Bad Avatar!

Griefing in Virtual Worlds

How to Cite

Gregson, K. (2007). Bad Avatar! Griefing in Virtual Worlds. M/C Journal, 10(5).
Vol. 10 No. 5 (2007): 'error'
Published 2007-10-01

While exploring the virtual world Second Life one day, I received a group message across the in-world communication system – “there’s a griefer on the beach. Stay away from the beach till we catch him.” There was no need to explain; everyone receiving the message knew what a griefer was and had a general idea of the kinds of things that could be happening. We’d all seen griefers at work before – someone monopolising the chat channel so no one else can communicate, people being “caged” at random, or even weapons fire causing so much “overhead” that all activity in the area slows to a crawl. These kinds of attacks are not limited to virtual worlds. Most people have experienced griefing in their everyday lives, which might best be defined as having fun at someone else’s expense. More commonly seen examples of this in the real world include teasing, bullying, and harassment; playground bullies have long made other children’s free time miserable. More destructive griefing includes arson and theft.

Griefing activities happen in all kinds of games and virtual worlds. Griefers who laugh at new users and “yell” (so that all players can hear) that they stink, have followed new users of Disney’s tween-popular ToonTown. Griefers pose as friendly, helpful players who offer to show new users a path through difficult parts of a game, but then who abandon the new user in a spot where he or she does not have the skills to proceed. In World of Warcraft, a popular massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard with more than seven million registered, if not active, users, griefers engage in what is known as corpse camping; they sit by a corpse, killing it over and over every time the player tries to get back into the game. The griefer gets a small number of experience points; the player being killed gets aggravated and has to wait out the griefing to play the game again (Warner & Raiter). Griefing in World of Warcraft was featured in an award nominated episode of the television program South Park, in which one character killed every other player he met.

This paper considers different types of griefing, both in online games and virtual worlds, and then looks at the actions other players, those being griefed, take against griefers. A variety of examples from Second Life are considered because of the open-structure of the world and its developing nature.

Definitions and Types

Griefing in online environments such as video games and virtual worlds has been defined as “purposefully engaging in activities to disrupt the gaming experience of other players” (Mulligan & Patrovsky 250). The “purposeful” part of the definition means that accidental bumping and pushing, behaviours often exhibited by new users, are not griefing (Warner & Raiter). Rossingol defines a griefer as, “a player of malign intentions. They will hurt, humiliate and dishevel the average gamer through bending and breaking the rules of online games. ...They want glory, gain or just to partake in a malignant joy at the misfortune of others.” Davis, who maintains a gaming blog, describes Second Life as being populated by “those who build things and those who like to tear them down,” with the latter being the griefers who may be drawn to the unstructured anything-goes nature of the virtual world (qtd. in Girard).

Definitions of griefing differ based on context. For instance, griefing has been examined in a variety of multi-player online games. These games often feature missions where players have to kill other players (PvP), behaviour that in other contexts such as virtual worlds would be considered griefing. Putting a monster on the trail of a player considered rude or unskilled might be a way to teach a lesson, but also an example of griefing (Taylor). Foo and Koivisto define griefing in MMORPGs as “play styles that disrupt another player’s gaming experience, usually with specific intention. When the act is not specifically intended to disrupt and yet the actor is the sole beneficiary, it is greed play, a subtle form of grief play” (11). Greed play usually involves actions that disrupt the game play of others but without technically breaking any game rules.

A different way of looking at griefing is that it is a sign that the player understands the game or virtual world deeply enough to take advantage of ambiguities in the rules by changing the game to something new (Koster). Many games have a follow option; griefers pick a victim, stand near them, get as naked as possible, and then just follow them around without talking or explaining their actions (Walker). Another example is the memorial service in World of Warcraft for a player who died in real life. The service was interrupted by an attack from another clan; everyone at the memorial service was killed. It is not clear cut who the griefers actually were in this case – the mourners who chose to have their peaceful service in an area marked for player combat or the attackers following the rules for that area and working to earn points and progress in the game. In the case of the mourners, they were changing the rules of the game to suit them, to create something unique – a shared space to mourn a common friend. But they were definitely not playing by the rules. The attackers, considered griefers by many both in and outside of the game, did nothing that broke any rules of the game, though perhaps they broke rules of common decency (“World”); what they did does not fit into the definition of griefing, as much as do the actions of the mourners (Kotaku).

Reshaping the game can be done to embed a new, sometimes political, message into the game. A group named Velvet Strike formed to protest US military action. They went into Counter Strike to bring a “message of peace, love and happiness to online shooters by any means necessary” (King). They placed spray painted graphics containing anti-war messages into the game; when confronted with people from other teams the Velvet Strike members refused to shoot (King). The group website contains “recipes” for non-violent game play. One “recipe” involved the Velvet Strike member hiding at the beginning of a mission and not moving for the rest of the game. The other players would shoot each other and then be forced to spend the rest of the game looking for the last survivor in order to get credit for the win. Similar behaviour has been tried inside the game America’s Army. Beginning March, 2006, deLappe, an artist who opposes the U.S. government’s involvement in Iraq, engaged in griefing behaviour by filling (spamming) the in-game text channel with the names of the people killed in the war; no one else can communicate on that channel. Even his character name, dead-in-Iraq, is an anti-war protest (deLappe). “I do not participate in the proscribed mayhem. Rather, I stand in position and type until I am killed. After death, I hover over my dead avatar’s body and continue to type. Upon being re-incarnated in the next round, I continue the cycle” (deLappe n.p.).

What about these games and virtual worlds might lead people to even consider griefing? For one thing, they seem anonymous, which can lead to irresponsible behaviour. Players use fake names. Characters on the screen do not seem real. Another reason may be that rules can be broken in videogames and virtual worlds with few consequences, and in fact the premise of the game often seems to encourage such rule breaking. The rules are not always clearly laid out. Each game or world has a Terms of Service agreement that set out basic acceptable behaviour. Second Life defines griefing in terms of the Terms of Service that all users agree to when opening accounts. Abuse is when someone consciously and with malicious intent violates those terms. On top of that limited set of guidelines, each landowner in a virtual world such as Second Life can also set rules for their own property, from dress code, to use of weapons, to allowable conversation topics.

To better understand griefing, it is necessary to consider the motivations of the people involved. Early work on categorising player types was completed by Bartle, who studied users of virtual worlds, specifically MUDs, and identified four player types: killers, achievers, socialisers, and explorers. Killers and achievers seem most relevant in a discussion about griefing. Killers enjoy using other players to get ahead. They want to do things to other people (not for or with others), and they get the most pleasure if they can act without the consent of the other player. Knowing about a game or a virtual world gives no power unless that knowledge can be used to gain some advantage over others and to enhance your standing in the game. Achievers want power and dominance in a game so they can do things to the game and master it. Griefing could help them feel a sense of power if they got people to do their will to stop the griefing behavior. Yee studied the motivations of people who play MMORPGs. He found that people who engage in griefing actually scored high in being motivated to play by both achieving and competition (“Facets”). Griefers often want attention. They may want to show off their scripting skills in the hope of earning respect among other coders and possibly be hired to program for others. But many players are motivated by a desire to compete and to win; these categories do not seem to be adequate for understanding the different types of griefing (Yee, “Faces of Grief”).

The research on griefing in games has also suggested ways to categorise griefers in virtual worlds. Suler divides griefers into two types (qtd. in Becker). The first is those who grief in order to make trouble for authority figures, including the people who create the worlds. A few of the more spectacular griefing incidents seem designed to cause trouble for Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. Groups attacked the servers that run Second Life, known as the grid, in October of 2005; this became known as the “gray goo attack” (Second Life; Wallace). Servers were flooded with objects and Second Life had to be taken off line to be restored from backups. More organised groups, such as the W-hats, the SL Liberation Army, and Patriotic Nigas engage in more large scale and public griefing. Some groups hope to draw attention to the group’s goals. The SL Liberation Army wants Linden Lab to open up the governance of the virtual world so that users can vote on changes and policies being implemented and limit corporate movement into Second Life (MarketingVox). Patriotic Nigas, with about 35 active members, want to slow the entry of corporations into Second Life (Cabron, “Who are Second Life’s”). One often discussed griefer attack in Second Life included a flood of pink flying penises directed against land owner and the first person to have made a profit of more than one million United States dollars in a virtual world, Anshe Chung, during a well-publicised and attended interview in world with technology news outlet CNET (Walsh, “Second Life Millionaire” ).

The second type proposed by Suler is the griefer who wants to hurt and victimise others (qtd. in Becker). Individual players often go naked into PG-rated areas to cause trouble. Weapons are used in areas where weapons are banned. Second Life publishes a police blotter, which lists examples of minor griefing and assigned punishment, including incidents of disturbing the peace and violating community standards for which warnings and short bans have been issued. These are the actions of individuals for the most part, as were the people who exploited security holes to enter the property uninvited during the grand opening of Endemol’s Big Brother island in Second Life; guests to the opening were firebombed and caged. One of the griefers explained her involvement:

Well I’m from The Netherlands, and as you might know the tv concept of big brother was invented here, and it was in all the newspapers in Holland. So I thought It would be this huge event with lots of media. Then I kinda got the idea ‘hey I could ruin this and it might make the newspaper or tv. So that’s what set me off, lol. (qtd. in Sklar)

Some groups do grief just to annoy. The Patriotic Nigas claim to have attacked the John Edwards headquarters inside SL wearing Bush ‘08 buttons (Cabron, “John Edwards Attackers”), but it was not a political attack. The group’s founder, Mudkips Acronym (the name of his avatar in SL) said, “I’m currently rooting for Obama, but that doesn’t mean we won’t raid him or anything. We’ll hit anyone if it’s funny, and if the guy I want to be president in 2008’s campaign provides the lulz, we’ll certainly not cross him off our list” (qtd. in Cabron, “John Edwards Attackers”). If they disrupt a high profile event or site, the attack will be covered by media that can amplify the thrill of the attack, enhance their reputation among other griefers, and add to their enjoyment of the griefing.

Part of the definition of griefing is that the griefer enjoys causing other players pain and disrupting their game. One resident posted on the SL blog, “Griefers, for the most part, have no other agenda other than the thrill of sneaking one past and causing a big noise. Until a spokesperson comes forward with a manifesto, we can safely assume that this is the work of the “Jackass” generation, out to disrupt things to show that they can“ (Scarborough). Usually to have fun, griefers go after individuals, rather than the owners and administrators of the virtual world and so fit into Suler’s second type of griefing. These griefers enjoy seeing others get angry and frustrated. As one griefer said:

Understanding the griefer mindset begins with this: We don’t take the game seriously at all. It continues with this: It’s fun because you react. Lastly: We do it because we’re jerks and like to laugh at you. I am the fly that kamikazes into your soup. I am the reason you can’t have nice things … . If I make you cry, you’ve made my day. (Drake)

They have fun by making the other players mad. “Causing grief is the name of his game. His objective is simple: Make life hell for anyone unlucky enough to be playing with him. He’s a griefer. A griefer is a player bent on purposely frustrating others during a multiplayer game” (G4). “I’m a griefer. It’s what I do,” the griefer says. “And, man, people get so pissed off. It’s great” (G4).

Taking Action against Griefers

Understanding griefing from the griefer point of view leads us to examine the actions of those being griefed. Suler suggests several pairs of opposing actions that can be taken against griefers, based on his experience in an early social environment called Palace. Many of the steps still being used fit into these types. He first describes preventative versus remedial action. Preventative steps include design features to minimise griefing. The Second Life interface includes the ability to build 3D models and to create software; it also includes a menu for land owners to block those features at will, a design feature that helps prevent much griefing. Remedial actions are those taken by the administrators to deal with the effects of griefing; Linden Lab administrators can shut down whole islands to keep griefer activities from spreading to nearby islands.

The second pair is interpersonal versus technical; interpersonal steps involve talking to the griefers to get them to stop ruining the game for others, while technical steps prevent griefers from re-entering the world. The elven community in Second Life strongly supports interpersonal steps; they have a category of members in their community known as guardians who receive special training in how to talk to people bent on destroying the peacefulness of the community or disturbing an event. The creators of Camp Darfur on Better World island also created a force of supporters to fend off griefer attacks after the island was destroyed twice in a week in 2006 (Kenzo). Linden Lab also makes use of technical methods; they cancel accounts so known griefers can not reenter. There were even reports that they had created a prison island where griefers whose antics were not bad enough to be totally banned would be sent via a one-way teleporter (Walsh, “Hidden Virtual World Prison”). Some users of Second Life favour technical steps; they believe that new users should be held a fixed amount of time on the Orientation island which would stop banned users from coming back into the world immediately.

The third is to create tools for average users or super users (administrators); both involve software features, some of which are available to all users to help them make the game good for them while others are available only to people with administrator privileges. Average users who own land have a variety of tools available to limit griefing behaviour on their own property. In Second Life, the land owner is often blamed because he or she did not use the tools provided to landowners by Linden Lab; they can ban individual users, remove users from the land, mute their conversation, return items left on the property, and prevent people from building or running scripts. As one landowner said, “With the newbies coming in there, I’ve seen their properties just littered with crap because they don’t know protective measures you need to take as far as understanding land control and access rights” (qtd. in Girard). Super users, those who work for Linden Lab, can remove a player from the game for a various lengths of time based on their behaviour patterns.

Responses to griefers can also be examined as either individual or joint actions. Individual actions include those that land owners can take against individual griefers. Individual users, regardless of account type, can file abuse reports against other individuals; Linden Lab investigates these reports and takes appropriate action. Quick and consistent reporting of all griefing, no matter how small, is advocated by most game companies and user groups as fairly successful. Strangely, some types of joint actions have been not so successful. Landowners have tried to form the Second Life Anti-Griefing Guild, but it folded because of lack of involvement. Groups providing security services have formed; many event organisers use this kind of service. (Hoffman). More successful efforts have included the creation of software, such as, Karma, and TrustNet that read lists of banned users into the banned list on all participating property.

A last category of actions to be taken against griefers, and a category used by most residents of virtual worlds, is to leave them alone—to ignore them, to tolerate their actions. The thinking is that, as with many bullies in real life, griefers want attention; when deprived of that, they will move on to find other amusements. Yelling and screaming at griefers just reinforces their bad behaviour. Users simply teleport to other locations or log off. They warn others of the griefing behaviour using the various in-world communication tools so they too can stay away from the griefers.

Most of the actions described above are not useful against griefers for whom a bad reputation is part of their credibility in the griefer community. The users of Second Life who staged the Gray Goo denial of service attack in October, 2005 fit into that category. They did nothing to hide the fact that they wanted to cause massive trouble; they named the self-replicating object that they created Grief Spawn and discussed ways to bring down the world on griefer forums (Wallace)


The most effective griefing usually involves an individual or small group who are only looking to have fun at someone else’s expense. It’s a small goal, and as long as there are any other users, it is easy to obtain the desired effect. In fact, as word spreads of the griefing and users feel compelled to change their behaviour to stave off future griefer attacks, the griefers have fun and achieve their goal. The key point here is that everyone has the same goal – have fun. Unfortunately, for one group – the griefers – achieving their goal precludes other users from reaching theirs.

Political griefers are less successful in achieving their goals. Political creative play as griefing, like other kinds of griefing, is not particularly effective, which is another aspect of griefing as error. Other players react with frustration and violence to the actions of griefers such as deLappe and Velvet-Strike. If griefing activity makes people upset, they are less open to considering the political or economic motives of the griefers. Some complaints are relatively mild; “I’m all for creative protest and what not, but this is stupid. It’s not meaningful art or speaking out or anything of the type, its just annoying people who are never going to change their minds about how awesome they think war is” (Borkingchikapa). Others are more negative: “Somebody really needs to go find where that asshole lives and beat the shit out of him. Yeah, it’s a free country and he can legally pull this crap, but that same freedom extends to some patriot kicking the living shit out of him” (Reynolds). In this type of griefing no one’s goals for using the game are satisfied. The regular users can not have fun, but neither do they seem to be open to or accepting of the political griefer’s message.

This pattern of success and failure may explain why there are so many examples of griefing to disrupt rather then the politically motivated kind. It may also suggest why efforts to curb griefing have been so ineffective in the past. Griefers who seek to disrupt for fun would see it as a personal triumph if others organised against them. Even if they found themselves banned from one area, they could quickly move somewhere else to have their fun since whom or where they harass does not really matter. Perhaps not all griefing is in error, rather, only those griefing activities motivated by any other goal than have fun.

People invest their time and energy in creating their characters and developing skills. The behaviour of people in these virtual environments has a definite bearing on the real world. And perhaps that explains why people in these virtual worlds react so strongly to the behaviour. So, remember, stay off the beach until they catch the griefers, and if you want to make up the game as you go along, be ready for the other players to point at you and say “Bad, Bad Avatar.”

Author Biography

Kimberly Gregson