Griefers survive through protective anonymity. Griefers in massively multiplayer online games can indulge their sociopathy because victims can’t identify them or impose punishment. So long as they remain anonymous, griefers can keep griefing. They take ever greater glee in making other players miserable.

Furthermore, game operators’ current best practices actually empower griefers. Today, every operator who spots a griefer brings down the banhammer, blocking the user’s account and IP address. Banning, though, is just a stopgap that provokes the griefer to create a new account, route through a proxy and start again. Such stalling is unproductive. A better strategy, such as the prison system originally proposed (but never implemented) for Age of Conan, diverts and preoccupies griefers, distracting them from harassing innocent bystanders.

This approach won’t sit well with the many who have suffered from griefing. Victims don’t want to hear “diversion” and “preoccupation”; they’d prefer “waterboarding” or perhaps, in extreme cases, “impalement.”

Then there’s the World of Warcraft approach: Force-feed content to your players so diligently, so irresistibly, in such a constricted design, that they never find time or temptation to grief others. Then all you need are Blizzard-scale resources and the best design minds in the industry. Wow, it’s just that easy!

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Yet the motive to block and frustrate griefers masks what might be a great opportunity. Can we distract would-be griefers? Can we make the game so unpleasant for them they leave voluntarily? Sure. But go further: Could we turn griefers, despite themselves, to productive ends?

It isn’t completely silly. Think of Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels, a volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrols; the original patrollers were at-risk youth and former members of New York City gangs. But this comparison is faulty in that the Guardian Angels were reformed thugs, whereas it’s silly to expect griefers to reform.

A better analogy? Spammers. Though spam is an online pestilence, some computer scientists are trying to harness spammers to solve complex CAPTCHAs that embody A.I. problems like image and speech recognition. Spammers have strong commercial incentives to defeat these obstacles. By doing so, they unwittingly further A.I. research.

Like spammers, griefers can be exploited because of their strong motivations. Griefers obey psychological compulsions to push boundaries, demonstrate superiority and punish perceived arrogance and naivet√©. Some griefers rationalize their pathological actions as “teaching a lesson” to their victims. These compulsions make the griefer vulnerable to shrewd manipulation or punishment.

Can such manipulation serve a constructive purpose? Here are some approaches worth trying. (Note: These techniques assume the MMOG operator has first identified and “flagged” the griefing player’s account.)

Bounties
Rather than simply banning flagged griefers, offer bounties on them. Age of Conan proposed bounty hunter NPCs that would hound griefers relentlessly; why not crowdsource that function to players? Make the flagged characters continuously vulnerable to player-versus-player combat, and give attackers the advantage. The griefer will continue to fight to demonstrate superiority. Ideally this distracts him from griefing. With the right incentives, griefers could regard each other as ideal prey.

The community benefit would arise from entertainment value. Flag and announce each battle in progress; let bystanders witness it remotely and provide color commentary. Or, if the game engine allows it, record the battle for later replay and remixing with entertaining captions. (British gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun contends griefing of others can be funny, so punishment of griefers should be hilarious.)

Of course, the operator must avoid making the griefer hunt look like a community service. That would alienate every self-respecting sociopath.

Deception
Many griefers work confidence games, deceptively cultivating a victim’s trust, then betraying it. A deception strategy makes development of that trust more difficult by making the griefer distrust the game itself.

After covertly marking the griefer, the game server could send altered, customized data down to his front-end client. What does “customized” mean here? The adjusted representation masks the true power level of other characters, altering their appearance and perhaps even their communications. To the griefer, the server presents weak characters or inexperienced players as intimidating and powerful. Conversely, the server shows him powerful peers disguised as weaklings, likely targets for the griefer’s sport. When he attacks, the opponent’s true strength becomes unpleasantly clear. The enterprising griefer would need to simultaneously play a second account – a “witness” – to perceive correctly. Over time, due to their ongoing proximity to known griefers, even witnesses could be flagged and deceived. Ideally the griefer soon grows frustrated and leaves the game.

Unfortunately, there is a technical hurdle. For efficiency, MMOGs today push much of the processing load down to the player’s client. When the server takes extra time to customize the griefer’s data, this may create lag the griefer can identify.

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The solution, and the community benefit, lies in incorporating milder deceptions as universal gameplay. Following the example of Alliance and Horde characters in World of Warcraft, who can’t talk intelligibly to one another in-game, the “deceiving” MMOG could systematically distort everybody’s perception according to his or her avatar’s class or alignment. The griefers would be unwilling lab animals, testbeds for new distortions.

Lord of the Flies
As an extension of this idea, MMOG operators could distort the griefer’s perceptions more drastically by removing all player avatars from his client. He lives in a world of his own, a pariah. The only other actual players he sees are the ones who have, like him, been marked as griefers. Dangle the possibility he can escape this oubliette and return to the larger community by harassing the other griefers into canceling their accounts.

Does the winner really get to return? What if he becomes a hardened super-griefer, remorseless and superhumanly cunning? Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. On the other hand, you could sell the movie rights.

Griefer Profiles and Virtual Self-Government
In the long term, the greatest community benefit griefers confer may be the impetus to develop online governments.

My November 2007 Escapist article “Real World Grief” proposed a “Griefer Standard,” a defined data format companies might adopt to identify griefing players. If a game’s Terms of Service permitted sharing of griefer profiles between companies, player complaints could work like criminal records.

I expanded on this notion in “Player-Run Governments in the 21st Century,” an essay in Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds (2008), speculating that “self-appointed server administrators will compile and maintain ad hoc ban lists of criminals, griefers and trolls, identified by IP address and perhaps tagged by type and severity of violation. In response to player complaints, these Metaverse Sheriffs will update and circulate the ban lists, functioning as a cross between spamblockers and a vigilante squad.” (See also Laura Genender’s November 2007 Escapist article “Griefing for the Greater Good.”)

But this community policing will probably fail in all but the most popular worlds, because it doesn’t scale well. In reaction, “users will elect from their own ranks worldmasters, patrollers armed with mighty server permissions and a direct line to the ban list. These Judge Dredd-like beat cops will mark, ban and report malefactors on the spot, in real-time.” These worldmasters might eventually unite to pass local laws, initiating a true online world government.

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Just as anonymity allows griefing to exist, trust and reputation eradicate it. On the still-unsettled virtual frontier, as in the Old West, there is little trust – or at least little reason for trust. But griefing in itself, like Old West outlawry, can be the catalyst for players to create their own structures that permit trust. Already in EVE Online, the wildest and wooliest of Wild West frontiers, players have formed a Council of Stellar Management, essentially ombudsmen to the game’s creators. In the years and decades ahead, bigger organizations with genuine power will emerge; authority will grow, and with it, trust. In well-run worlds, there will be nowhere for griefers to run.

It’s the same story seen over and over in the Old West and on every frontier: Lawless people, by their predatory actions, provoke the victims to join forces, create structure and make laws. Agents of chaos become catalysts of order.

With any luck, the griefers will hate that. Choke it down, jerks.

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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