Thomas Malaby wrote a thought-provoking entry over at the braniac Terra Nova blog, on the subject of griefing. Like most thought-provoking pieces, it was part of a larger conversation, one I hope to continue here. Previously, 3pointD's Mark Wallace had posed the question whether griefing was simply "emergent game play", and folks left comments that further picked at this thought.
Wallace started this conversation citing Something Awful dot com (SA), a gag humor website that is a breeding ground for pranks ranging from silly to intolerant, benign to destructive. In Second Life, they've been a continued presence, where banned users will come back over and over with new accounts. They've been known as the "SA Goons" originally, leaving ultra-graphic war images on 10x10x10 cubes all over the grid in 2004. Then they were "w-Hat", depicting the World Trade Center Disaster in a very in-your-face, distasteful manner. One in particular, a script kiddie citing himself named only as, "Plastic Duck", has a grief portfolio including:
- Stealing and Extorting land from new users while mocking them
- Vandalizing a sim dedicated to awareness of the genocide in Darfur
- Harassing users in a variety of ways
- Launching grid-crashing attacks
Now, the kicker is - the SA crowd always plays a "Oh, we're not formally sanctioning any griefing" stance. In fact, if you go into their forums, you'll find posts that describe in details how to avoid violating Second Life Community Standards and Terms of Service, while still doing the greatest harassment. The SA crowd also claims to kick the "bad seeds", but since users keep coming back, it's clear to see that "kicking them out" means kicking an account, not making any attempt to ban the person behind it. Naturally, they'd claim that they have no way they can do that.
Ganking the Meaning Out of Games
Ganking is a term used in PvP multiplayer games describing when a higher level / better equipped player kills a lesser player. There is little effort to this action, as opposed to the typical "pwn", which indicates a particularly impressive killing move. Ganking is a form of griefing, and heading back to Terra Nova, Malaby's argument is a two-parter:
1. Ganking is not actually game-play.
2. Ganking takes advantage of unwilling participants.
In the first part, he states:
"Games, as ends in and of themselves, are things that can generate new meanings and experiences. For the ganker, however, ganking is a means to other ends ..."
I believe this is an important distinction. While Malaby focuses only on multiplayer games, the idea of ganking also translates into one-player games. For instance, a gamer might come home from a hard day of work, need to let off some steam, and so they load up Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas to create some mayhem. That person might jump into their attack chopper and completely overpower the local imaginary police force. Heck, the whole premise of the GTA series is that you can run over people at will at any time, or live out a fantasy of revenge on a rude real-life driver who cut you off and almost got you into an auto accident.
The point isn't a game. The point is letting off steam, or sheer dominance. And that, in and of itself, is okay.
It's in the second part of the argument that Malaby shows that it's not okay. In multiplayer games, the people who are ganked are unwilling participants. Some folks argue that this is a phenomenon that is part of the overall game play of a multiplayer game, and so the important question is:
"Is this game play prescribed by the creator of the game?"
In the case of Malaby's arguments, we look at World of Warcraft, by Blizzard Entertainment. Having played, I can say that none of the promotional materials or guides that I encountered encouraged ganking. In fact, I remember clearly reading that certain acts were frowned upon, such as "corpse-camping" (hanging around the corpse of a player, waiting for them to re-spawn, in a weak state), and an abuse reportable offense.
However, the game mechanic that most indicates Blizzard's intentions regarding ganking is the "honor" system. Honor is a PVP points system in WoW where players can earn rewards for good PvP play. A player is awarded honor points for killing another player of similar level, but none for someone of a significantly lower level. (like 7-8 levels below)
Some people would continue to argue, "Blizzard created a game with conditions that arose that allows ganking. If Blizzard wanted to eliminate ganking, they'd prevent those conditions from happening."
This comes from people who have little understanding about programming. Bugs are common, and if you look for exploits, generally, you will find them. So, no amount of preventative code or rules is going to completely eliminate the "conditions that allow ganking".
Darwinian (Lack of) Ethics
There's something also very unsettling with the "conditions are there" argument for ganking, which is the fact that if you applied this to other situations, it leads to complete Darwinian mode of ethics.
Isn't that rationale the politician who argues that since corruption is pervasive, and the general public doesn't know any better, that it "creates a condition" where they can do pretty much whatever they feel is right, regarding of their constituents' desires?
Doesn't the classroom bully argue that because "he's bigger" and "you're not cool" and "no one's watching", that it's conditions for him to force you to pay him your lunch money? Or to simply pound on you with fists?
Ganking Is Bullying
And ganking / griefing is clearly bullying, by definition. It's the bigger performing harm on the smaller. I thus put forward this rationale:
Since bullying is, in general, thought of as unethical, then it shall remain considered unethical in multiplayer games unless specifically stated otherwise as a desired component of the game. (or that the game itself encourages unethical behavior, which is a slippery slope in and of itself)
Futher, these game ethics only apply to other real players, not computer controlled NPCs.
Relating this Back to Second Life
And so, we bring back this rationale into Second Life. Even if Second Life were "just a game", the Community Standards clearly indicates that harassment and griefing do not belong.
And, even if you assume Second Life is not a game, and you were to try and justify griefing based on game principles, you would first have to prove that both the griefer and the griefed were playing the same game. In that case, since Second Life isn't a game, the game would be "grief people", of which the griefed user clearly does not want to play.
If griefing is a game, can the griefed be considered "playing" the griefing game at all? Is conscious agreement to participation in a game required to play a game?
Easy. Since games are meant to be entertainment, then the answer is clearly that conscious agreement is needed.
Griefing is wrong. Don't be a jerk; you make kittens cry.