In space, no-one can hear you scream. It's a dark, ruthless, high-stakes world. Every minute is a struggle to survive, no-one can be trusted, and months or years of effort can be wiped out in an instant surprise attack.
Learning the complicated combat system and game economy of EVE Online takes at least six months and a spreadsheet. Actions have serious consequences and there's no going back on your decisions, which can affect everyone else in the game – over half a million people.
When you lose – your spaceships get blown up or you're robbed by spies or gangs of bullies – you really lose. Spaceships and other assets can be worth the equivalent of thousands of dollars and may have taken hundreds or even thousands of hours to build.
It is so arduous, brutal and to some, dull that it is redefining the boundaries of fun, according to Marcus Carter, a researcher of human-computer interaction at the University of Melbourne who has edited a book about it, Internet Spaceships are Serious Business.
"While all games have consequences for failure to some degree, Eve Online really absolutely changes the scale of that failure," he says.
Being made bankrupt in a long game of Monopoly is trivial by comparison.
"Eve Online shows that negative things can be part of the attraction of playing games – that 'play' can involve struggling to survive in a hard, ruthless, and high-stakes world.
"People will question how it can be fun to be stolen from, to be lied to, and to be victimised. But for Eve players it is fun, and that is really interesting," says Carter.
"I don't think you really play Eve to have fun," says Brendan Kelly, an Eve veteran of five years who at 21, is younger than most. (The average age is reportedly in the early to mid-30s and players are overwhelmingly male, white and employed in IT).
Players join alliances or corporations, some with tens of thousands of members, to protect themselves, through a recruitment process which is "often more serious than any real world checks", Kelly says. A full record of a player's in-game history is required, which he describes as "the real-life equivalent of giving access to every asset you own, all your bank accounts and every email you have ever sent".
The game operates on a single computer server 24 hours a day, so players from around the world defend their communities across different time zones around the clock. Even so alliances tend to be based on real-world ethnicities and cultures. For example an alliance between Russian and Ukrainian players abruptly terminated when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
People will question how it can be fun to be stolen from, to be lied to, and to be victimised. But for Eve players it is fun, and that is really interesting.
By their actions the players are making their own stories, laying down a history of plots, betrayals, battles, catastrophes and characters famous within the game, such as The Mittani, in real life a retired DC lawyer but in Eve a ruthless space dictator leading a 40,000 strong alliance called The Imperium. A story book is already out; there's been talk of a TV series.
Kelly, who now works in the banking industry, took up Eve when he was 16 because "I wanted something to do that I could think about and develop and become good at". He says there are players who get very angry about losses but they are rare. On the other hand, it's "pretty amazing" to work with someone in the game you can "really really trust, because you know they could steal the equivalent of thousands of dollars from you in an instant and they don't, and you don't. That can build a really strong friendship," he says.
Just as childhood games give an opportunity to explore right and wrong, modern immersive games provide "a very powerful emotional experience in a safe way," says Dr Carter. Whether they help prepare players for real-life moral challenges is worth a closer look, he says.
This story originally appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald