Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. The five stages of grief. Those who play enough online games, however, might consider starting the list with “login.”

Griefers have become an indelible part of the online community, so numerous they swell the ranks of guilds and clans chartered with the singular purpose of harassing everybody else. More often than not, their success rings across forums in caps-locked complaints and meme-laced taunts. But griefers, despite their best efforts, can enhance the gaming experience of those whom they seek to torment.

Though trying to make other players bang their heads against their keyboards in frustration was not the main focus of my guild, it was definitely an unspoken item on the agenda. We terrorized one of the many PvP servers in World of Warcraft, dividing our time equally between questing for loot and pioneering infuriating ways to dispatch our enemies. We probed every “neutral” town for rooftop vantage points where we could snipe unsuspecting Alliance characters without provoking the computer-controlled guards. We perfected spell chains to force characters deep, deep underwater, where the ocean claimed them before they could break free. Much of what we did has since been patched into obsolescence, but remains seared in the minds of those players whose characters died outrageous and, to us, hilarious deaths. We were Vae Victus – “woe to the vanquished” – and we lived up to our name.

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Our story begins with the Bloodsail Buccaneers, just another random group of NPC ne’er-do-wells whose sad lot is to fill experience bars and complete quests with their demise. More enterprising gamers, however, can ally themselves with these scurvy seadogs through a lengthy process of goblin genocide. This undertaking is not for everyone; specifically, those who would rather not be hated by all goblin-kind need not apply. The achievement is rendered even more dubious by the fact that the only reward for palling around with pirates was a line of quests yielding meager rewards: a pirate admiral’s hat and a red parrot. Who would deliberately plaster their face on wanted posters in goblin-inhabited cities the world over for a dapper hat and a pretty bird? When it comes to disregarding major points of gameplay for the finer things in life, nobody does it like a griefer.

After hours spent exploding goblins and singing old sea shanties with our new pirate buddies, my guild and I needed a venue to show off our fresh new duds. We took a page out of the Bloodsail Captain’s log and agreed that the appropriation of a worthy sea vessel would speak to both our personal M.O. and that of our swashbuckling chums. Our mark: the ship running between the Alliance ports of Theramore Isle and Menethil Harbor. Enemy characters in these zones are always open to attack, the route was essential to lower level players and a little cunning would see our guild members on the ship unmolested by NPC guards. It was the perfect plan.

Though our bellows of “yarr!” and “ye mateys!” were rendered gibberish by our cross-faction language barrier, our jaunty hats and parrots sliced through the text filter like a cutlass through the rigging. We caught newcomers unawares, leaping from the ship’s cabin and paralyzing them with a volley of attacks that more often than not left them dead on the spot. The less fortunate ones were held hostage with snaring abilities, their text boxes inundated with the entire spectrum of emotes before we had sailed far enough to make them “walk the plank.” There may be a dearth of sharks in WoW, but adventurous players will be the first to tell you that the dark, life-sapping waters far from shore are equally effective.

As expected, our seafaring shenanigans began to attract the attention of higher level players, and port landings took on a more tactical tone. Our barbarian yawps remained unchanged, but we were forced to err increasingly on the side of caution as we lost men on each return. Odds worsened exponentially when we were forced to battle both increasing enemy numbers and mounting lag caused by their presence. Several hours and a mountain of corpses later, the scourge of Vae Victus had been scuttled by the combined Alliance effort.

For most tales of griefing, the story ends here: a couple of hours wasted by a horde of piratical idiots finding their sea legs. Most of us logged off for the night, but those who lingered around the forums like proper WoW addicts made an interesting discovery. We expected a response from our Alliance brethren. What we didn’t expect was for it to be overwhelmingly positive.

Post after post poured in from players we had deliberately wronged, some of whom seemed to have had more fun than we did. Many even asked when the next “Boat Wars” would begin, promising stiffer competition when we next chose to hurl down the gauntlet. We had done our damnedest to inconvenience as many people as possible for as long as we could, and they were begging us to do it again.

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What was the root of this digital Stockholm Syndrome? Why was this form of griefing tolerated, even welcomed, while others were reviled? To understand the answer, one must give us virtual terrorists a closer look.

It’s not hard to understand a griefer: We might be running the same software as you, but we’re playing an entirely different game. Our achievements aren’t rewarded with a glitzy text box and an orchestral fanfare, but rather the inevitable moment when the opponent gives up and logs off. Whether out of boredom, malice or curiosity, we will push the limits of a game until we find a crack, slipping through to operate in a way unintended by the programmers and scorned by our peers.

Metagaming in this fashion enables griefers to change the way a game is played in a manner casual players cannot. Although games like World of Warcraft and other MMOGs promise incredible open-endedness and provide an excellent playground for experimentation, most players are content to settle with predetermined styles of play: take quests, level up, improve gear. If there is a definable pay-off for a player’s actions, he or she will be content to treadmill ad infinitum.

This is why a griefer’s drive to interrupt standard play can be so infuriating. If you have invested hours into escorting some elderly turtle around a beach, the last thing you want is an overpowered joker in his underwear crashing the party minutes before your final checkpoint. You were playing the turtle-protecting game. They were playing the “look out, a naked assassin!” game. One game flourishes at the expense of the other, but when that element of suffering is completely unscripted and beyond reproduction, aren’t those the most sought-after experiences in gaming? That turtle will be waiting for you next time. The underoos avenger may not.

In the same way, a gang of brigands suddenly commandeering a standard means of transportation is not something most players anticipate. If “Boat Wars” had been part of a pre-announced world event, there would have been very few dissenters. Subscribers might have actually been excited. Who doesn’t love pirates? (Aside from people sailing off the Somali coast, anyway.)

The last piece of the puzzle is the timing of our escapades. Many hardcore players might notice discrepancies between Wrath of the Lich King and the game of which I speak, with good reason. All of this occurred in Warcraft‘s infancy, a time when defeating premiere head bad guy Ragnaros was a feat and not a punch line, when having more than two mounts was just excessive and when PvP was a zero-sum game. Those who killed other players did so purely for the sport of it. Honorable Kills, Battlegrounds and all the rewards thereof were but promises of a distant patch.

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Many players chose PvP servers more to have the option of killing the opposition than to exercise it. Griefers filled an essential niche, enforcing the tension the split factions were meant to embody. Their methods may have been brutal, unorthodox and occasionally downright unfair. But isn’t war? And shouldn’t also, then, be a PvP server?

While our motives may have been selfish, the event turned out to be – against all odds – something both sides would remember fondly and enact several times before the release of PvP-specific patches changed the game. We had already been a fairly notorious guild, but Boat Wars propelled us to an unanticipated level of infamy. Vae Victus somehow ascended from being common thugs to able and (overly) willing PvP combatants, and the contempt from the fallen gave way to respect. We had changed the game for the better.

Guess every griefer has his off days.

Brett Staebell cannot promise no one was griefed in the writing of this article. Those who want to take it up with him can drop by his residence in Japan or hit him up at defendership[at]gmail[dot]com. Bring your own sword either way.

Wanted: Ganked or Alive

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