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…)
Advanced Griefing in the Material World
This happened a couple of years ago, but I was just reminded of it again recently (and it didn’t receive the attention it deserves).
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’.”
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?????
THEY BRAGGED ABOUT IT…...
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.