Every generation has its folk heroes. Inspirational rebels, they often become vessels for people’s frustrations with authority. Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James are just a few of our outlaw folk heroes. We remember them as charming and magnanimous tricksters, legendary for their brazen feats of lawlessness in the face of a corrupt or inept system. People aren’t ignorant of the reality – most realize that these legends were often little more than sociopaths operating well outside the standards of civil life. We simply choose to ignore their more destructive qualities in favor of romantic notions about freedom and individuality.

Griefers are internet folk heroes in this sense. They fulfill the promise of the online gaming space – these unpredictable epic stories created by the users instead of developers – and act as central players in the legends that are helping to define online gaming. Also like real-world folk heroes, more than a few griefers are self-involved nihilists whose goals and actions are fundamentally at odds with the structures that make online games playable in the first place.

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A Wish Unfulfilled
The internet and virtual worlds are consistently described with terms like “new frontiers” and the “wild west,” and their users as pioneers. The reality, particularly in regards to MMOGs and virtual worlds, is far more mundane. The most popular games are heavily designed affairs that carefully bring players together while providing them with constantly changing content. This makes for a polished, compelling and reliable play experience. Every session of World of Warcraft is likely to feel productive in some manner. Didn’t beat the entire dungeon? At least you walk away with a bit of new gear, or a couple bars of experience at the very least. Holiday events are so well planned that Martha Stewart could learn a thing or two from them. And I would be remiss not to mention more traditional competitive multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty 4, whose multiplayer experiences have become carefully tailored to pit like skill levels against each other and string players along with a seemingly limitless array of achievements and unlockable items.

However, astute players know there is a master delicately tugging on the strings of it all. When Blizzard created a zombie outbreak around Halloween of 2008, it felt more like an acknowledgement than a surprise, a thoughtful lagniappe from the development team to its loyal fan base. The chaos and excitement that accompany a truly unpredictable occurrence simply wasn’t there; instead, there was a tacit acknowledgment that players were merely getting their $15 a month worth of attention. The cold, hard truth of online gaming is that the majority of players want to be coddled by the developers in their daily gaming experience.

In the gossip and word-of-mouth atmosphere that is a part of present-day gaming culture, the reality of carefully controlled online spaces is nothing short of censorship. It’s not that game developers are intentionally acting as thought police, but rather that apocryphal tales and legends have no room to grow organically.

The Griefer Celebrity
Griefers are, by their own admission, the LSD-spiked fruit punch at the company Christmas party. At their best, griefers are able to replicate the lofty goals of artists in the 1950s that developed the idea of the “happening” – an event that transcends the tedium of everyday existence and forces some examination of life from those who witness it. Griefers are often painted as the Mad Hatters of online gaming. But if that’s all they were, their public presence might be contained to a few humorous fan videos on YouTube.

More important is the role griefers play as winners and champions in games that strive to prevent any one person from having that kind of notoriety. People want a hero, and in the online gaming space these are few and far between. Online games strive for meritocracies, the idea that anyone can be a champion with enough hard work and dedication. In the case of MMOGs it’s mostly a matter of time. If you’ve put enough time into the game, you can be a champion regardless of any other trait except persistence. Even FPSs now bunch similarly skilled players together so everyone has a chance at being the best – if only for a round or two.

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Griefers are undisputedly winners. They’ve found ways to single themselves out for attention in games that do their best to convince everyone they are unique and beautiful flowers. It’s griefers who know the exploits other players have missed and griefers who were responsible for the in-game event that really made jaws drop. In worlds of forced egalitarianism, griefers, to both players’ delight and chagrin, stand alone. Griefers sidestep the uniformity of experience that increasingly defines the online gaming space and in the process provide players with the stories that make up our shared online gaming experience.

Public Enemy Number One
Pluck griefers and folk heroes out of their cult of celebrity, and their ugly truths come to the fore. Bonnie and Clyde killed no small amount of law enforcers, Jesse James was a confederate secessionist and the Mob is … well, the Mob. Anyone who’s been the victim of griefing understands this discrepancy all too well. Team killing in an FPS is funny in concept, but experiencing it multiple times over the course of an evening will tax anyone’s patience. Griefers destroy the fun and comfort of the routine. They have incredible leverage over other players and lord over a game by wielding the powers of fear and uncertainty. At their worst, a few individual griefers can act as a malignant force in a game or virtual world. Given this experience, over the past 10 years players and developers have both made it abundantly clear that griefers are not welcome in their online lives.

Regardless of how toxic the griefer influence can be on an individual player’s experience, however, people still want their internet folk heroes and the stories they provide. Entire games have sprung up where the dream of uninhibited virtual worlds lives on; places like Second Life and games like EVE Online. These communities have become zoos of a sort; a place where people can watch the wild animals fight with each other, caged off from the general population. EVE Online enables treachery so deep that only the most dedicated players can enter the fold and hope to be more than witnesses to its epic calamity. Second Life is perhaps even beyond griefing, as there is little left to rebel against and few areas left where the strange fetishes it attracts can still shock or even annoy. Everyone else, those who ask only that their games provide some respite and fun, can sit back and watch from a safe distance as their folk heroes work toward more fantastic jokes and schemes.

Tom Endo is a section editor and isn’t into griefing unless it involves encircling a slug with salt.

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