My Years as a Metaverse Warlord

Michael Pusateri
14 min readApr 19, 2023

For the last few years, I had several thousand people at my disposal, part of a global group, operating 24/7 that would do my bidding. A simple post on Slack or a brief voice chat was enough to hurl them into action, ready to spend hours warring against our foes. Various teams coordinated our real and virtual infrastructure, the military led our battles, and my diplomats dealt with the incoming drama.

In short, I was a Warlord in the ur-Metaverse.

My path led from the earliest days of computing, where my father, an electrical engineer, first started me programming Lunar Lander on an red LED HP calculator. Soon the arrival of home computing and a 300 baud modem put me “online” for the first time navigating the world of BBSes and online communities of the early 80s.

As computers and internet bandwidth advanced, the opportunities to interact with others exploded with the first LAN based groups and in-person LAN parties. I started playing Ultima Online (UO) in 1997, one of the first MMORPGs, watching as the first guilds and clans formed, creating bonds from all over the globe, the first virtual tribes.

Ultima Online, circa 2000

Soon online gaming went mainstream, exploding onto the internet with first person shooters, real-time strategy, and more MMOs hitting cyberspace allowing interaction of people not limited to a LAN party.

Around the same time in meatspace, I became an tech exec in a big media company and began learning the hard lessons of leadership, especially those of when leading a technical staff. Managing technical people is much more than being good at technology, it’s about learning how to listen and understanding people’s motivations.

As a technical person myself, it was often a struggle to manage my own internal drive to be the person with all the answers as opposed to letting my team make decisions and act without micromanagement. This is a widespread struggle in both business tech work and gaming communities. The desire to be RIGHT and OPTIMAL.

The late 90s and early 2000s were transformational in how technology was managed and coordinated in businesses. No longer the quiet occupation of unseen nerds in the background, technology and interconnectivity became center stage of the business world along with transforming our concepts of community.

In 2008, I started playing EVE Online, which hit a sweet spot in my brain, creating the kind of dopamine flow that all gamers crave.

A spaceship fleet in EVE arrives home
A spaceship fleet in EVE arrives home

EVE is more of a galaxy space simulator than a game. The Icelandic creators envisioned a brutally harsh universe, where Death is a Serious Matter, and the Strong impose their will upon the Weak.

People playing EVE did what humans always do. They formed groups to protect themselves from the Others and rapidly innovated tactics to gain even the slightest edge over them.

In EVE, players can control star systems in a virtual galaxy where nearly everything is built by the players. A complex economy that required players to literally do everything from mining asteroids for metal to refine ore to build spaceships and the equipment to fit them. Even the ammo to load weapons was player built.

The player groups organized seriously, in the form of Corporations which congealed into formal Alliances to better manage the numbers joining the ranks and coordinate efforts. Rapidly it became de rigueur to have an IT backbone of real meatspace servers to rely upon for communication purposes. Spy networks formed to gather intel on opponents, and of course counter-intelligence teams worked to foil them and use professional forensic techniques to hunt the spies.

The leadership of groups in EVE is almost exclusively by (mostly) benevolent dictators. Groups have tried space democracy, but it has failed repeatedly. What empirically works is a leader with complete authority making decisions. In the game, they are referred to as CEOs, but they are in fact, warlords, maintaining fiefdoms and commanding their forces to attack or defend as needed.

In 2013, I became more deeply involved with one of the newly formed groups, helping in a small way to launch the group, but mainly being a line member, meaning I had no real responsibilities to the group.

The rigor and complexity in the game for building spaceships and other items was relaxing in a strange way to me and provided a benefit to the group, as I was willing to do this “space work”. As time passed, the group’s trust in me grew and I did more and more space work on behalf of the corporation.

Having been an early blogger, I leaned into this and started writing commentary on the game and its design. First for other EVE news sites and eventually on my own site. I appeared on various podcasts and Twitch streams, becoming a nano-celebrity.

EVE Online talk show on Twitch
EVE Online talk show on Twitch

I gave talks about leadership at a couple of the player conferences (2018, 2019) while at the same time making videos for my own group’s internal consumption. Much of this drew on my own experience managing a corporate staff, negotiating with stakeholders, and methods to communicate ideas to maintain morale.

CCP CEO, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, discusses EVE w/ the CSM advisory group

All of this eventually led up to being elected to the Council of Stellar Management (CSM). The CSM is an advisory group for the game designers and I was flown to Reykjavik, Iceland for basically a week of business meetings about the game. More and more people in the game knew my name and my reputation.

My role in our group continued to expand as I was given more and more authority and responsibility to handle day to day issues. I pushed a lot on the culture of our group, repeating our slogans, almost like a mantra.

Stay Classy.
Have Fun.
Be Brave.

Assortment of badges, coins, and morale pins.
Some of the morale items for my group and others given to me by other groups.

Keeping the group culture cohesive and aligned was more important than any in-game goal. Group morale and cohesion is critical for any grouping of humans, especially online.

My notoriety grew until during one of the galaxy spanning wars between players, I was put in charge of our group, becoming the CEO of the alliance. This was a big change to my experience, as I was now managing several thousand people across the globe to achieve specific goals. I spoke about it at one of the EVE player gatherings, known as Fanfest in Reykjavik, Iceland.

While I think Silicon Valley has no idea about the metaverse, I feel that we are seeing the beginnings of it, with EVE being an ur-metaverse.

The group was in many cases better organized and managed than most meatspace companies with division of labor, rules, guidelines, and strict accountability for personal actions. The hypercomplicated nature of EVE gives way to specialized software and endless spreadsheets needing to be updated and modified. With motivation in the metaverse not being based on financial reward, but on esprit de corps and social reputation, people would spend hours each day working to help achieve large goals for the group.

This kind of social currency and sense of achievement is highly motivational to people. It doesn’t matter who you are in the “real world”. Whether you are a corporate attorney, a construction worker, a truck driver, or a soldier has no bearing on how you are viewed by others. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, trans, or otherkin, all that matters is what you DO in the game.

This is tremendously freeing to many people that struggle with fitting into their small town, or people not understanding their autistic tendencies, or those that aren’t recognized IRL for their skills and abilities. Being able to disconnect your virtual life from your real life is essential for these kinds of metaverses to exist and grow.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for people to be able to live this virtual life to find some solace in a real world of stress, polarization, and difficulty. It is the core of what the metaverses are about.

EVE has traditions and rituals just as powerful as any found elsewhere in life. When a person dies, a vigil is held when ships light cynos, analogous to lighting a candle, in their honor. For these vigils, war is put aside and safe passage is given to others to join in the vigil, even between sworn enemies. Kind of like the fabled Christmas soccer game in World War I.

Lighting cynos and fireworks to remember the dead
Lighting cynos and fireworks to remember the dead

Large space stations often have naming ceremonies where speeches are given and dedicated as remembrances of past events or people. This is when I gave a short dedication in honor of the mother of a player that had died to suicide. We still hold a yearly vigil to remind people of him and the need to let others know if you need help.

My role as CEO was all encompassing. Both the minutiae and the complicated filled my Slack and Discord DMs constantly. The delicate metagame of diplomacy with other warlord leaders was conducted secretly, and required immediate attention to handle crises that popped up all too frequently.

Image of continuous DMs for issues morning & night
Continuous DMs for issues morning & night

My fellow warlords ran the gamut from the Italian neuroscientist to the Canadian military officer to the retired Washington D.C. attorney to the British motion graphics designer to the Singaporean businessman, each with a wide variety of styles and management styles. Working with them was similar to my professional work, dealing with creatives, finance, and other corporate types, adjusting my approach to each individual.

Almost daily, the typical interpersonal issues that pop up anytime humans gather would arrive on my plate. Most complex was navigating the myriad of relationships and rivalries between leaders that in many cases went back decades. Pacts and agreements were memorialized in formal documents as precise and finely tweaked as any legal agreement. In many cases, actual attorneys reviewed proposed agreements to look for loopholes and language that could bite us later.

At one point, we lost a war that had been going on for over a year and I had to give a speech telling my group we had lost. I spoke as honestly as I could to my people about the situation. I was surprised to find my honesty in such sharp contrast to what was said by other leaders on the losing side. This talk was well regarded on all sides and gave me a huge amount of credibility in the game, far more than I expected. Honesty from a leader is all important, not just to your group, but to everyone that you deal with.

Besides the power of our groups, many of these agreements were dependent on the personal credibility of the leaders to keep their word and not backstab others. I had built a strong reputation and was able to cut deals on behalf of it as a result. Again, no different than a corporate boardroom or in politics.

While our group was vast, spanning the continents and time zones, the larger community of EVE players was even larger. At gatherings in meatspace, in-game rivalries forgotten and the warmth of being with people who grokked your love of EVE was palpable.

Of course, these kind meetings also led to discussions of game politics, direction, and the future of the game. At these events, wars were instigated, stories were told, conspiracies hatched, and fences mended, much like anyplace else that humans gather in groups.

The comradery of players is intense. Retelling the war stories of the past between former enemies are commonplace, with toasts, laughs, and often hugs between those involved in storied battles or events.

People at a player gathering in Reykjavik, Iceland
At a player gathering in Reykjavik, Iceland

As a well known person and leader in the game, when I would attend gatherings, there were a lot of people that would want to talk to me. My nano-celebrity preceded me and there is a bit of a parasocial relationship that happens. People knew a lot about me. They had been in my dining room from watching my videos. They knew my hobbies and would ask about my beekeeping. But for many, I only knew them as a name on the screen or maybe a voice in comms. I would know next to nothing about many of these people, but they knew a tremendous amount about me.

As an extroverted type, this didn’t bother me. I like talking to people. But each person wanted to have a real interaction, not just a selfie. So I put a lot of effort into talking with people, asking about their experiences and life in the game. I wanted to make them feel noticed and just as interesting as they felt I was. Not always the easiest task, but it is critical for leaders to show respect and interest in people that look up to them.

Respect needs to be symmetrical, which is not always easy in these parasocial relationships. I usually carried a bunch of small items with my group’s logo like a bottle opener, beer koozie, or challenge coin. Handing these out to people was a sign of respect toward them and made the time a little more special.

There were times it was difficult at gatherings, when I was talking with one person already or with my wife, when someone would interrupt. Trying to balance things in those situations to make everyone feel that they weren’t being excluded wasn’t easy. I can’t imagine what true celebrity status must be like.

This community, with the realm of the EVE simulation, is a metaverse.

Far from the ideas of Silicon Valley and their fantasies of monetization and business meetings, this is an actual example of the alternate life with cyberspace that will be what the actual metaverse will be like to people.

A place to escape whatever bothers IRL.

A place to achieve.

A place to be who they aspire to be.

For myself, I enjoy being a leader. I have little fear of speaking to groups or revealing my feelings to others. I have learned to listen and am better for it. There is a special feeling of true leadership in which you are able to inspire others, not by fear, but by setting an example, however imperfect.

I loved making self-effacing videos to message the group our goals and ideals. I spent a silly amount on items with our logo and slogan to give away at RL events. Seeing the joy and pride in handing these items to others and seeing their genuine happiness is only overmatched by the joy of giving gifts to my own daughters. Everyone wants to be appreciated and these small tokens like a small payback for the faith placed in me as leader.

I couldn’t imagine it ending, until it did.

The last few years, I had suffered through increasingly worse headaches and stress. My work involved a lot of effort to maintain operations during the pandemic. Editing video and making graphics on the scale that a modern media company is difficult in normal times. During the pandemic, it took almost everything I had to convert the infrastructure to remote work and maintain it. I wrote a bit about it here.

Finding myself waking every morning to a slew of issues to deal with in EVE, spending a long day in the office, and then dealing with more EVE in the evening was a huge amount of work.

My fun per hour was low and EVE felt like a job on many days. I still found it rewarding, but it was taking its toll, my second job in the metaverse. Even when I was on vacation from work, I was still on duty with EVE, managing things from hotel rooms and beach houses instead of relaxing.

A laptop used to log into EVE from a hotel room
Logging into EVE from a hotel room

But the intoxicating feeling of leadership, when hundreds or thousands of people are acting upon your words and rallying to your virtual flag is hard to walk away from.

After a year of no relief from constant headaches, a university ‘ortho-facial pain clinic’ was able to finally diagnose what was causing my headaches. A prescription of anti-migraine medicine combined with removing a couple of molars that were causing complicate jaw and sinus issues and I was starting to recover, but the doctors kept telling me that stress was a big factor and I had to do what I could to limit that.

I had previously chosen a successor to myself for the group, just in case. A person that embodied the same ideals and desires for our group that I did. A brilliant and humble NASA scientist who also had been with the group since its inception. It was time to turn the reins over and walk away. This could be no half measure.

So I gave a short speech announcing my decision to stop playing and hand leadership to another. The talk was difficult to get through and I still get verklempt thinking of it. But it freed me from the weight of leadership and the stress of constant drama.

As I write this, it’s about six months from when I stopped and can finally look back.

I do miss the people terribly, but do enjoy the freedom to do other things. The freedom to not need to turn on my computer for space work. The freedom to not have to meet the expectations of others.

Michele, my wife, is thrilled that I closed that chapter of my life, freeing myself to be more present and find time for other things in life.

There is no doubt that I will fall into another community metaverse at some point and possibly lead again somewhere. Michele says “You are built for this.” when I talk about leadership, stressing that it comes naturally to me, unlike many others.

The last few years have had the tech media talking about the metaverse as if it’s a product to be invented. They are so off-base that they can’t see that it’s already begun, without fancy VR goggles and without slide decks.

The metaverse(s) yet to come will spring up more organically and around common interests, tied together with ever increasingly powerful tech to allow global communities to form and work together. Video games are the most natural ground for these kinds of groups to form, as teamwork and mastery are keys to success in gaming.

Teamwork and mastery are key motivators for humans. When people feel they are accountable to their friends, they will go far above normal effort to get things done.

While imperfect, the book/movie Ready Player One captured a lot of the basics in the power of mastery and the ability to gather others to a cause. The corporation in the story is the villain, much as corporations are often the villains in meatspace. The escapism of a metaverse community and the ability to be another person in it is the critical aspect that many fail to understand.

Other new technology and concepts are floating in the metadiscussion, many of them get rich schemes based on NFTs and crypto arbitrage, but there are glimmers of helpful tech for the metaverses like DAOs and smart contracts, that might enable new capabilities and structures hitherto unknown.

There are other metaverse warlords, like me, out there already. Carving out virtual fiefdoms and personal armies, doing things both good and bad, across the globe. They may not seem obvious or popular as those in the current ‘cult of the influencer’ zeitgeist, but their day is coming. The metaverse is sneaking up on humanity where the pundits least expect it.

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”



Michael Pusateri

Evil Corporate Exec, previously Technology Ronin & Man of Leisure