If the articles and comments this week are any indication, there are N definitions of the word “griefer,” where N is the number of people in any given conversation. So let me get us all on the same page by giving my definition of the word. It’s okay if your definition is different, just don’t confuse it with the one I’m using between here and the byline.

Note that sometimes the name “griefer” is given to someone who is simply a competitive player who doesn’t have an outlet for his desire to compete. If he’s looking for PvP action in a strongly cooperative game, then he’s likely to get bored or frustrated at some point. Enough with this “working together” crap! I want to know which one of us can kick the most ass and I’m willing to bet it’s me! The game isn’t letting him test himself against other players, which is what he really looks for in a game. Rather than doing the grown-up thing and finding a game more to his tastes, he tries to bend the current game to his style of play. These players are annoying and often cause grief for other people, but they are not griefers in my own nomenclature of online annoyances. They’re just jerks. They’re mostly people who are in the wrong game (or on the wrong server) and they’re usually capable of playing properly if they can find the kind of gameplay that suits them.

In real life, running up the score when you’re already ahead is not griefing in my book. But it is griefing if you hide the ball or kick it out of bounds over and over so that the game can’t progress. If two junior football teams are wildly mismatched, it’s not griefing. Playing poorly because of lack of skill or experience is not griefing. Hurting your teammates or playing in such a way as to make your team lose on purpose is griefing. Bad sportsmanship is not griefing. Even cheating is not necessarily griefing, assuming the cheater is simply breaking the rules in order to win.

No, the griefing I’m talking about is when one person stops trying to play the game and starts trying to stop other people from having fun, by any means necessary. Their goal is not to win the game, but to make other people miserable. This is my definition of griefer.

In real life, we just call them bullies.

Bullying is not a new or unknown quantity in human behavior. Some people hurt, or feel weak, or have this need to share their pain and frustration with others. They are not hurting others because they want to take something, or because they want to force someone to their will. For bullies, hurting others isn’t a means to an end, it is an end in itself. Bullies often form chains of misery, with one abused person finding someone weaker than they are to bear the brunt of their frustrations, who in turn finds someone else, yea, even unto the seventh generation. It’s like the circle of life in The Lion King, except this is the Circle of Assholes. In the real world, bullies form a hierarchy based on who is the strongest, but online the bullies are organized by who knows the most exploits and has the most free time.

The in-game griefer usually points the finger of blame at the victim for “sucking so bad,” but that defense makes about as much sense as a rapist who says he’s innocent because his victim wasn’t any good at fighting back. More reasonable people might point the finger of blame at the griefer, but I think they’re both wrong. In an online game, the guilty party is the one who allowed the griefing to happen in the first place. If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the developer.

In the real world, there are rules that you can’t break (gravity) and rules that you aren’t allowed to break (don’t sucker-punch a golfer while he’s teeing off. No, not even if the guy is totally a douche and you quote Happy Gilmore when you deck him. And it doesn’t matter that doing so would be completely awesome.). There are physical laws and there are rules, and everyone obeys the former even if they flaunt the latter. But in a videogame the developer is in charge of the physical laws. Any rift between what you can do and what you’re allowed to do should be viewed as a design flaw. Part of designing the game mechanics for an online game should involve sitting down and asking yourself, “How could I completely ruin the game for someone else?” Because once you release, you will have a handful of people with exactly that goal in mind.

One devious example I encountered was in World of Warcraft. At one point it was possible to get near a player of an opposing faction many, many levels below you who was using an area-of-effect spell to fight monsters. By standing in the blast radius, you would take a tiny amount of damage from the weaker player, and their “attack” on you would open them up to PvP combat. You could then kill them in a single hit. Using this technique it was possible to kill an entire group of players who were not at all interested in PvP, for almost no personal risk. It was a mechanic that had no valid in-game application. You couldn’t earn honor or gold or items doing this. There was nothing to gain from this aside from the pleasure of ruining another player’s game session. (This behavior has since been fixed.)

Any game developer who wants people to play and enjoy his game needs to anticipate and act on exploits like this. They must plan for the presence of dedicated, dishonest, devious, mean-spirited, enthusiastic griefers. The griefers will come, and if there is a gap between possible behaviors and desired behaviors then they will find those fault lines and mine them for all the misery and tears they can. Their relationship with the game is parasitical, as they don’t have fun until other people stop having fun. Having one customer be happy because he’s made ten of your other customers unhappy is no way to run a business. It’s a great way to cull the fun people from your player base until you’re left with nothing but jerks and a trickle of horrified newbies for them to prey on. (See also: The original chaos of Ultima Online, which eventually led to the rise of specific PvE and PvP play areas.) From a purely business standpoint, a good case can be made for simply ejecting obvious griefers from the game forever. Better that they go on the forums and play the martyr than to wait for them to find a completely new way to annoy your other customers. If griefing is what they want, then it’s probably better to give them their money back and send them packing rather than trying to talk a skunk into changing his stripe. But regardless of how individual griefers are dealt with, the most important line of defense is the rules of the world itself.

Griefers are annoying, but like spammers and syphilis they are an omnipresent threat that must be anticipated and protected against. If you’re being griefed, it’s because the person who authored this reality is (perhaps unwittingly) allowing it, and going after the griefer while leaving the loophole in place is attacking the symptom instead of the disease.

Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided, the vandal behind Stolen Pixels, and played World of Warcraft for months without ever meeting a single griefer.

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