A Deadly Dollar

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The griefer is a player of malign intentions. They will hurt, humiliate and dishevel the average gamer through bending and breaking the rules of online games. But their activities are hardly extraordinary. Indeed, they only exist at all because of normal, human urges, albeit the ugly and reprehensible ones. They want glory, gain or just to partake in a malignant joy at the misfortune of others. But does griefing always mean overcoming the rules of a game? Can the intentions of the griefer be satisfied by something totally within the bounds of a game?

One game in which players are particularly cruel to each other is EVE Online. While naturally player vs. player (PvP) focused, its intricate economics emphasize the way in which malignant human impulses can find their way into a game-world. People will do anything for money, even virtual money, especially when it involves the challenge of emptying the wallets of unwitting players. Usually the gaming griefer is a lone chump, but in EVE the troublemakers might well be a group of intelligent, patient folk, as my later examples will illustrate.

Of course, online gaming has long brought out a tribal instinct in players; they band together looking for friends or fights, or even looking to pick on the vulnerable.

Many players will go out of their way to avoid what Ultima‘s Richard Garriott calls “non-consensual conflict”; while for others the whole point of online gaming is to test their mettle – and that of their allies – against human opponents. Games like Second Life, in which almost all activities are non-adversarial, work hard to discourage conflict on all levels. For those players who want to play with people, but have no interest in playing against people, the idea of personal conflict is troubling.

Most gamers have been disposed to this pacifist attitude at one time or another, and who can blame us? I, for example, found being slaughtered by a higher-level enemy in World of Warcraft‘s PvP needlessly unpleasant. It left no room for retribution, and hammering a junior gnome just to expunge some frustration was more grief than my conscience could handle. So I moved to a non-PvP server, where my adventurous dwarf has been happily unmolested by matters of guilt or bullying ever since.

But there’s always the other possibility: We look for trouble. This is where my EVE-playing personality appears. I want battles, double-edged conflict.

This attitude is perhaps more common to gamers, who want to play to win against other human beings, be it in Warcraft, Battlefield or a game of internet mah-jong. It’s easy to find this kind of conflict online. Most games are built around ideals of direct competition: rankings, hi-score tables, winners and losers. We’ve all been there, and liked it or not.

But then there is another kind conflict, subtler than that of the battlehammer or the bazooka. It’s something that can hit people harder than any deathmatch loss. It’s more sophisticated and more satisfying than the most elegant Counter-Strike maneuver. It’s malicious, but lacks the base stupidity of team killers or campers. It’s the smartest kind of player griefing currently imaginable. It’s the scam.

Most games aren’t quite complex or realistic enough to allow scams to take place, but EVE Online‘s multifarious galaxy, which hosts player-run corporations and a sophisticated market-driven economy (with all the functions and utilities that such operations entail) regularly suffers the machinations of the scheming ne’er-do-wells.

Many gamers have now heard of “The Great Scam,” which was one of the earliest examples of how EVE Online‘s game mechanics gave way to a massive rip off. The infamous 15,000 word article documented how two players were able to accumulate both the trust and the cash of a lot of other, more gullible players, simply by playing the kind of confidence tricks that investors rely upon in the real world market.

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The scammer revealed that he and a friend had proposed an open business venture to purchase blueprints from which one of [I]EVE[/i]’s most expensive and coveted battleships could be built. They played on the innocence of gamers, acting as if this kind of venture was a matter that was regularly enjoyed by EVE‘s savvy players. Their investment was supposed to give rise to an in-game manufacturing venture which would make everyone involved rather wealthy; paying back loans and generating profits for those who gave up their money, according to the amount invested.

This all sounds familiar, rather straightforward, just as all business scams should. But actually producing ships in EVE takes some work, and instead of going into business the two scammers simply shut up shop and made off with the cash.

Having transferred the money and placed their trust in these virtual business proposals, the investors realized that they had been duped, but could do nothing to rescue their lost capital. The scam tolled 480 million ISK (EVE‘s currency), which is almost $1,000 in meatspace money.

Their investors were left with nothing and, because they’d willingly parted with the money through no fault of the game itself, they had no recourse but to make impotent threats of revenge. Grief indeed.

Of course there are other, lesser tricks that EVE players can perform to dupe the unwary, like pricing scams. It’s harder to fall for now, with recently-installed big red numbers telling you when a purchase isn’t a good deal, but yes, I’ve accidentally bought a shuttle for seven million instead of seven thousand credits. When you’re in a rush, do you always count the zeroes? It was a hell of a blow to my skinny wallet, and that simpler scammer must have been laughing.

Just as with “The Great Scam,” there was no way to take it back. EVE provides no safety net for your mistakes. The same is true of the actions of corporation thieves, those sly folk who join corporations (the EVE equivalent of guilds) and then steal from communal resources, potentially looting items that have taken months to accrue. Their actions are entirely within the mechanics of the game, and will always be so. The lesson seems to be: This is a game in which there are other people, and you never know how far you can trust them…

As such, there’s been another even more profound example of the potential of EVE‘s game mechanics leading directly to player grief, one that has inspired awe wherever the story has been told. Compared to this awesome venture “The Great Scam” is positively miniscule, a mere trifle amid the majesty of EVE‘s greatest takedown. This is more than a scam, and to refer to it as such only diminishes the scale of its achievement.

Revealed with a flourish on the Eve Online forums, the attack by the Guiding Hand Social Club on one of Eve‘s wealthier corporations, Ubiqua Seraph, was a masterstroke of patience and cunning. Initially, the Guiding Hand, who had previously set themselves up as committed assassins, had been hired to assassinate the CEO of Ubiqua Seraph, and were to be paid handsomely for the task. Their method, though, was not the crude and difficult matter of waging war and killing the mark by martial means alone. Instead, the Guiding Hand infiltrated the Ubiqua Seraph to the highest level, taking 12 months to ingratiate themselves with the corporation and gain access to its extensive resources.

Like the 1930s FBI infiltrators who organized the Communist party meetings in which suspected conspirators were to be arrested, the Guiding Hand’s own influence on the CEO of Ubiqua Seraph arranged the time and place of her doom. Not only did they schedule the trap, but the executioner was to be a fellow colleague, a director of her own corporation, and just another member of The Guiding Hand. When the time was right, The Guiding Hand ambushed their quarry in space, claimed the bounty, and pillaged the corporate coffers. What had originally seemed like a large sum was but a fraction of what The Guiding Hand plot would actually claim.

The mark lost her near-priceless battleship, one of a number of limited edition objects that the developers dropped into the game. She also saw the assets of her corporation, which she and her corp-mates had worked for 18 months to accrue, ransacked by Guiding Hand infiltrators. The Guiding Hand members who devastated Ubiqua Seraph took some 30 billion ISK in game money and assets, an amount that, if taken at current eBay exchange rates for EVE‘s virtual currency to real cash, comes in at a staggering $16,500.

Ubiqua Seraph was far from destroyed, but it’s impossible to gauge the psychological impact of such a brutal strike on the players behind Ubiqua Seraph itself. Could they ever trust other online gamers again?

All of which begs the question: Are these devastating events really just acts of griefing, or just smart play?

Both the scam and assassination take place within the spirit of the game, which is one of ultra-capitalist competition and faction-warfare, and yet they cause the maximum hurt and upset to the players who’ve been victimized. They were organized and executed entirely within the game mechanics (with the odd real-life phone call), and as such, did nothing to abuse the economic or combative systems the developers installed. The Guiding Hand and their like might as well have been seen as just another guild full of dedicated roleplayers, just playing along with the game. Or are they the worst kind of griefers? Perhaps they could be both.

“The Great Scam” and The Guiding Hand takedown were massive betrayals of trust that, potentially, had real-world financial impact.

It’s the breaking of unstated trust between allies that represents the deepest injury, however. The Guiding Hand infiltrators, in particular, had lied through their teeth and manipulated other players for over a year. It demonstrated that in spite of appearances, no one in the Eve game world could be trusted, especially if they were playing the game as it was meant to be played.

What do the developers of CCP do when people agonize on forums and petition their losses in these scams and schemes? Very little. They know that, in essence, this is what it’s all about: people interacting. And wherever they do that, however they do that, they end up causing some grief.

Perhaps this is the most exciting aspect of EVE: It is a genuinely cruel game. If you destroy people’s resources, either by war, scam or personal carelessness, you are literally wasting their time. You destroy part of what they have chosen to invest: their lives. It’s a brutal fact, but then what other game can be said to provide such thrilling risks, and such extremes of gaming possibility?

This is a line in the sand: between griefing for its own stupid sake, as something that can be switched off and ignored, and the kind of grasping malevolence in gaming that leads to real, financial consequences. With virtual cash, comes virtual responsibility, and all the greed and cunning associated with it. The events we’ve outlined throw those facts into sharp relief, and reveal a new age online of economic exploits. Could these scammers represent a new breed of griefer? A smarter, sharper creature for the massively multiplayer age? As humorist Spike Milligan so dryly observed: “Money can’t buy you friends, but it can buy you a better class of enemy.”

Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.

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