Griefing can have a more political side, however, and isn’t always against random targets. In 2006, Second Life saw one of the most infamous examples when virtual real-estate tycoon Anshe Chung (real name Ailin Graef) was chased out of an interview event on the service by a group called Room 101. In the real world, they might have jeered or thrown tomatoes. Here, they generated magic self-replicating penises, chased the event when it moved to a new location, and ultimately crashed the server with their attacks.
One of the most audacious moments in griefing history came earlier this year in Eve Online. A group of players spent months preparing what became known as ‘Burn Jita’, a concerted attempt to destroy the game’s economy by blowing up its main trade hub with an army of disposable ships. What made it particularly interesting was that it didn’t technically count as griefing, with developers CCP not only embracing it (“It’s going to be fucking brilliant,” in the words of the game’s senior producer), but also reinforcing the servers to make sure the game – not the economy, but the servers – wouldn’t buckle under the load. This is especially notable as the whole event is said to stem from one of its organisers’ annoyance at being given a temporary ban for mocking a suicidal player and encouraging other players to harass him. Even the land of do as you please has some limits when there’s more than just money at stake.
The wide range of griefing types makes it impossible to pin down a specific root cause for all this, unless you count the fact that people can be jerks. You could, for example, reach for psychology guides such as the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders fourth edition (DSM-IV). This describes antisocial personality disorder, which is the official version of what’s often referred to as psychopathic behaviour, with seemingly appropriate phrases such as “failure to conform to social norms with respect for lawful behaviours”, “use of aliases or conning others for personal profit” and “lack of remorse”. In some cases, that’s undoubtedly true. There are sociopaths and psychopaths out there, and no doubt many of them have XBLA and PSN accounts.
Even ignoring the fact that trying to diagnose someone without the appropriate expertise is a dreadful idea, though, this opens up an obvious problem: games aren’t real. When someone on YouTube gets in a flap because someone shot their space marine, it’s more than easy to laugh at the overreaction. As online pranks go, the average non-targeted grief is as mild as things get. There’s usually no direct loss for the victim, little to no personal humiliation, and unlike being trapped with a bad boss or playground bully, no shortage of ways to be somewhere else. There are exceptions, of course, but all this makes it easy for griefers to just do their thing for the ‘lulz’.
There are two sides to the story, however. New players are the most common victims of griefing, and it doesn’t take much to spoil a game. Griefs involving betrayal of trust can cut especially deep and ruin any desire to keep playing. In games like Eve Online or DayZ, griefers’ actions can be defended to some extent. After all, these worlds are cynical, harsh, and unapologetically brutal. But in a regular MMOG, the griefer’s 30 seconds of amusement at stranding a newbie somewhere horrible could well cost that player the will to play a whole game. Not that the griefers care, of course. Not when there’s always fresh meat just over the next virtual hill.