They pulled him out of a civvie MMOG and gave him a multimillion-dollar fighter jet because he matched a profile: youthful reflexes, controlled aggression, a healthy dissociation from the game itself. He didn’t go on tilt.
I had demonstrated how important it was to find pilots who could disconnect. When I lost my first jet to automated flak turrets in a Eurasian red state, I busted my control rig. It was that a computer beat me, I think, that got me so pissed. I kept picturing my plane disintegrating like a flicked cigarette, orange bits arcing down over blackened hills. Back in the day I used to bust controllers on my Xbox Infinity, too, but those weren’t custom-designed, user-responsive remote-piloting apparatuses (“Reps,” the tech guys call them). It took them two weeks to fix it, but it could’ve been one. They just didn’t want me at the kit for a while.
He was brought on right after that. Part of a fresh crop selected off leaderboards and blind multiplayer challenges. Pit a ballsy civilian against an anonymous UAV pilot and see how he does. It’s a fairer fight than you might think. Don’t tell them they’re in a multiplayer duel with an Air Force pilot, and they bring the same level of play they can manage day to day. This last crop of newbies could’ve gone pro. These kids didn’t just shoot you down, they spat on your wreckage.
So when it was time to hand down call signs, we named him Griefer.
To get them up to speed, they paired each newbie with one of us from the senior classes. I got Griefer.
He was what you’d expect: 12, angry and arrogant, dressed in oversized clothes wired for sound. I don’t think I had a single conversation with him when his eyes weren’t on the phone around his neck. Signing bonus.
Our first mission was against guerilla UAVs in South America – drug-funded, very quick. The pilots were probably hopped up on designer speed. We had Red Bull.
Cartel planes are cheap, sold by the dozen out the back of Malaysian factories. But they’re plentiful, and painless to lose. Inside three minutes, a pilot can log into a new plane and be pushing the fight. They’re little guys, not the boss battles you face in Eurasia, and our scores were great. CNN put us in the top 10 percent that week. Our footage was a top download for 36 hours.
I’m the better pilot, he’s the better shot. I’d line them up, he’d take them down with a zen, pinball-hero focus that would’ve drawn arcade crowds in the old days. A flick of the right-hand stick, a pull on each trigger and they came down like tattered kites. Hardly enough mechanics in those solar things to blow. A tap of the bumper, and he was on the yellow button with two fingers, letting loose streamers of white smoke tipped with tiny white-phosphorous warheads. The colonel was just starting to chew him out for wasting ammo when new spawns were flitting up out of the jungle canopy. The kick of launch gasses drew in Griefer’s warheads and the second wave was down before they hit fighting altitude. He was a hotshot and I wanted to hate him for it.
Cartel coffers drained, we alt-escaped our planes back home on autopilot.
Griefer didn’t laugh, he cackled. He hopped up and down in his rig on a Mountain Dew high. He was all, “Ha ha, eat me, bitches! Those guys were so gay!”
“Nice shooting, Gee,” I said.
“You’ll get there, slick.” He bounced out of his chair, headed for the door. “Those guys were noobs. God,” he said like he’d bit into something moldy, “I hate noobs.” His thumbs were texting. He disappeared around the corner, headed for the game room. A minute later, I got this text: “u shoot lk my moms lol wtf xx”
His stats kept going up. He started kill-stealing like crazy. He flew a couple of damaged planes into enemy UAVs. His ego swelled. He bought a UAV Corp cap and wore it sideways. He learned how to transmit to the enemy via SMS. “Doods ur teh sxxr,” he wrote. “Wtf I rulez! and pvvnd lk ur mom n00b.”
The brass let it go. “Psychological warfare,” one of them told me.
“I’m getting psychological splash damage over here,” I said.
“A little collateral damage is acceptable if it gets them busting their rigs. Don’t take it so seriously.”
The age-old griefer’s condolence: Don’t take it so seriously. Yes, sir. Fuck you, sir.
Griefer started a trend. Inside three months, enemy pilots were sending SMS-squawks at us. “Heh yank cowboi,” they wrote. “Ur l4m3.” Like their fashion, third-world leet-speak was stuck in a previous decade.
Thing is, the UAV Corp banned open-air communications specifically so enemy pilots couldn’t hear us cussing and fuming over our losses. When you can’t hear somebody get pwned, the charm of gloating is cut in half. But until Griefer got shot down over the Urals his stats were so sweet they let his texting slide. They saw the effect it had on enemy pilots, especially after E!’s spotlight on Griefer let word out he was so young.
Two missions before the Urals, I should’ve known something was up. I’d seen him wave off blown missions, but this was different.
It was the two of us against old-school manned fighters who’d been shooting down remote-piloted cargo-lift airships in Eastern Europe. They were remnants of the last decade’s terrorist armies, their skills and motives stale. Griefer and I each took one down, and, man, did he love that. “It’s so cool to see these old planes blow up. What fucking douchebags even use those things anymore?” He slurped Army-green Mountain Dew Pro Fuel from a can.
Our high-altitude cameras showed the dead jets blooming, overexposed orange-and-black blobs. No ejections. The pilots must’ve tumbled like shrapnel, hundreds of miles an hour. This wasn’t my first kill, but it was Griefer’s. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Man, it’s like, get with the times, you know?” he said, thumbs heading for the X-buttons.
He squeezed off a couple chaser missiles, and they bee-lined for the jetwash at the back of the closest manned fighter. They drew so close to each other their contrails mingled. The enemy pilot yanked his chicken switch, lurching into the air on his ejection seat. His plane flew apart, white smoke chasing metal fragments towards the ground. I caught the yellow dome of a parachute as we set our planes to return home.
Griefer slid his kit aside on its articulated arm and straddled his seat for a moment. “I probably should’ve taken that pilot out. That would’ve been harsh, huh?”
Did he mean too harsh? Or did he mean it would’ve been cool? “That’s not what we do, Gee.”
He considered that. “Oh.” He looked at his kit, shrugged. “OK.” He padded away on stocking feet.
Next mission out, one mission before the Urals, Griefer shot me down. Fifty-caliber rounds shot the plates off my wing and punctured my engines. He was trying to get a bead on some cartel UAV, he said. I lost it. Kicked the stick off my rig, palmed the key-board so hard letters went flying like teeth. Griefer laughed his ass off and kept flying and fighting for 40 minutes.
As his plane came back home, he slid his flat-screens aside and said, “Dude, don’t take it so seriously. Just stay out of my target area.”
“Here’s a fucking hint, kid,” I spit as I yelled. “If I’m there, it’s not your target area!”
“What’s the big deal? It’s not like you’re hurt any. Just log in tomorrow. It’s all part of the game, right? This is why we’re not in those planes.”
“If it was against the rules, they wouldn’t let us do it.” I stood there like an idiot, mouth hanging open. He shrugged. Everything was obvious to him. I filed it away. I’d talk to him after the next mission. I’d do better, and then I’d talk to him.
That next mission was the Urals, fighting bulky UAVs out of abandoned airfields in Chechnya. The things look like Russian bouncers, like a tank piggybacking a flying wing. We were going after five of them, each one three times our weight. I was flying from another pilot’s rig. Griefer was chewing a straw.
Took us a long damn time to take out two of the tango UAVs. We were running out of missiles and our hands were cramping. I was sure Griefer was going to ram one of them. I knew it. But that wasn’t it.
When his missiles were gone and his canards had been tattered, he went low, circling. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Looking for something.” When he leveled off near the Chechen airstrip, I saw it. He was looking for the mobile transmissions station the enemy pilots were in.
“Grief, what the hell are you doing?”
His right hand splayed across his keyboard, then arced up and dive-bombed the Enter key.
“c u doods”
His UAV slammed into the side of their big-rig at the edge of the airfield. His plane crumpled, but when his engines hit the cab the whole mess went on its side, then slid across the tarmac from the force of a bright orange blast of fire. Something cooked off and another blast unraveled the trailer like a cardboard tube.
I alt-escaped and set it for home. “What the hell was that?”
He was cackling again. “How do they not see that shit coming? I’ve been waiting to try that one for – “
“What in the hell makes you think that’s all right? You just killed probably a dozen people!”
“Hey, man, don’t play on the PvP server if – “
“What server? There’s no server! They – “
“They should switch teams, or countries, then. Whatever. They shouldn’t play if they’re not up to it. Total war, dude. It’s part of the thing.”
“They wouldn’t let us do it if it was against the rules.”
“What does that mean? Not let us do it? They don’t!”
“Then why can my plane even get steered down there? They can control all of our rigs, you know. They could’ve just booted me.”
“They can’t just flip a switch, you asshole. It’s not like they predetermine what you can and cannot do. They don’t code the missions. You control the rig.”
“Well, whatever. Then God allows it. It wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t allowed. It wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t fair game.” He shrugged and that was when I made up my mind. He walked off to the game room.
If he’d had a girlfriend and she was legal, I would’ve screwed her to learn him. He didn’t. So I took a claw hammer from the guy fixing my rig and followed him to the game room. The other pilots whispered like kids about to watch a fight. “He’s going to smash his Xbox, watch,” said one.
I grabbed Griefer’s game controller. When he reached for it, I grabbed his wrist, pushed his hand down on the coffee table, and smashed the back of his knuckles. To make sure, I took the claw to his fingers. “Give me the other one,” I said, holding out my hand.
He cried. He rolled around on the couch cradling his wrecked hand. His fingers were going the wrong ways.
The pilots stared. They might’ve come at me if they weren’t just Freshmen. Freshmen don’t take on Seniors.
Griefer opened his mouth and started to say something, so I swung the hammer again. Broke his jaw.
“Don’t take it so seriously,” I said. “They wouldn’t put hammers in if we weren’t sup-posed to use them.”
Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and co-founder of Gameplaywright.net. Do not talk to him about zeppelins or we will be here all day.