before but it didn't draw him in until he saw an advert where a ship crashed into the side of a space station. This desire for interstellar destruction did make me question his pope-ly credentials but, then, it took Saul's road to Damascus for him to give up his ungodly ways.
Like most EVE players, Charles found that the MMO is filled with a lot of downtime: you can spend hours mining for ore, travelling between star systems or waiting for a vulnerable ship to hunt. Like most players, Charles took to the in-game chat services to fill the downtime by talking to other players. Unlike most players, as an older man in his late 40s then (he is 56 now), he offered a different tone to the conversation. "A lot of players," Charles told me, "[were having a hard time]. Their cat died, their grandma died, their girlfriend left them, they blew up their car engine, they lost their job, and I'd just be this old guy that was talking them through it and counselling them."
It began as a joke among the players who knew him, but on the chat channels Charles began being referred to as EVE's very own Space Pope. This played into his character, Max Singularity, who was a member of the Amarr faction. EVE's lore has four rival races fighting over the space of New Eden, with the Amarr being by far the largest. They managed to take nearly half of the systems in the galaxy with an army driven by religious zealotry. And what is a bunch of religious zealots without a spiritual leader? So, with the support of other players, Charles began playing the role of the New Eden Space Pope, the guider of faith for 300,000 players.
He even begun to spread an in-game philosophy based on the life of the capsuleers, the cloned pilots players play as. "[In New Eden] capsuleers are unique: they're immortal," Charles explained. "You die and you reincarnate. So that has a whole different spin on afterlife. The pope is all about creating peace for the mortals, who are called the baseliners. He's trying to create a universe of peace for all mankind for the first time in history by reserving the capsuleers to fight in war and conflict only. Leave it to them, because they don't really die."
Charles even began to record Sunday sermons.
"I have this saying that's been popular for the past year: 'Go forth and spread thy love. And, by love, I mean lasers.'"
At last year's Fanfest, Charles had a surprise for EVE players: he turned up in appropriate attire. "Because the players called me pope in Twitter and on Facebook I turned up in full pope regalia and it just freaked everybody out, so it was a way to honour players that honoured me," he laughs. He topped his brightly coloured cassock with a richly woven stole bearing the Amarrian insignia. The final detail came from his wife, Susan: she gave him a gold ring inset with four diamonds to represent each of the four empires.
As he walked around the halls of Reykjavik's Harpa building at EVE Fanfest, people would stop him to thank him for his help in game. It also birthed a new tradition and phrase in EVE culture: "Bend the knee and kiss the ring." More than 30 players bowed to kiss the ring, from general players to members of the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), the board of players elected to work with developer CCP to keep the game's course steady. When people in EVE talk about kissing the ring, it's not the CSM members people remember, it's the Mittani.
The Mittani is the best-known player in EVE, both in and outside of the game. He is the head of Goonswarm, one of the game's oldest corporations, and has made a name for himself by acing the political machinations of running large alliances in EVE. He is also a bit of a dick.
So, when The Mittani bent his knee and kissed the ring, even as a joke, it was a big deal. "When that happened, that was worldwide headlines in the game," Charles recalls. "Because it was like 'He doesn't respect anybody, so who the hell am I that he would actually bend the knee?'"
Later, the Mittani even renamed his alliance, the CFC, to The Imperium in the pope's honour, Charles tells me. "I'm not even a member of their group, but they did that."
Besides having flocks of people bend the knee to you, space-poping is more than just a ceremonial role. It fell on Charles's shoulders to call out blasphemy in the world of New Eden wherever he saw it, even if that was in the upper houses of Amarr royalty.
Last year, Charles said that the Amarr empress didn't say she was a servant of God but that she was God, a blasphemous, heretical statement even in the language of EVE. There was only one thing for it: EVE needed its first inquisition. "As the pope," Charles pointed out, "There's only one person who can launch an inquisition: me."
Charles, along with The Mittani and his alliance of thousands of players, invaded a sector of space called Providence, calling for them to "bend the knee". Charles says they attacked "to disabuse the Jamylites of their commercial infrastructure of corruption." It was EVE's first player-led religious war.
CCP had a long-term plan for the empress. For years now the developer has been developing the backstory of the NPC characters in New Eden. It hopes to draw in new players by having them take part in missions that play off a more traditional scripted story, one that simultaneously introduces them to the sandbox nature of EVE's MMO. Now, however, with one of the players (a pope no less) calling the empress blasphemous and calling on other players to reject her legitimacy, there was a problem.
A problem with a simple solution: CCP killed her off.
"I'm not saying I had anything to do with it, but I probably did," Charles jokes.
The fallout of the empress's death played out this year at Fanfest, with a PvP tournament called the Amarr Championship taking place. It's the first tournament CCP has run since 2003 and the result determined who would succeed the murdered empress.
The whole encounter is a wonderful example of how the players in EVE create stories and motivations for each other to play out, stories that CCP can have a hand in developing, leading to changes in game.
It was only at the end of our interview that I asked what Charles does for a living in the real world. He's spent the past 30 years working for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, investigating any faults that occur in its rockets. At one point he even served on the Mishap Investigation Board. Yes, EVE Online's Space Pope was once a real life member of MiB, the group that inspired the Men in Black.
I don't know which side of his life is more incredible.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.