« The Griefer Future | Main | Do Not Taunt Massive Quake Ball »

Advanced Griefing in the Material World

eve.pngThis happened a couple of years ago, but I was just reminded of it again recently (and it didn't receive the attention it deserves).

The story of the Guiding Hand Social Club and the Valentine Operative offers one scenario of how advanced griefing functions: it zeroes in on trust and community.

EVE Online is one of those lesser-known massively-multiplayer online role-playing games that scurries in the shadow of World of Warcraft. It's a science fiction game, wherein you fly around the galaxy fighting pirates and shipping goods, tricking out your successive generations of starships. The game itself is free, with a 30-day free trial (like nearly all other MMORPGs, ongoing play requires a subscription). The game developers update the universe on a regular basis, and the tens of thousands of players seem to enjoy the game quite a bit. (Incidentally, EVE has an on-staff economist to help them shape the game world, adding to its complexity.)

There's one other bit of information about EVE that's important to know: you can (and probably will) fight other players. It's not a safe universe out there.

The Guiding Hand Social Club (GHSC) is a "corporation" in EVE -- a player organization that, in another game, would be called a "guild." GHSC bills itself as a group of mercenaries, willing and able to go after other corporations, stealing ships and cargo, for a (hefty) fee. In 2004, GHSC was hired (by a still-anonymous client) to attack the corporation Ubiqua Seraph and kill its leader, Mirial. But GHSC took the contract a bit further than expected -- after ten months of infiltration, a galaxy-wide coordinated attack netted billions in in-game money (worth approximately $16,500 in real-world money at the time), stole dozens of ships and other hardware, and destroyed Ubiqua Seraph's "Navy Apocalypse" flagship. GHSC operative Arenis Xemdal pulled the trigger on Mirial, after having risen in Ubiqua Seraph's ranks and reportedly developing a relationship with the target CEO.

"Arenis Xemdal is what we call a Valentine Operative." [GHSC leader] Shogaatsu explains. "Essentially his job is to seduce and entice an objective into a state of trust and confidence. As such, we'd call Mirial's relationship to him moments before the strike... 'endeared'."

The entire story is worth reading, and if you're particularly fascinated, the GHSC announcement of the strike remains on the EVE message boards. All in all, it's a remarkable story of coordinated treachery, malicious intent, and griefing severe enough to drive people out of the game.

But what does this have to do with the real world?

It's tempting to look at the GHSC strike in financial terms, focusing on the loss of money. But to me, the monetary theft aspect was secondary; the real point of the action was to make the target, and her comrades, miserable. In this, GHSC was eminently successful:

They claim this was a "kill contract" to destroy the player Mirial.....

While they did destroy her Navy Apoc and pod her.... they went beyond that.

They stole everything from UQS Billions of isk [the EVE currency] that dozens of players have spent over a year building up.. seriusly [sic] hurting many players feelings and causing emotional stress outside the game... (I'm not gonna die over it... but my mind shouldn't be taken up by game thoughts like this has caused)

Why is this different than past Corp thefts?????


(Emphasis mine.)

People who don't spend time in immersive digital worlds may not realize just how emotionally intense they can be. These are often games, yes, but they are built to enable visceral reactions akin to those arising from real-world experiences: danger, exultation, fear, anger, humiliation and sometimes even "endearment." And the more that 3D immersive worlds blend with the physical world, the more intense these emotional cues will be.

In the comments to yesterday's post, my friend J. Eric Townsend argues that there's little real difference between griefing and "hacking" (in the commonplace sense) -- viruses and malware written not to steal, but simply to be perversely destructive. I see his point. Like most griefers, the "skr1pt k1dd13s" and virus-makers so prominent in the early days of the web had little motivation other than attacking other computer user for the fun of it.

But there is a difference, and it's a big one. While hacking and malware can destroy data and one's sense of security, griefing goes after trust and social cohesion. The teammate who shoots me instead of the opposing team isn't just attacking my datastream, he's attacking me. The prevalence of malware on the Internet seems environmental, like some kind of biohazard -- the origin of a virus or scam may be useful for the digital epidemiologists, but what I care most about is making sure my immunities are up to date. There are no such protections from griefing, because its presence depends on the social behavior we value in the participatory web. You can eliminate griefing by eliminating social interaction; it becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

And here we have the dilemma of the blended era. The appeal of social technologies, immersive technologies, is their extraordinary capacity to link us together, to build resilient and complex communities out of little more than thought and light. But those same luminous pathways enable malice of startling power. We built the metaverse and social web as ancillary networks, parallel to (but less meaningful than) our physical world communities. That pairing has quickly reversed itself, however, and the digital links have become -- for a rapidly growing number of us -- the primary social bond. But the norms and ethics of online life haven't evolved as rapidly, leaving us in a moment of transition: we are enraptured with the power of connection and painfully surprised by it at the same time.


I don't get it. You said that you can and probably will fight other players. Isn't that just a bigger more elaborate war? Part of the reason one plays RPGs is to be part of an epic adventure, and that was pretty epic.

There's plenty of war to be fought in EVE, including declared wars between corporations. This was a substantively different action (read the discussion thread after the GHSC announcement).

More to the point, in-game wars mean the players know what they're getting into, and the losses aren't "personal." This was clearly griefing, even if it was "legal" by game rules.

I understand what you're saying - but I also think that the sort of thing you describe happening in Eve is an example of a game being taken to a new level of realism. (Out of game griefing is another matter, of course.)

To quote from the Eve wiki "Such dangers are an intricate part of Eve Online's virtual economy and thus are purposely not dealt with by the developers. Players are expected to make financial decisions based (among other factors) on the possibility of other players' financial malpractice, much like in real-life economics."

Aren't you just pointing out that virtual reality needs the same justice and retribution system as the real world? Griefing only exists because there is no bad payback for such behaviour. Humans tend to indulge in behaviours where the result for themselves is more benefit than harm.

Hmm, I think I'm with Ailsa. While I agree that examples like the flashing epilepsy posts in your previous post are serious real-world griefing, I think this example was really part of the game.

EVE is designed to be an immersive reality, and that's what people sign up to. Backstabbing and cheating are an unfortunate part of permissive realities (such as 'real life').

Perhaps there should be two types of online realities:

1) those that assure you that any losses that upset you are illegal and will be recompensed

2) those that give full freedom.

As this wasn't made explicitly clear, I think some of the commenting EVE players felt they were playing a type 1 game, and some a type 2 game, hence the disagreements.

I personally suspect that if such distinctions were made explicit, the latter type of game would be more popular.

People want to be able to get emotionally involved in their games (and those are real world emotions) and the possibility of failure makes success much more delicious.

But being genuinely emotionally crushed (even suicidal) at the failure of some venture you engaged in (online or offline) is substantially different from being involuntarily subjected to an epileptic fit.

Ah, the human situation. Trust, betrayal, the weighing of doing the "right thing" versus personal reward. We've been struggling with this since we came out of the trees. Several Greek tragedies (and the Bible) have themes involving breaking that most sacred of trusts between parent and child.

This struggle is part of our nature, part of what it means to be human, and it is up to each individual to decide how they will act in a given situation. What morals and ethics they will hold to and live by. What role "honor" plays in their life.

BillK has a great point that a different dynamic in online games versus the real life is the lack of consequence in the virtual world. You can be a jerk with no (or virtually no) consequence.

How we as a society, and how individual games/sims/organizations adapt to that challenge in the future is a very interesting question.

What separates the successful Western world from the unsuccessful tribal societies? In large part it is high trust vs. low trust social structures.

In the West their is an expectation that strangers, i.e. not of your tribe, will be treated fairly. Contracts are honored, personal safety is assumed, checks are good and so on.

Violations of trust do happen and where they do the violator is a criminal and not a hero.

Even though acts may appear to do no physical harm, undermining trust is an attack on the foundation of our Western society. I weould include the old Candid Camera, Borat, and this game itself as immoral acts.

Excellent post, Jamais. Thanks.

I haven't been following MMORGPs very closely. Any documented cases of suicides caused by in-game incidents? Any of these incidents similar to the one you describe?


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37