Eco is one of those games you really have to sink time into to do well in, which is why we have absolutely, unequivocally failed.

Let’s rewind a bit. Since our last Eco diary, Eco has undergone some intense changes, and we honestly haven’t played enough to cover all of those changes. But our first experience with the public launch of the game was… “eventful.”

Because we wanted to experience Eco’s full potential without having to deal with servers mysteriously going offline and never coming back on (looking at you, Sloth Demon), Joey helpfully rented a server as part of a grand experiment in how much the three of us—Joey, Melissa, and Melissa’s husband, Josh—could accomplish. Except the server wasn’t just the three of us. It ended up being absolutely packed full of people, kicking off a little something we’ll refer to as a capitalist nightmare.

It ended up absolutely packed full of people, kicking off a little something we’ll refer to as a capitalist nightmare.

Because here’s the thing. Melissa’s vision for playing Eco has always been friendly, need-based, simple communism. Nobody’s in charge, nobody’s a ruler—if our goal is to stop the meteor from destroying all our hard work, it follows, naturally, that we focus on the ecological side of “eco” rather than the economic side. We should build relationships and find ways to all help one another, rather than scrambling to be the top dog on a planet that’s about to be exploded, right?

Enter a new denizen of our freshly opened server: Zombie. Zombie was one of the first to hop on, at roughly 10 p.m. PST. We chatted a bit and thought nothing of it. They were as friendly as all the other people who had popped into our server.

Until day two rolled around. By then, we’d settled into our homes and were starting to build them up—Melissa worked on a farm, while Josh spent most of his time gathering materials and Joey worked on the required mine and tailings disposal pit. Zombie, however, seemed intent on doing nothing more than gathering as much land as was humanly possible. Because they had yet to form a currency, they used Eco’s credit system to start dealing in credit—naturally, all that credit was theirs.

This was entirely at odds with Melissa’s vision of the world. While Zombie aggressively commissioned people to deliver them goods and claim flags, Melissa passive-aggressively dedicated her time to helping the server’s newcomers, handing out seeds and crops in exchange for services. But Zombie was online far more often than we were, and we could only watch their territory spreading farther and farther, taking up increasing portions of the map. They had control of a good portion of the world’s resources, and they weren’t sharing—not unless you wanted to pay them in credit.

Screenshot of a chatbox. Melissa and Joey discuss monetization with Zombie. Eco, Strange Loop Games, 2017

Something needed to be done. As much as we’d envisioned our world free of rulers and regimes, surely electing Melissa as leader wasn’t necessarily a step in the wrong direction. She didn’t want to make restrictive laws—she just wanted to make sure that Zombie didn’t get a stranglehold on the direction of the server. This was no place for capitalism.

But the moment the election started, with Melissa in the lead against two randos who were hardly ever online, things… changed. We’d started the server with an outrageously high skill gain, as a reward for early joiners and to make up for the progress we’d made on our previous server before the Sloth Demon shut it down. But it was simply unsustainable—with our skills growing that rapidly, there was no challenge, no need for specialization. So Joey, as the server owner and resident deity, dialed it back to a more reasonable rate after a couple days.

Zombie was, needless to say, not pleased. Because the more skills you gain, the more claim flags you get. And with claim flags reduced, they weren’t gaining territory as rapidly, which meant fewer resources, which meant fewer credit IOUs pouring into their account. But this didn’t manifest as a question about why the skill gain rate had changed—when we logged on after a day or so of reduced skill gain, we still had quite a lot accumulated. Because the server notifies the other folks online when someone skills up (because, lest we forget, this is a game about cooperation and specialization and helping one another), everyone saw us go up several ranks. Zombie made a snide remark about how it was odd to see us be rewarded despite not working as hard as everybody else on the server—despite the fact that they, too, had benefited from the outrageous skill gain, but had simply accumulated those points while others were offline.

During the middle of an election, this kind of subtle deception read as—dare we say it—subterfuge. And not long after Zombie made this statement, they, too, joined the leader race.

But because Melissa had already been running (and, presumably, because she kept giving things away to help people rather than trading them for more land), she won the election. She didn’t pass any laws and didn’t make any restrictions, but did encourage people to start planting more trees by giving out tree seeds, which start out at an outrageously low drop rate.

Somewhere around this point, we stopped pussyfooting around and started talking about actual politics. Melissa asked Zombie why they were so interested in gaining that much land, and they replied, “power.” Melissa brought up capitalism. They said, “Yeah, so?” It’s not that rampant, unchecked capitalism is an invalid way to play Eco, but seeing somebody trying to rack up as much wealth as possible while a meteor is literally coming to wipe out the planet sure is sobering.

Some of the server’s residents (to the person with the Sailor Moon/Karl Marx inspired username, we salute you!) seemed to like the sharing economy, especially when Melissa set up chests to store extra goods in, to share with newcomers and those who needed them. It wasn’t even an exchange system—it was purely “take what you need, leave what you don’t,” operating on the honor system. And honestly? It worked pretty well. Because the three of us were working together, we naturally had a lot more to give. Most of the items were donated by us and used by those who joined later, letting them progress more than if they had tried to go it entirely on their own.

But the longer the game went on, the less positive our interactions with Zombie were. It started with a few “…” responses to our trade requests. Those ellipses soon became the hallmark of our conversations; clearly, they weren’t interested in talking, as they once were. It no longer felt like the potential for collaboration existed. We were in an ideological war.

And in war, we sacrificed some of our values. We rushed to build a mint to prevent Zombie from having a monopoly on in-game currency. When Zombie founded their own currency, we undercut costs. But because we weren’t interested in accruing wealth, it was for good, right?

In some senses, we had become the villains.

But we had more power than that, too. Joey was our server owner, and as such, they had godlike powers. They could spawn plants and grant skill bonuses. Even though our grand vision for this server wasn’t domination over others—rather, creating a world of mutual helpfulness—those skill bonuses and plants ultimately turned into crops and abilities that we passed on to newbies. In some senses, we had become the villains.

Lest you think Joey’s power was unchecked, there was an incident in which their tampering with the natural world caused more harm than good. They spawned a giant steel cage just because they could, then destroyed it with a crater to get rid of it. Unfortunately, that crater wiped out every object above sea level, including our homes, objects, and farms. Total destruction.

Undeterred, we rolled back the server two hours to fix it. We lost two hours of work, but nobody knew.

Later that night our friend Zombie was back online. This time they spoke to us outside of their customary ellipsis. The conversation, as it always did, turned to money, but this time of the real-world variety. Zombie was concerned that Joey wasn’t monetizing the server, which could undercut the $10 per month they spent renting it, at the cost of having to deal with advertisements and player demands. Our opinion (that we expressed in no uncertain terms) was that monetizing your every hobby is a surefire path to burnout. Zombie didn’t share our perspective.

This story, this diary entry, doesn’t have a conclusion that will neatly wrap things up for you. We stopped playing. We had other games to review, we all had things to do, and the game simply faded from our attention. We don’t know what happened to the server after this point, other than that, when Melissa checked in a couple weeks later and found all her crops dead, there was nobody else online. Did they leave in search of places that would aid and abet their capitalist schemes? Were they looking for more active servers? Was our (admittedly terrible) biodiversity hurting their chances?

We don’t know. The planet was destroyed by an asteroid with nobody there to stop it.

But here’s the question that lingers with us after this capitalist nightmare: were we wrong? Did power corrupt us, even as we used our power for—perhaps not good, as we were certainly being petty, but for something other than evil? Should we feel dirty that most of our enjoyment of the game came not from progressing in the name of stopping the meteor, but from progressing to show that our ideology, the one of sharing and support, was better than rampant capitalism?

As they say, there’s a lot to unpack there.

But despite us having largely abandoned Eco thanks to busy lives and the ever-increasing number of games we have to play, this is precisely why it’s an excellent game. How quickly these systems let us turn against one another! A month to stop the meteor is just enough time to feel pressure, but not so much that we can’t get wrapped up in our own petty desires, too.

At some point during all this, Joey pointed out that this was the best lesson in economics and political systems we could imagine. It’s not hard to see how Eco could be used to illustrate these concepts in a classroom setting without sacrificing fun. These systems are complex—we haven’t even touched on the charts and graphs you can generate for wildlife population and pollution—but the game is, for better or worse, played by people. And people, as we’ve learned, are easily distracted by their own wants, even when everything could be destroyed in a month.

Eco is brilliant.


Read the rest of The Eco Diaries series.