A study of Griefers and their activities on MMOs and MUDs
Islandia MUD – The Black Rose
LamdaMOO – Mr. Bungle
Appendix A : definitions of industry and commonly used gamer slang terms
Appendix B : Bibliography
“Grief Play” is an ongoing problem in many forms in online communities, and it is perhaps in online virtual worlds where the mechanics allow casual disruption of another players time where the problem can be seen most clearly. There are two main forms of virtual worlds, the graphical MMO’s, specifically MMORPG’s – “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games” games and the text-based MUD’s – “Multi User Dungeons”.
Sometimes also called GMUD’s or PIG’s, MMO games – specifically MMORPG’s – vary from EverQuest and Acheron’s Call that are PvE games to Eve-Online and Dark Ages of Camelot that are focused on PvP action. Others, such as A Tale In the Desert or The Sims Online, are not combat games at all but focus on Human interactions. All have use a 1st or 3rd person graphical interface. MMO’s are text based, and many vary wildly on the PvP to PvE spectrum, others like LamdaMOO are non-combat. Some call themselves MOO’s, MUSH’s or other similar terms, but all have a text-based interface in common. IRC servers are also similar in many ways to MUDs, with rules, channels, moderators and suchlike.
Grief itself can be hard to quantify. While certain individual incidents such as the Lambda MOO “Mr Bungle” case (1) are clearly incidents of grief, in UO prior to the world being split into PvP and PvE lands and on many MUD’s, being randomly killed by other players, often higher level, in the game is not grief, it’s part of the design. A better definition of Grief might be “behaviour unacceptable to the rulemakers of that virtual world”. This can be clearly seen in the split between MMO and MUDs. Many, even most, MUD’s are run by a small group of friends, and the vast majority are non-commercial. The rules of the world tend to be set and enforced by a relatively small group of “wizards”.
Even the techno-democracy once practiced on LamdaMOO was a construct enforced by wizards who in technical terms could have utterly ignored it. Effectively, the handing of “power” in that MOO to the populace via a voting and arbitration system was a device to offload much of the responsibility of making many of the decisions onto that populace. Grief, on Lambda MOO, was defined by the rules the community made. Eventually, indeed, the wizards DID take back control. In contrast, “ACleanAndWellLighted MOO”, which was run by several people once senior on LamdaMOO, was effectively those people’s private playground – they can and did ban anyone who they found objectionable. Essentially, grief on the MOO was anything they disliked.
IRC networks often behave in a similar, way, although their equivalent of wizards – IRC ops – only handle technical matters, individual chat channels use the “services” available to manage the social side, which allow them to register and protect “their” channels, having the ability to kick unwanted visitors out and suchlike. They, too, have their grief problems but they can be solved more simply as power is more concentrated and local (And also more limited, to be sure).
Things are both simpler and more complex when you consider MMORPG’s. All currently-running MMORPG’s are commercial, and the graphical medium gives the inventive endless chances to grief others. However, the companies running the games are doing it for their profit, and hence they have to weigh up their actions in terms of the cost of losing a subscriber due to banning and the cost of potentially losing other subscribers who have been griefed. This can lead to behaviour which an be described as “the greater good for the greater number”.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this is Planetside’s – A MMOFPS – grief system, where you get “grief points” for hitting fellow players. A better example, however, was when Ultima Online, which began as one continent where any character could PK any other, was split into two continents, Felucca – the old PvP continent – and Trammel where PvP is effectively only possible in consensual duels. The idea of segregating communities is not new, but that was the first time a commercial MMO had done so, indeed at the time it was one of the few commercial MMO’s on the market. By putting a virtual “gap” between the characters in-game, it sought to keep the griefers away from other players. In all actuality, the population of Felucca never recovered and many PvPers left the game for good.
Grief is not only an in-game problem. In the Mystere incident, an EverQuest fanfic story posted on a private forum drew a complaint from another player. Mystere was banned from playing as a result. The story was admittedly, not a nice one. However, the complaint was three months after it was posted. The incident spawned a number of articles and papers. The head of customer service for EverQuest at the time stated, “The post had “many” customers up in arms and they (Verant) don’t need “players like (you).”
This sparked a number of articles, both by Tweety(2,3) – Sanya Thomas, who was banned from EverQuest for breaking the Guide Program rules and currently works for Mythic Entertainment, who published Dark Ages of Camelot – and by “Wyche”(4), an author herself as well as articles on intellectual property in games(5) and ownership of virtual materials(6). The banning of Tweety itself is worth a mention. Her rant(7) – which was against the rules of the guide program (you were not supposed to talk about it) – deals with the ways in which, effectively, people griefed the in-game EverQuest customer service as it was then (volunteers). Abuse of the system was widespread and time wasting for those with genuine problems.
All current MMO games are commercial, and their attitude in the main to in dealing with Grief can be summed up as “the greater good for the greater number”. While companies have no issues banning cheaters, social griefing is often given little consideration unless repeated frequently. Because of both their age and their non-commercial nature, MUD’s are better studied than MMO games. Indeed, it was Richard Bartle – one of the original creators of MUD – who originally started classifying personality types into four types(8):
- Explorers- Players who explore the terrain and rules of a virtual world
- Socialisers- Players who use the communication facilities of a game, and use the roleplaying facilities this provides to interact socially
- Achievers- Players who set in-game goals related to acquiring power or wealth
- Killers- Players who kill or in other ways interact in a negative way (such as grief play) with other players
Bartle Types are usually given as three-letter types, for example ESK. Someone who was ESK would be first an explorer, then a socialiser then a killer. It is usually the fourth type, Killer, when dominant, which causes problems in online worlds. Where there are other personality tests like the Keirsey temperament sorter(9) and some question the usefulness of Bartle types in relation to modern MMO games, they are undeniably useful.
The “Black Rose” incident(10), a conversation on the Islandia MUD saved as a chat log. There are three different “Black Roses” in the conversation, they being the PKers and thief characters on the MUD. Each one has a different perspective, and I will compare and contrast their views. The three “Black Roses” in question are Arion, Ack and Merakon (who joins in part-way through the log). The “Black Roses” are not popular, and when they kill people in the more popular common areas, that area is set to Haven, stopping them from PKing in those areas – and annoying the “Black Roses”. In the chat log, the main person discussing the issue with them is Lynx, one of the better-known Islandia wizards.
At the start of the chat, it is suggested to Arion and Ack that they set up some form of arena for PKing, into which people could enter. Their responses, “that’s no fun!” and “that would not make us the criminals we are” highlight a major point of their playstyle – they deliberately set out to break the “social norms” of the MUD, Islandia. As pointed out by OliverJones later on, “Islandia is a social mud where people don’t like to be killed”
When another member of the Black Roses, Ander, is mentioned Merakon notes that “We can’t be responsible for Ander’s quotes.” Each Black Rose sees him/her self as an individual. And this is born-out by the conversation, where each Black Rose has a different stance and reacts in a different way. When the suggestion that people could opt-out of “Black Rose” hunting was made, Arion reacted angrily, and left at one point – he was not willing to make any such agreement. He returned, but as he stated “I didn’t agree to this” (the voluntary no-kill agreement). He shrugged when it’s pointed out to him that’d be unpopular and that his kills would lead to more Havens.
Merakon acts calm and controlled from the start. He admits that he can get carried away…but that he doesn’t kill people who complain when he tries to kill them. He points out that many people insult Black Roses then act surprised when they get attacked. He readily agrees to keep a list of no-kill people. Ack starts off by saying that “we want to be the few…the proud…the outlaws!”, and gets into several arguments with BlackJack and then Warfare during the chat log. He does, however, agree to the list of no-kill people although not as calmly as Merakon.
We can just see three types of “griefer” here – Islandia’s social structure is not especially tolerant of PKing and thus it is fair to say that many of their activities could be considered grief. Arion behaves selfishly, even to the point of self-destructiveness, while although Ack is also hot-tempered, he’s willing to put one consideration aside (PKing people who don’t wish to be) in return for another (un-Havening of many places). Merakon is calm all the way through, and is harder to read. He seems perfectly willing, however, to deal with the authorities. All three are very much individuals.
Raph Koster – who worked on LegendMUD, then later as lead designer on Ultima Online and now Starwars: Galaxies and is highly respected within the games industry – has “Koster’s Laws”(11) on his website. These Laws of Online World design are mainly aimed at MUD’s, but can be used for MMORPG games as well. There are several relevant rules/laws:
- John Hanke’s Law: In every aggregation of people online, there is an irreducible proportion of … jerks (he used a different word)
- One of Lambert’s Laws: A bored player is a potential and willing subversive
- Hyrup’s Loophole Law: If something can be abused, it will be
Essentially, what this is saying is that in every online community certain people will not wish to fit in, and a few will resort to grief play. If there are loopholes in the world open to abuse – and there are inevitably are. Even ToonTown, where unless players knew each other outside the game (and exchanged a special code) the only communication possible was a limited series of sayings, had it’s grief players who for example stole kills and thus the experience for them or followed people around emoting silly things. If there are loopholes, some people will inevitably exploit them. If people are bored, then some of them will eventually drift towards grief play.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is another of the laws – in this case, more of a psychological observation:
“Disinhibition: People act like jerks more easily online, because anonymity is intoxicating. It is easier to objectify other people and therefore to treat them badly. The only way to combat this is to get them to empathize more with other players.”
Online, people feel less inhibited. Their avatars are like masks they can put on, and their online behaviour very rarely has real-life consequences. Thus, the draw of behaving badly is much stronger than it would be in real life. The fact they are playing a role or façade helps them free themselves from their self-imposed limits, although some try to justify their actions, for example claming that they are “roleplaying an evil character”.
On the other side, we have (also from Koster’s Law), Baron’s Theorem
“Hate is good. This is because conflict drives the formation of social bonds and thus of communities. It is an engine that brings players closer together.”
Conflict can act as a catalyst, certainly, for change. However, when the conflict in question is grief play, the changes it causes are not always or even usually healthy for the community in question. If someone is causing problems…then a martial (anti-PK’s) or social (shunning) solution can be found but often the issue divides a community. If not within the majority of the community then the PK’s and griefers themselves as the “Black Rose” incident proved.
It should not be assumed that because online behaviour rarely has serious consequences for the perpetrator, that it cannot affect – and seriously – other people. In My Tiny Life, while we do see one consequence of the virtual world on the real one – the loss of Horton Who’s internet connection, as a result of a real-life complaint over his harassing of certain female players on LamdaMOO – there is also the case of Mr. Bungle.
“They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies…”
So begins My Tiny Life, Julian Dibbles exploration into LambdaMOO. The issue of Cyberrape is very real, and brings some strong reactions – for example using the word “rape” on the Ultima Online game boards, regardless of the context, earns one a ban. But in this case, no such automatic mechanism existed. As it happens, there was not just one person behind Mr. Bungle. He was “owned” by several –male – students who were at that time studying together at university. The chat and the so-called voodoo doll which was used to fake the actions of the other characters were done by different people. The incident upset one of the victims quite badly:
“…I’m not calling for policies, trials or better jails, I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”
The woman behind the character legba admitted in My Tiny Life that tears had been streaming down her face as she typed those words, such was the emotional impact. And because of, at the time, the unstructured nature of control of the MOO – the Wizards had withdrawn by their choice from administering justice, but the systems to let the MOOizans rule their own lives were yet to be emplaced – little or nothing could technically be done.
But there was, indeed, a meeting to determine if Mr. Bungle should be removed, and indeed one of the wizards – JoeFeedback – did toad him after the meeting on his own authority. It is, however, something that he said during the meeting which I am concerned with: “I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarisation, and fact that this is not RL simply added to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence”
We can thus clearly see…that there is a divide being made by the player – or as was actually the case, players, of Mr. Bungle between real and virtual. The punishment was virtual “death”, true – or alternatively as some of those calling for the toading said, it as instead an agreement to shun the character. As the character was deleted, I am inclined to think of it as a form of virtual death penalty. It also did not stop him from returning as Mr. Jest shortly afterwards – or rather, one of the original players of Mr. Bungle did so. Thus, with just a new E-mail account the character was resurrected – although Mr. Jests did for a time behave before going on another rampage, ending in his once-again toading.
While it might not have had a substantial effect on the group of players behind Mr/ Bungle, it certainly affected legba and fellow victim Starsinger emotionally, through their connections with their characters. While some would argue that what had been done was no more than words on a screen the time invested in those characters made the grief, the cyber rape, hurtful.
So why did Mr. Bungle do it? There is certainly something in the “exile factor”. People who choose not to fit into the world around them, something exacerbated by being in a virtual world. Boredom is also a factor in producing this. One should not always assume, however, that the exile factor can produce such radically anti-social behaviour as Mr. Bungle’s – legba herself was a radical of sorts.
In the period before the transfer of authority to the masses on LamdaMOO, several people were toaded for breaches of the rules. The “underground”, of which legba was a member along with such characters as SamIAm called for the restoration of the characters, and through entirely legitimate means. Thus, the “exile factor” was expressed socially rather than destructively. The empathy, as talked above in the discussion of Koster’s laws and psychological disinhibition offset the tendencies towards boredom and grief play. Eventually, the experiment failed. Pavil Curtis, the founder of the MUD, and his wizards, took back control.
Shadowbane is a game that many predicted would be plagued by grief play. It is a MMORPG where pvp combat occurs frequently and at many levels. Clans can build towns – which can take weeks – and other clans can attempt to knock those towns down. The entire social structure, as such, of the game is based around clans of various sizes. What has actually happened on many of the American servers is that a few clans have taken over control of the server, and effective between them dictate what occurs on that server. In something somewhat reminiscent of Heinlien’s saying about “an armed society being a polite society”, attacking someone from a powerful clan either brings an instant apology or a horde of players, who will KoS the offending clan, siege and burn their city.
Wile this kind of behaviour would be seem to be grief at first sight, think back to the definition of grief at the start of the essay. The social structure of the servers is controlled by the large guilds, and thus their actions cannot really be said to be grief. There is also, however, a problem with calling attacks on a large clan by a small one grief in the content of an intensely pvp-focused game like Shadowbane.
Grief in Shadowbane is, perhaps, neither of those but the players who deliberately pick on lower level characters, who camp ruins to catch independent characters on their way to sell items…but such characters also have their defenders. The ambiguity would seem to be in who the rule makers of that online world were. In the case of Shadowbane, is it Ubisoft (the publishers) – who set technical rules – or the dominant clans on any given server – who set the social rules?
While there is no easy answer, it should be noted that the Asian servers (who have a different publisher) don’t have the dominant clans in the same way, their servers involve more, smaller clans and there is more an ongoing war than a domination by one or a few clans who have to look hard for enemies. Obviously, this relates to cultural differences and mentalities.
Another example in that in EverQuest, while there is nothing nearly like Shadowbane’s cities, there are some social structures run by the players – Clans – and while a clan raiding a plane (attacking a certain part of the virtual world’s monsters) out of the schedule agreed between the clans is not forbidden by Verant, it is generally considered grief play as it deprives the clans next on the schedule of the items those monsters would drop and experience from killing them. A more complex social structure can also cause faster burnout. While relatively simple games like EverQuest or Ultima Online can retain their appeal for years, the more complex social MUD’s tend to have players especially active for shorter periods of time. When a player burns out, the boredom can drag them into grief play.
Of course, in some ways “Burnout is Good”(12), but this does not solve the essential problem that while social bonds and empathy can prevent some people from griefing in the first place, it can also cause it when people become bored of the game. When a player loses the immersive factor which drew them into the world and the bonds of empathy which helped to make the world real, grief is one possible result (a slow sing into obscurity and legend is of course far more common).
Looking back on the essay, there are several things we can say.
- Grief Play will always occur. In any given community of any reasonable size, there will some people who enjoy breaking the rules of that community. This is as true in real life as online, but the psychological disinhibition of a virtual world can make people behave in ways which they would never have considered in the real one.
- Griefers are individuals. It is very hard to pinpoint a sole cause for any group of griefers, however similar their behaviour there are usually different and complex reasons behind many of them, although you will always have a few individuals who are simply antisocial.
- Grief Play might not affect the griefer, but it will upset the victim (to some degree). A grief player will often grief without any real thought as to their action, casually or maliciously. They do not tend to see their actions as anything special. The victim, however, is in most cases to some degree (even if only very slightly) upset by having their own virtual life interrupted.
- Grief Play can be reduced by forging social links between players, the empathy gained can help the community become more tightly knit, if only within limited social circles. Investment in a world makes it more real and grief play less likely.
- Grief Play has both clear examples and some cases which are hard to define. The definition of grief as “behaviour unacceptable to the rulemakers of that virtual world” is fine when, as on most MUD’s, the rulemakers are a clearly defined set of wizards but even in some MMO games such as EverQuest, the social and technical structures divide themselves.
Solving Grief Play is, thus, not “that simple”. Even as increased social bonds can help prevent grief, they can also burn people out faster on virtual worlds. There is no simple solution to this, or to the issue of grief in general.
This article was written before Eve Online really took off. Eve’s, where there is little to no protection against griefing has established the game as a male-dominated, highly “darwinian” space where the concept of the “Pick up Group”, essential for group PvE in many other games, does not exist. It has carved a niche out in it’s own online space, and it’s metagame has shown repeated instances of social engineering, griefing and even outright hacking – a “no rules thought about” kind of environment which leads to considerable grief play; At the same time, trust becomes a commodity given only grudgingly and close-knit clans (“corporations” in Eve’s terminology) have shown remarkable reliance in the game…without reducing grief play between clans.
The internet and games griefing world of 2015 is also sadly far more toxic than the one of 2004. GamersGate and it’s opponents have set games back as a medium to be taken seriously for some years, showing behavior on all sides which highlights the issues raised in this essay.
The only positive note is that there’s a far, far wider choice of games than there were in 2004, and many games have a far lower barrier to entry, being F2P. People are, more than ever, able to find the level of interaction with other players with which they are comfortable, if on PC or in the nascent but growing Console side of MMO’s – Destiny and Warframe being the current two major examples there.
- GMUD – Graphical MUD. A term sometimes used to refer to MMO games as they “grew” out of the older, text based worlds.
- PIG – Player-Interactive Game. Little-used alternative to MMO
- FPS – First Person Shooter
- PK – Player Kill. To kill another player. See PvP.
- PvE – Player versus Environment. The “enemy” are mobs
- Mob – An AI-controlled enemy in a MMO or MUD
- PvP – Player versus Player. Fighting other Human players.
- MMORPG’s – “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games
- MOO – MUD, Object Orientated
- MUSH – Multi-User Shared Hallucination
- IRC – Internet Relay Chat
- Haven – A haven in a MUD is an area where PvP combat is impossible
- UO – Ultima Online
- Wizard – A MUD “adminstrator” who have a great deal over control of the world, can kick and ban players, etc.
- FanFic – Fan Fiction, usually written without express permission
- Avatar – An online character, in the sense that a player’s online character is an extension of themselves
- Toad – To delete a character from a MUD database
- RL – Real Life.
- KoS – kill on sight
(1) Dibbell, J., 1998, My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, 4th edition, London: Clays Limited
(Please note that I use the real usernames of the characters in question in this essay, not the pseudonyms that were used in the book.)
(2) Thomas, S., (2000), This Time, I’m Really Pissed Off (AKA Banned for Being a Dark Elf) [online], Thomas, S., Available from: http://tweety.bowlofmice.com/tweety/this_time_im_really.html [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(3) Thomas, S., (2000), A Martyr to Bleed For Us, Thomas, S., Available from: http://tweety.bowlofmice.com/tweety/a_martyr_to_bleed_for_us.html [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(4) Bishop, K., (2000), Kimberly Speaks, Thomas, S., Available from: http://tweety.bowlofmice.com/tweety/kimberly_speaks.html [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(5) Reynolds, R., (2002), INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS IN COMMUNITY BASED VIDEO GAMES, Reynolds, R, Available from: http://www.ren-reynolds.com/downloads/RReynolds-MMORPG-IPR.txt [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(6) Taylor, T.L., (2002), “Whose Game Is This Anyway?”: Negotiating Corporate Ownership in a Virtual World, North Carolina State University, Available from: http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/~ttaylor/papers/Taylor-CGDC.pdf [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(7) Thomas, S., (2000), Try Being A Guide, You Nutless Assmuncher – Tweety’s First Rant, Thomas, S., Available from: http://tweety.bowlofmice.com/tweety/try_being_a_guide.html [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(8) Andreasen, E.S., (2002), The Bartle Test, Andreasen, E.S, Available from: http://www.andreasen.org/bartle/ [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(9) Keirsey, D.M., (2002), The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, Keirsey, D.M., Available from: http://www.keirsey.com/ [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(10) Burka, L.P., (1993) The Black Rose chat log, Islandia MOO, Available from: http://www.apocalypse.org/pub/u/lpb/muddex/black-rose.txt [Accessed 17th May 2003]
(11) Koster, R., (2001), Raph Koster’s “Laws of Gaming”, Mike Sellers, Available From: http://www.legendmud.org/raph/gaming/laws.html [Accessed 17th May 2003]