The Soapbox: Why we grief - a therapy session

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|05.03.11

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The Soapbox: Why we grief - a therapy session
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Welcome to the Massively Psychiatric Center for Gamers, Griefers, and Greater Internet F-wads (link NSFW). I'm Dr. Reahard, and while I'm most definitely an armchair psychologist, psychiatrist, and MMOlogist, pay no attention to any of that. I'm more than qualified to help you determine whether or not you're a bleep (sorry, a griefer). So please, have a seat, make yourself comfortable, and let's talk about you.

Tell me about yourself. Do you relish that feeling of power you get when messing with another human being? Is there a certain sense of being alive, a rush if you will, that only comes around when you bleep with another person? Does said bleeping happen exclusively in video games where your actions carry no perceivable repercussions?

Are you secretly frustrated with a banal and disturbingly meaningless white-collar existence? Does releasing your inner bleep in a (theoretically) anonymous online environment scratch the itches made manifest by a minivan, 2.3 kids, and the otherwise inescapable confines of suburbia?

If this is your first time at endgame, you have to grief

So there's this guy named "The Mittani," a self-proclaimed spymaster and bleep extraordinaire in CCP's EVE Online. Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently granted him his 15 minutes (which, alas, I'm extending to 20 here). If you can wade through the narcissism and the metric ton of BS, the interview contains a couple of interesting insights into a portion of EVE that most players will never see. More importantly for my purposes, though, there's a portrait of the type of player who is simply doing it wrong.

As a long-time EVE dabbler, I was both attracted to and repulsed by another entry in the never-ending cascade of stories that gleefully highlight everything that is simultaneously beautiful and horrible about New Eden. Whether these exposés are the product of a search for new ways to write about MMOs or -- more likely -- a quest for page hits, most of them are good reads to a point.

I say to a point because it's irksome that EVE Online is almost exclusively viewed through these sorts of lenses by people who don't play it. I don't imagine that CCP cares, and in fact it probably encourages black sheep profiling in light of the troublemaking personalities displayed on some of the company's own dev blogs (to say nothing of the amoral messages found in much of EVE's marketing material). For well-adjusted fans of the game, though, it does get a bit old when New Eden is constantly defined by the bleep-baggery of its e-thug celebrity wannabes.

As an aside to the would-be EVE journalists out there, there are plenty of fascinating internet spaceship stories that don't involve players bending their friends and neighbors over the captain's quarters bar before fleecing them via metagame methods. Your mission, should you choose to be original, is to highlight some of the good that goes on as well as the bad.

Anyway, as I read the details of The Mittani's exploits and did a bit of research into Goon Fleet and its history across multiple MMORPGs, I shook my head at how these types of guys are an unfortunate reflection on not just gamer culture but (im)polite society as a whole.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that I draw a pretty sharp distinction between the teenage griefer cutting his teeth on ganking in World of Warcraft and the 30-something Goonie building a virtual career on the metagame tears of other players. One is usually a case of kids being kids, and it's also a condition that most people grow out of. The other is mean-spirited immaturity that stems from... well, honestly, I don't know what it stems from, and psychiatric jokes aside, I would like to know.

So, griefers, if we may continue our little session from the front page, why do you do it? Why not help instead of hurt? If the answer is "to provoke responses like this article," I ask again: Why? Do you even know? What has happened in your life that has broken you in such a fundamental fashion?

Welcome to the desert of the real

Oh yes, I'm going there folks, and this is the part where a lot of readers start flexing their commenting fingers, muttering indignantly under their breath about the imagined differences between "IRL" and the game.

My comments section will likely boast a few gems that go something like this: "I'm a perfectly normal, mature, professional, responsible, loving family man. I just happen to behave like an impotent, sociopathic bleep in EVE." OK, the authors will probably leave off the impotent and sociopathic descriptors.

Why though? Why do griefers behave like impotent, sociopathic bleeps if they are not, in fact, impotent, sociopathic bleeps? Is it some sort of misguided attempt to admit that they're roleplayers, secretly yearning to reveal what The Mittani calls a true "LARPing metrosexual" nature? Do griefers honestly think that they can indulge in certain repetitive behaviors and then claim that they're not that kind of person "in real life"?


Did habitual griefers cut kindergarten class the day everyone was taught that it's not OK to purposely and continually treat other people like poo? Some apparently did. "We are griefers. If nothing is going to happen then we're going to try to find something that screams and bleeds and poke at it," The Mittani says, summing up Goon Fleet and organizations like it more succinctly than I ever could.

The Mittani does have one thing going for him, though, and that is that he's a step ahead of the average griefer regarding his honesty about what he and his organization truly are. As I mentioned above, I've met griefers who consider themselves well-adjusted folks in other parts of their lives, gamers who have fallen into the trap of separating game behavior from "real-world" behavior. The reality, though, is that if you're a bleep in an online game -- and it's a recurring thing -- you're a bleep, period. You're not a part-time bleep, or a bleep on the weekends, or a bleep after the wife and kids are safely bedded down. You're simply a bleep. Regardless of whether certain game mechanics enable your bleephead behavior, the choice to actively make another person unhappy is in fact a choice, and it's yours alone. You don't get to rationalize or compartmentalize it. It simply is what it is, and you are what you are.

You also don't get to hide behind the "griefing is subjective" deflection mechanism. If your target feels put upon and you continue to twist the knife, it's griefing. It doesn't matter if you (or the devs) don't consider it griefing. It doesn't matter if the other person "shouldn't be here if she doesn't want to be griefed." It doesn't matter if your target is prone to indulging the victim side of his personality or that he really should know better than to enable your bleepy behavior. All that matters is that the recipient (you know, that anonymous, sub-human blob of pixels that doesn't have any real feelings because he's in a video game) considers it griefing.

A few griefers whom I've talked to (and even some of the wackier roleplayers) love to seek shelter behind the fallacious distinction between "real" life and game life, as if the latter is some sort of netherworld that exists in a vacuum removed from reality and devoid of human interaction (and resulting emotion). Well no, sorry guys, there is no game life vs. real life; there's just life, and your actions affect others regardless of whether it's "just a game," "in character," or any other convenient excuse. It's not "your character" bleeping around with other people's characters -- it's you (and them).

Unless, of course, your character is being controlled by aliens, gods, ghosts, or your imaginary friend. No? Then it's you, and it's real, with real people and real emotions on the receiving end. After all, isn't that partly why you do it?

If griefers (and some hardcore roleplayers) were simply interested in blowing off steam or acting out in a consequence-free environment, the nearest FPS/RPG and its cannon-fodder NPCs would suffice (or the nearest gym and a heavy bag). But it's not about that. It's about having a real feeling of superiority over real people (but of course, it's got to be anonymous so the griefer can keep his day job).

And before the RPers burn me at the stake: Sure, being an IC bleep is perfectly acceptable if the people around you are OK with it. If you're foisting your "evil roleplay" off on random gamers, though, I regret to inform you that you're less of a roleplayer and more of a bleep.

The metagame

The final thing I took away from the griefer-obsessed cult of personality celebrated in the RPS interview is that most of EVE's well-publicized scams are a product of the metagame. The vast majority of The Mittani's machinations and maneuvering don't even occur inside CCP's client. Don't get me wrong -- I love EVE, and I love reading about what goes on in New Eden almost as much as I love being there.

That said, when I stop and actually mull it over, I end up scratching my head as to the newsworthiness of Goonswarm's EVE accomplishments. Metagame manipulation can (and does) happen in every MMORPG. The only difference here is the degree to which the perpetrators have managed to convince the MMO-ignorant press that this is different from other types of antisocial behavior.

EVE is basically a griefing tool to these sorts of folks; it's less a sci-fi MMORPG and more like a place to meet gullible targets, a victim-rich environment with a chatbox, if you will. Thousands (maybe millions) of internet con men engage in this sort of behavior on an hourly basis. There's nothing remarkable about it at all other than the fact that it continually makes waves. Metagamers who misrepresent themselves via VOIP or instant messenger (and pull off alt-enabled guild-takeovers) rank right up there with your average mail spammer, DDoS tyke, or rich banker uncle from Nigeria. Bravo, truly.

The question of why remains, though, and I suspect that no good answer will be forthcoming aside from "for the lulz." While you can chalk up game-localized griefer behavior to the freedom that online anonymity offers, the more perplexing thing is why such freedom brings out the worst in humanity. Think of what could be accomplished by an organization the size of Goonswarm if its leadership had the cojones to enrich other peoples' lives rather than defecate on them.

This leads me to believe that habitual griefers are just broken human beings. They're simply doing it wrong (and by it, I mean life, not the game). Think about it. How old are most kids when they're made aware of the golden rule? It sticks to the majority of them because it's not difficult to grok the logic behind it. There's always a handful of bad (or mentally challenged) apples, though. At the end of this Soapbox, all I can do is feel immensely sorry for these folks. Attempting to fill various voids in your life with the tears of another sentient is indicative of an unimaginably empty existence. If I could, I'd buy every griefer a lollipop and wrap them all in one giant carebear hug!

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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