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The Griefer Future

Nice little future you got there. Hate to see something bad happen to it.

The blending of the physical and immersive digital worlds -- the metaverse -- inevitably produces bizarre results. I've noted (and we've started to see examples of) the possibility of hacking digital-physical objects. The potential for nano-spam continues to haunt us. But the mash-up between the virtual and the real worlds likely to affect the greatest number of us is "griefing."

Griefing is, simply put, making someone else's online game session miserable. It's not simply beating someone in player-vs.-player competitions, or even annoying someone as the side-effect of otherwise game-focused actions. Griefing means taking action intended to harm the game-play of someone else -- these can include attacking someone ostensibly on your own team, blocking passageways, intentionally crashing your vehicle into someone else's, leading masses of monsters to attack unsuspecting players ("training"), using known software bugs to force another player to "crash out" of the game, and so forth. While many of these might happen by accident, griefing is all about intent.

As the technologies and habits of the metaverse expand past the world of gaming, so too do social dilemmas like griefing. We've already started to see its appearance: just a couple of months ago, someone the posted flashing images to an epilepsy support website, triggering seizures and fugues for many of its visitors. If that sounds like harassment, it is -- griefing definitely falls into that category. But griefing has two characteristic elements, unique in combination: the use of system flaws or unintended consequences to abuse people with less-sophisticated system knowledge; and the griefer's belief that the griefing action is funny. For many griefers, it's just another kind of prank.

As long as griefing was limited to online games, the prank argument made sense. As the epilepsy attack demonstrates, however, when griefing moves into other online arenas, the line between pranks and harassment becomes harder to see. This will only increase over time. Emerging metaverse technologies lend themselves to various forms of griefing, such as intentional errors added to augmented reality or mirror world databases, pollution of simulated spaces with inappropriate content, or intentional creation of false public data -- the "participatory decepticon" I wrote about recently is a prime example of metaverse griefing.

Simply put, as the power and ubiquity of immersive digital technologies increase, so too do the opportunities for griefing -- as does the potential for unintended and unanticipated problems. The result is likely to be a world of pranks gone horribly awry, civil authorities treating minor insults as potential terrorism, and a general diminishment of trust in immersive digital technologies. I'd also expect to see griefing-type activities done with a political or economic purpose, easily dismissed as just more pranking, but with potentially greater consequences.

So, griefing: threat or menace? Both and neither, really. In the gaming world, griefing can be a way of exposing software flaws and exploits, leading (once they are fixed) to a more resilient online environment. Abstractly, the same will hold true for non-game griefing -- software holes allowing for bad results (whether by intent or accident) will be repaired, disproportionate results from authorities will be called out and examined, people will be more skeptical about the reliability of digital information, and so forth -- but at the cost of hurt feelings, hurt bodies, and passing social disorder. We may not like the trade-off, but we're likely going to have to live with it.

(Looking for a suitable image to illustrate this post with, but finding nothing that's clearly Creative Commons licensed...)


(Looking for a suitable image to illustrate this post with, but finding nothing that's clearly Creative Commons licensed...)

Which sounds illustrative enough, in a way!

Yep...I totally agree here. Eve Online has some of the most interesting examples (that I'm aware of) of this sort of emergent griefing behavior right now. It's still in a game, of course...but I see Eve as a great place to watch people explore the edges of this kind of virtual community.

Definitively an issue in which I've taken an interest. Nice to see it getting renewed attention. Other than counterfeit hardware providing unauthorized access to vital systems, I've not discussed the general topic very much lately.

btw, no shortage of appropriate images from Second Life. I posted a couple and you're welcome to use either (Link 1, Link 2). I might have higher resolutions available or some other images.

How is the history of griefing substantially different than the history of hacking and malware authorship? The history of hacking is full of harmless pranks that evolve into serious problems in the online world like malware or botnets.

Try replacing "grief" with "hack" and "game-play" with "computer use" in many of your sentences and see how they read. It comes out pretty similar, at least in my opinion.

Is the main difference the barrier to entry for people wanting to cause trouble and the (relative) naivety of the people being hacked/griefed?

The main difference is what's targeted: with hacking, the target is data (or more broadly, one's sense of security); with griefing, the target is one's trust (or sense of community). To me, the latter is far harsher.

Thinking about this question led me to today's post -- thank you!

I think there's a pretty serious substantive difference between, say, the recent EVE assasination, and Fansy the Famous Bard :)


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