Griefer Nation

Griefer Nation
The Day the Grid Disappeared

Mark Wallace | 15 Nov 2005 07:01
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This was virtual homeland security at its finest. One resident had crashed the Grid; all 70,000 of them now had their hands tied. Many of the most robust builds (SL slang for artifacts created by residents) and business applications in Second Life had relied on the transfer ability to work anywhere in the virtual world. Now you could play around with such functions in your backyard, but that was about it. To protect against future attacks, the new release actually rolled back functionality. And not just any functionality, but one of the key features that had allowed Second Life to become, for a great many people, the only virtual world that matters.

The perpetrator was punished too, of course, reportedly given a permanent ban by Linden Lab. But there's almost no doubt he or she will be back. A borrowed credit card and a new IP address is all it would take. Perhaps they've learned their lesson, perhaps not. But the gods had spoken, the new laws had been passed down.

Fortunately, those laws were reversed soon after they were put into place. In this case, popular outcry had its effect. But if they'd stayed on the books much longer, the world of Second Life might have been in for far greater losses than any caused by the occasional griefer's global attack.

Second Life stands or falls on what it's possible to create there. The Grid contains almost no content created by the company that runs it. Linden Lab provides only a landscape (and sometimes not even that); the residents effectively constitute the largest content-creation team in existence, and one that pays for the privilege. In return they garner fun, fame and, in not a few cases, fortune.

But to make such a place truly fascinating and vibrant, much more must be possible there than simply the creation of shiny dream palaces. In fact, more must be possible than the creation of only the fine, attractive or even tediously dull things that many residents add to the Grid. Real life works the same way, after all. It may be possible to build a briefcase bomb, but that doesn't mean it enriches society.

What's different about cyberspace is that the men and women behind the code control the physics of their worlds. The avatars of Second Life are free to fly around at will. But a few keystrokes on the part of the coders would change that. Until late October, the physics of Second Life allowed object-to-object transfers. Because of a crime, those physics were briefly changed.

And that's where things get tricky. Real-world crimes, of course, don't lead to changes in the physical laws of the world in which we live. They lead to changes in the civil and criminal laws. That's why we have such laws, because "bad" things are possible. Criminalizing murder doesn't eliminate the threat, it simply raises the risks associated with committing murder.

Murder, of course, is something most people would agree should be eliminated from the world, if only it were possible. But incarceration is also possible under the physics of our world. Most people wouldn't want to change this, as it's one of the threats we use to convince people not to do things like commit murder. It's a tool of social engineering that makes our society a comfortable place to live. But if Joe Psychopath next door were to lock away your attractive neighbor down the street, it wouldn't be called incarceration, it would be called kidnapping. If you could change the physics of our world, would you want to get rid of jails just so you could get rid of kidnappers?

Because in a sense, that's how Linden Lab chose to deal with the GriefSpawn. The criminal laws of Second Life haven't changed; global attacks were strictly a no-no before October 23 and they remain against the "rules" today. But rather than put more cops on the street or find a better way to register and ban individual users, the company chose to eliminate a good in order to eliminate an evil.

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