Individualist anarchism, a political philosophy hundreds of years old, has now been conclusively discredited by massively multiplayer online games. These cyber-societies give players anonymity and freedom, and what happens? Five percent of them start attacking, disrupting or harassing their fellow players, sowing chaos and misery for absolutely no reason. Without social hierarchy, regulation and punishment, these griefers would behave the same way in real life. Mutualism and utilitarian principles would break down – or anyway, all the victims would waste their lives airing their grievances in online forums. Therefore, individualist anarchy can never work.

Don’t believe it? Look at some of society’s many, many non-gaming equivalents of online griefers.

Couple Breakers
You know how in City of Heroes, some guy will beg to join your team, and as soon as he does, he teleports you into some nearby solid object? The closest equivalent in Japan are the wakaresaseya (“couple breakers”) – separators for hire, professional destroyers of relationships. Want to divorce your spouse without paying a lot of alimony? Hire an operative from Office Shadow or Lady’s Secret Service to seduce the spouse, make her (or him) fall in love with the operative, and sue you for divorce. Then, the job done, the operative abandons the spouse and vanishes. Dump your girlfriend, lose your husband, drive away that mistress or fire that longtime employee. It costs about $100,000 – a bargain!

Founded in the early 1990s by private detective Kiyoshi Hiwatashi, the wakaresaseya business skyrocketed after a 2001 TV drama about a glamourous young breaker. Half of Japan’s 2,000 detective firms started engineering freedom from unwanted partners.
By 2002, a backlash rose amid rumors of yakuza (mob) connections. The largest private detective trade associations banned couple-breaker services. Now, many of the same agencies offer fukuenya (“professionals who restore relations”) services. People who previously hired a firm to split off a troublesome partner started hiring the same firm to get them back together with the same partners. And you thought your love life was screwed up…

Disease Carriers
Irish immigrant Mary Mallon (1869 -1938), AKA “Typhoid Mary,” was the first recognized carrier of typhoid fever. She worked in New York City as, oh god oh god, a household cook. Immune to the disease herself, she infected 22 people between 1900 and 1907, of whom one died. Health officials tracked her by the trail of victims and apprehended her, though she fought them vigorously with fists and a fork.

The NYC Health Department confined Typhoid Mary against her will to North Brother Island in the East River. She sued in 1909, and in 1910 the Health Commissioner released her on the condition she never work as a cook. Mallon agreed, but apparently couldn’t find a decent job outside the kitchen. After five years, she changed her name to Brown and resumed work as a cook. She infected 25 more people (two deaths). The Health Department confined her again to North Brother for the rest of her life, 23 years. She died of pneumonia.

Mallon wasn’t the only typhoid carrier known in her time, nor even the deadliest; Tony Labella caused 122 infections and five deaths. Mallon also wasn’t the only carrier to break her promise not to work in food; restaurateur Alphonse Cotils kept working after being informed of his contagion. So though Typhoid Mary is history’s most notorious disease vector, she’s just one example. Then there’s all those World of Warcraft players who tried hard to contract the corrupted-blood plague and then rushed back to the nearest city to spread it around…

Thrill Killers
Leopold and Loeb weren’t even close to the first PKers (player killers), but they were among the most notorious murderers of the 20th Century.
Nathan Leopold, Jr. (1904 – 1971) and Richard Loeb (1905 – 1936) were a couple of rich 19-year-old Chicago college students who thought they were criminal masterminds. For kicks, they spent months planning a “perfect crime,” kidnapping and murder. On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb abducted and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks, a friend of Loeb’s kid brother. The perfect crime rapidly fell apart, and the two masterminds were quickly caught. In prison they reveled in their media notoriety.

Superstar attorney Clarence Darrow, the “Old Lion,” defended the two in their 1924 trial. He kept them from hanging on the gallows, but the judge sentenced each to life plus 99 years. A prisoner attacked and killed Loeb in 1936. Leopold was paroled in 1958 after 33 years in prison; in that year he published his self-serving autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years . He moved to Puerto Rico and worked as a hospital technician. He died in 1971, aged 66.

The Columbine of its time, the murder inspired novels, plays and movies, the best of which is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Wonder if some current griefer will attain so much notoriety he gets tipped for Hollywood?

Wiki Vandals
Compared to couple-breakers, disease carriers, murderers and spies, the pencil-neck idiots who deface Wiki pages are as lightweight as you get. But there’s a lot more of the Wiki vandals; nobody knows how many, but search on “Wiki vandal” to glimpse a widespread discussion. Some junior vandals try replacing pages with obscenities; after grownup users revert their edits, the kids get bored and leave. More pernicious sociopaths introduce subtle errors into benign articles, which can go for long stretches without correction.

The practical guard against this graffiti-spraying is sign-ins, e-mail validations, and a whole security apparatus. But diehard Wiki proponents, the net’s version of utopian community zealots, say this undermines the Wiki ideal, the spirit of community.

And More…
Agents provocateur, mafiosi, mercenaries, serial killers, rapists, junkies, confidence artists, spammers spammers spammers, codependent spouses, man-eating tigers, kindergarteners and today’s biggest griefer…

Osama bin Laden
Well, duh.

Why We’re Hosed and What to Do About It
Last month Robert Aumann shared with Thomas Schelling the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for their work in mathematical game theory. Aumann, 75, teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work concerns whether cooperation increases if games are continually repeated. Aumann proved mathematically that cooperation is less likely when there are many participants, when interactions are infrequent, when the time horizon is short or when others’ actions cannot be clearly observed – in other words, when you’re playing basically any major online roleplaying game. These environments are a sociopath’s playgrounds.

So we’re inherently, provably screwed. How, then, do we handle vandals online? The only workable solution to date has been a fearless no-tolerance policy of banning griefers from the game. This in itself shows the fragility of online society – the Ban Hammer is both the ultimate and only weapon. The trouble is, banning just drives the griefer to a different game, where he continues his dubious career. We should have a more nuanced solution.

One alternative that’s fun to contemplate is vigilantism: Post griefers’ credit card info and let aggrieved players take care of matters themselves. Their problem-solving abilities are rich and various.

George Hayduke (“The Master of Revenge”) has made a whole career of telling victims how to get even – though, as Hayduke will be the first to tell you, he writes for entertainment purposes only! His dozens of books include, well, Get Even, as well as Revenge is Sweet, Righteous Revenge, Screw Unto Others, Up Yours and a couple of treatises on pistol silencers. (I once found a site that formerly offered Hayduke’s books as pirated .PDFs, but had removed them after “a request” from Hayduke. Man, of all the people in the world to steal from…)

But even aside from hair-whitening legal issues, this is no answer. Vigilantes, though they start as a solution, always become the problem. In fact, the line between vigilantism and griefing exists only in the vigilante’s own mind.

So must online communities resort to the old standby: police, laws and punishment? Are we just repeating the settlement of the Wild West?

Maybe not – or at least, not only that. As networks grow to encompass more of our lives, we’ll develop routine access to people’s records of past behavior. We could imagine a Griefer Standard, a defined data format game companies might adopt to identify and characterize griefing players. These players, after all, cost these companies a lot of money in support calls from victims. If a game’s Terms of Service permitted the company to share your interchangeable Grief Profile with other companies, players’ complaints against you might follow you from game to game like a criminal record. Games could allow griefers, but automatically red-flag them. Online game communities could then adopt social practices older than laws, and perhaps more effective: shunning and even ostracism.

Couple breakers have been around a decade, and disease carriers have only been recognized for a century or so. But many forms of griefing are as old as humanity. But online worlds have new tools at hand, and need not resort to the established legalisms of meatspace society. Game worlds can become the laboratories for new social systems, which may turn out to work – why not? – in wider areas of a networked society.
It’s worth a try. Let’s give it a shot.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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