In nine years of covering video games and the people who play them, I have seen some egregious displays of machismo, but it's never gotten to the stage where men have literally ripped their shirts off and wrestled each other to the ground. On Friday, though, I witnessed game developers from EVE Online studio CCP fight a reigning Icelandic mixed martial arts champion in front of an auditorium full of baying internet spaceship enthusiasts.
There is no real reason for this fight to be happening, except that CCP's offices are next to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik's MMA gym and its employees are a) famously insane and b) famously male. There is, I am fairly confident, no community in video games more male-dominated than EVE Online's. Last time I managed to get a stat out of them, it was 97 per cent male, where other MMOs enjoy a fairly even gender split. The reasons for this are difficult to determine, both for CCP and for me; EVE is unashamedly hard sci-fi, centred on lovingly designed spaceships mining asteroids and shooting each other out of the sky, but girls love sci-fi. Just ask the Star Wars or Firefly fan communities.
Personally I think it has more to do with EVE's unwelcoming nature. It doesn't just keep women out, it's intimidating to every new player. EVE is cutthroat. Its long, involved history is built around huge wars and large-scale betrayals, people dicking each other over to their own ends. It is a game of wars, between spaceships and between minds. People will use whatever they can against you. I've spoken to plenty of EVE's female players, many of whom are very powerful. It takes a lot of fortitude to make it in that world.
If there is one thing more wholly and ostentatiously masculine than the EVE community, it's probably topless men fighting in a ring. Ten men are lined up to fight Gunnar Nelson, who is evidently something of an Icelandic hero and undefeated MMA fighter. He is a beast of a man, bearded and tightly muscled; he circles his opponents like an aggressive silverback, arms out in front of him, dangling menacingly. He enters the ring as a live band sings some kind of Icelandic soft rock, followed by a team of hulking men in hoodies.
Most of the CCP contenders, too, are bearded and muscular. They enter topless to death metal, parading through the aisles of cheering spectators, posturing and roaring. The men behind me are screaming things at the tops of their voices in the tangle of consonants that makes up the Icelandic language. At this point, I think that this may possibly be the most Nordic thing ever to have happened.
This is far from the first strange experience I've had at EVE Fanfest, CCP's annual real-world gathering of EVE Online players in Reykjavik. The first year I was here, in this very auditorium, I observed quietly as a room full of EVE players stood up and cheered an image of a floating rock that was rotating slowly on the big screen, for reasons I could not understand. I have met the most powerful people in the EVE universe and seen the crowd part before them here, perfectly ordinary people temporarily elevated to rock-star status in the real world for one weekend a year (not all of them take well to it). I have bummed cigarettes from spaceship pilots who have shown me their alliance tattoos. Attempts have been made to recruit me as an in-game spy; I've been promised a share of some nebulous power and influence in return, told I'd be great at it because of the fact that I have a vagina and almost nobody else in the EVE universe does.
As the fighting begins, I'm feeling apprehensive. I know quite a bit about CCP as a company, EVE Online and its unusual fanbase, but I know literally nothing whatsoever about MMA, so I'm concerned that they're going to get absolutely destroyed. I don't want to watch EVE's concept artist or someone get carried out on a stretcher, twitching and covered in blood. But what they're doing here isn't the bloodsports I had imagined, but rather a sort of… protracted hugging. Painful hugging, I'm sure. But what I'm seeing here is impressively pale, Nordic, muscular men climbing on top of each other and kind of wriggling around for a few minutes until one of them taps out.
Most of the time it's the Gunnar Nelson on top, legs spread apart and pinning the other guy down, the EVE VALKYRIE logo proudly emblazoned across his arse. He holds the first contender in an arm lock, forcing him to tap out before the limb breaks. Others he chokes with his massive arms, making their faces turn purple. I observe that this whole fiasco is kind of hot in a homoerotic way, and wonder if everyone else thinks so too, or if any of these roaring men would be angered by the inference that there's a strong sexual undercurrent to what we're watching. This is a place of men. Perhaps there is not room for those thoughts, here.
One of the final contenders from CCP looks like Zangief, and enters the arena on a zipline. (Earlier, one of his team-mates had descended from the roof in full space-armour, then spent several minutes trying to unhook himself.) He is massive even compare to Gunnar, who ends up clinging to the larger man's back like a limpet, trying to get a hold on his neck. Internet spaceship fans cheer good-naturedly for the CCP contenders as their coach, a small energetic dude, provides commentary on their successive failures. "Toss him off!", he yells at once point. "Toss him off and finish him!"
I recall the many, many rounds of more subtle dick-waving that I've witnessed at E3 press conferences over the years, the chest-beating and the implicit or explicit violence and the naked appeals to young mens' testosterone, and wonder whether this might not be a more honest and upfront way to settle things and get the young male gamer's blood pumping. The unwelcome image of Jack Tretton and Phil Spencer grappling each others' naked flesh flits, unbidden, across my mind's eye.
Gunnar prevails, in the end, against all ten of them AND the coach, who strips down to reveal cartoon boxers before leaping into the ring. He's a comparatively little guy, twisting around under Gunnar, and it looks like he has no chance of pinning the bigger man down. Gunner appears to be about to break his arm when he taps out.
I look around the auditorium as the audience cheers and Gunnar lifts his trophy, uncomfortably aware that I'm one of the only women in the room. At that moment, I feel like I'm watching EVE's masculine power fantasies wrought flesh. It is the purest real-world reflection of its hyper-masculinity that I could imagine - there's an undercurrent of male competition running through the whole of Fanfest, usually just under the surface, occasionally coming up for air as its attendees chant "DESTROY! DESTROY! DESTROY!" at the end of a keynote or square up to each other after one too many beers on the pub crawl.
It's inevitable, perhaps, that it should eventually come to this.