The griefer is a player of malign intentions. They will hurt, humiliate and dishevel the average gamer through bending and breaking the rules of online games. But their activities are hardly extraordinary. Indeed, they only exist at all because of normal, human urges, albeit the ugly and reprehensible ones. They want glory, gain or just to partake in a malignant joy at the misfortune of others. But does griefing always mean overcoming the rules of a game? Can the intentions of the griefer be satisfied by something totally within the bounds of a game?
One game in which players are particularly cruel to each other is EVE Online. While naturally player vs. player (PvP) focused, its intricate economics emphasize the way in which malignant human impulses can find their way into a game-world. People will do anything for money, even virtual money, especially when it involves the challenge of emptying the wallets of unwitting players. Usually the gaming griefer is a lone chump, but in EVE the troublemakers might well be a group of intelligent, patient folk, as my later examples will illustrate.
Of course, online gaming has long brought out a tribal instinct in players; they band together looking for friends or fights, or even looking to pick on the vulnerable.
Many players will go out of their way to avoid what Ultima's Richard Garriott calls "non-consensual conflict"; while for others the whole point of online gaming is to test their mettle - and that of their allies - against human opponents. Games like Second Life, in which almost all activities are non-adversarial, work hard to discourage conflict on all levels. For those players who want to play with people, but have no interest in playing against people, the idea of personal conflict is troubling.
Most gamers have been disposed to this pacifist attitude at one time or another, and who can blame us? I, for example, found being slaughtered by a higher-level enemy in World of Warcraft's PvP needlessly unpleasant. It left no room for retribution, and hammering a junior gnome just to expunge some frustration was more grief than my conscience could handle. So I moved to a non-PvP server, where my adventurous dwarf has been happily unmolested by matters of guilt or bullying ever since.
But there's always the other possibility: We look for trouble. This is where my EVE-playing personality appears. I want battles, double-edged conflict.
This attitude is perhaps more common to gamers, who want to play to win against other human beings, be it in Warcraft, Battlefield or a game of internet mah-jong. It's easy to find this kind of conflict online. Most games are built around ideals of direct competition: rankings, hi-score tables, winners and losers. We've all been there, and liked it or not.
But then there is another kind conflict, subtler than that of the battlehammer or the bazooka. It's something that can hit people harder than any deathmatch loss. It's more sophisticated and more satisfying than the most elegant Counter-Strike maneuver. It's malicious, but lacks the base stupidity of team killers or campers. It's the smartest kind of player griefing currently imaginable. It's the scam.
Most games aren't quite complex or realistic enough to allow scams to take place, but EVE Online's multifarious galaxy, which hosts player-run corporations and a sophisticated market-driven economy (with all the functions and utilities that such operations entail) regularly suffers the machinations of the scheming ne'er-do-wells.
Many gamers have now heard of "The Great Scam," which was one of the earliest examples of how EVE Online's game mechanics gave way to a massive rip off. The infamous 15,000 word article documented how two players were able to accumulate both the trust and the cash of a lot of other, more gullible players, simply by playing the kind of confidence tricks that investors rely upon in the real world market.