Events transpired this week in my MMO of choice that has led me to question certain aspects of in-game harassment and how it should be dealt with. LOTRO is somewhat famous for it’s helpful and welcoming community, so when that ecosystem is disrupted enough by a single player to spawn several forum threads and to cause some long-time players to question why they still play the game, it catches my attention. Without going into too many of the gory details, certain player-run events have recently been disrupted by a single individual who his choosing to place his/her player in a inconvenient spot, irritating the attendees of the event. Those who report the player are told by the in-game GMs that the player is not doing anything wrong, and that they should stop submitting tickets.
What is Griefing?
As far as I can tell, “griefing” is a term unique to online video game experiences, but may eventually work it’s way into more common language (like pwn’d or noob). Trion does a nice job of describing griefing in their harassment policy (part of their code of conduct):
Griefing – This refers to players who do not play the game as it was intended, but instead seek to harass other players as their main focal point. ….. To “grief” simply means that you are trying to negatively impact the game play experience of another player. – Glyph Harassment Policy
In other words, griefing could be a lot of things. Many policies have definitions that are written vaguely in order to not paint themselves into a corner. The reason for this is simple. When defining something like griefing using only specific examples, they limit themselves in what recourse they can take against players who find “loopholes” in the policy. for example, if Trion were to say “griefing is defined as bouncing up and down in front of another player”, it wouldn’t take long before someone decided to jump up and down beside another player, and they would (by definition in the example given) not be guilty of griefing, and therefore could not be punished for violating the policy. The problem with leaving the language vague is that it requires more of a judgement call to be made when complaints arise. While the offended will claim that a griefer is attempting to negatively impact their gameplay, the accused would likely counter with a denial that this was their intention. Thus, an overworked and cranky GM is responsible for deciding whether the behavior in question does or does not violate the policy. This leads to inconsistencies between GMs, and possibly even with the same GM on different days.
This inconsistency has already led to confusion in the LOTRO community. The griefer in question attempted to disrupt the huge Weatherstock event earlier this year using his tactic of choice, and was dealt with swiftly and decisively. Recently, though, calls for help at similar, smaller events have gone unheeded.
How is Griefing Different than Harassment?
Griefing is handled slightly differently within the four policies that I’ve read so far. Trion is the only one that specifically uses the word “griefing”, but other studios describe the actions that are generally understood to be forms of griefing in their harassment policies. Here are some examples.
In their Moderately Inappropriate section of the harassment policy, Blizzard describes the following:
Zone or Area Disruption
This category includes language and/or actions intended to disturb groups of players or areas of the world, such as:
- Disruption of player events or gatherings.
- Excessive use of in-game sounds or visuals.
- Excessively casting spells with noticeable effects in crowded areas.
- Impeding or blocking access to an NPC, doodad, doorway, or any other area of the world that a player would normally be able to access.
Curiously, LOTRO’s definition of harassment sounds very much like the scenario described in the opening paragraph:
Player harassment is defined as an attempt by a player to cause distress, game disruption or to intentionally offend other Lord of the Rings Online players. Player harassment may come in many forms, but the underlying similarity between all harassment and abuse incidents is player malintent. If the offending player’s actions are intentionally directed to cause disruption, grief or distress, no matter what the situation, this is considered player harassment.
Turbine sounds very strict and intimidating when mentioning their “zero tolerance” policy against harassment, but provides no specifics on penalties.
Even EVE has a policy against harassment that seems to call out griefing (2nd bullet – yes, they used both bullets and letters in their outline format):
Severe offences may result in an immediate ban without warning; however, warnings may be given for first time offenses, followed by account suspensions of varying degree and ultimately a permanent ban if a player:
- a. Is abusive, obscene, offensive, sexually explicit, ethnically or racially offensive, or threatening to another player or an official EVE Online representative.
- b. Uses role-playing as an excuse for violating the guidelines regarding fair play with others.
So, griefing is online harassment. So much so, that three out of the four policies don’t even differentiate it, and the fourth simply considers it a sub-section of the overall harassment section.
How Should Griefing Be Dealt With?
This is the tricky bit. Spoiler alert: I don’t have a good answer.
There are several ways to deal with a griefer, some of them are even suggested in the harassment policies linked above. Talk to the player to make sure it’s not a misunderstanding (good luck). Use a technical solution, like /ignore (if the griefing is via chat). Walk away (if they’ll let you). But let’s be honest, a true griefer will not succumb to any of these attempts at a reasonable solution, because their actions and intents aren’t reasonable to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to know that no matter how many times you sit down and explain to your toddler the values of leaving that last cookie in the jar for someone else in the family to enjoy at a later time, as soon as you turn your back that cookie will be gone. Sometimes you’ve got to smack the hand or put the cookie out of reach. And yes, I’m comparing griefers to toddlers.
I’ve already mentioned the judgement call required of an in-game GM in trying to determine whether griefing has actually occurred. Suppose this large hurdle is overcome and the GM makes the determination that a player is guilty of harassment. What type of repercussion is appropriate? The GM must now make yet another, perhaps even several judgement calls taking into consideration intent, severity, and history. Doling out punishment to a (possibly) paying customer is kind of a difficult thing to do, considering all of the subjective calls that have been made by a single person up to this point. The easy road in this case would be to determine that harassment has not occurred to avoid all of the subsequent work, judgement, and punishment that falls on the other side of the flowchart.
Majority Rules or Mob Mentality?
The tight-knit LOTRO music/RP community was quick to take up the cause of harassment once it began to impede on their events. They took to the forums and social media to plead their case, attempting to get the immediate issue resolved as well as to seek clarification of the policy, since many within that group had been told that the behavior in question did not amount to harassment. To me, the issue seemed pretty clear. The behavior being described aligned almost perfectly with the description of harassment within the policy outlined by Turbine. A majority of players (regardless of playstyle) seem to agree. So why didn’t democracy prevail? Why didn’t LOTRO listen to it’s players?
My good friend Ethelros brought up a good point. The tweets have since flowed beyond my reach but I’ll attempt to paraphrase. It’s not a good idea for a group of players to be able to dictate the space that another player occupies within a game. This is a problematic precedent to set and could lead to bullying in other forms. Imagine teams of griefers forming groups and roaming the landscape in search of new players to relocate or ban. Granted, it’s kind of a far-fetched scenario but certainly possible. After all, it’s the word of many against the word of one! Yet another consideration for the monitors of the playground to make.
Has GG Changed how we view online harassment?
I had one final thought on this topic that I thought might be interesting to discuss. It’s clear that griefing is a form of online harassment. However, considering that the bar for online harassment has been raised considerably since the out-of-control non-movement that is #gamergate, is it possible that simple griefing doesn’t really seem too bad anymore? Nobody’s life is being threatened. Nobody is seeking shelter in an undisclosed location or cancelling public appearances out of fear for their physical safety. By comparison, a guy standing in front of a band in order to irritate people has somewhat lost it’s bite. The “dwarf jumping up and down in your peripheral vision”* feels more like a little brother trying to push buttons than actual harassment. By attempting to bring awareness to online harassment, have we trivialized some forms of it? Sometimes I wonder.
* TM Roger Edwards