You’re in the zombie nightmare of DayZ and about to be eaten by one of the charging undead when suddenly a helicopter appears. Its pilots – and simply owning a helicopter lets you know they’re big shots – gun down your pursuer and offer you a lift. What you don’t know is that instead of flying you to safety, your destination is the tiny, featureless Schadenfreude Island some 15km off the main coast of Chernarus. The only reason they’ve saved you is for the amusement of knowing you’re condemned to stand there until you waste away, and that they were smart enough to fool you.
Griefing: it comes in many forms, but any online game with a population of more than five will see its share. Sometimes it’s purely for fun, sometimes it’s to make a point, and sometimes it’s even to make a profit. In the online world of Second Life, for instance, where players purchase land with real money, griefers have been known to snap up surrounding plots and fill them with content such as giant walls to extort landowners into buying back their view. Even when the reason is just ‘because I can’, though, there’s often more to it.
At heart, griefing is about rules – the rules of the game that griefers see themselves as being smart enough to subvert, or the social rules they’re prepared to break in the name of getting their own kicks. In many cases, simply knowing that someone somewhere is screaming is enough. There are parallels across other spheres of technology, too. For instance, one of the earliest celebrity viruses, Casino, took the form of a slot machine that forced you to play a game for the fate of your hard drive’s file allocation table. Get three £ symbols and you’d get your data back, just as the virus promised. Get three ? instead and supposedly you’d get the author’s phone number, although what you really got was the message: “No fuckin’ chance, and I’m punishing you for trying to trace me down!” before the virus zapped your data. The general presentation and text is classic griefer psychology, creating invisible rules to allow him to clamber to the moral high ground, blaming the victims, and dismissing any harm as just punishment.
While their goals were different, some early game developers would use their power to punish what they saw as player transgression, too, usually piracy, but occasionally cheating as well. The original EarthBound, for instance, had code that tried to detect whether it was a pirated copy. It would then let pirate players get to the final boss, before crashing itself and deleting all their saves. The first SimCity would let you keep playing if you failed a copy-protection check, but kept inflicting disasters to make it impossible to accomplish anything. More recently, last year’s Serious Sam 3 on PC punished pirates not with an error message, but an immortal giant pink scorpion that relentlessly pursued them through the world.
Originally such tricks served little purpose bar providing a little bit of quiet satisfaction for the programmer. As time went on, they became a way for a company to immediately know it was dealing with a pirate. Calling up a hint line about a missing item, such as the handkerchief in Lure Of The Temptress, was an admission of guilt. It would be there if you hadn’t cracked the game. The practice continues today: Batman: Arkham Asylum has a room full of poisoned gas where your cape suddenly won’t work if you cracked the game. “It’s not a bug in the game’s code, it’s a bug in your moral code,” responded Eidos’s admin when the first person complained about it.
While griefing methods vary by genre and game, players who grief can be put into three rough camps. The first are opportunists, who simply set out to annoy people. They shoot their own teammates, they kill steal, they fill the chat window with the word ‘LOL’, they camp, and they smash people’s stuff. Think cockroach, with the emphasis on the first syllable. They’re the kind of people that kick and ban buttons were invented for.