Griefers survive through protective anonymity. Griefers in massively multiplayer online games can indulge their sociopathy because victims can't identify them or impose punishment. So long as they remain anonymous, griefers can keep griefing. They take ever greater glee in making other players miserable.
Furthermore, game operators' current best practices actually empower griefers. Today, every operator who spots a griefer brings down the banhammer, blocking the user's account and IP address. Banning, though, is just a stopgap that provokes the griefer to create a new account, route through a proxy and start again. Such stalling is unproductive. A better strategy, such as the prison system originally proposed (but never implemented) for Age of Conan, diverts and preoccupies griefers, distracting them from harassing innocent bystanders.
This approach won't sit well with the many who have suffered from griefing. Victims don't want to hear "diversion" and "preoccupation"; they'd prefer "waterboarding" or perhaps, in extreme cases, "impalement."
Then there's the World of Warcraft approach: Force-feed content to your players so diligently, so irresistibly, in such a constricted design, that they never find time or temptation to grief others. Then all you need are Blizzard-scale resources and the best design minds in the industry. Wow, it's just that easy!
Yet the motive to block and frustrate griefers masks what might be a great opportunity. Can we distract would-be griefers? Can we make the game so unpleasant for them they leave voluntarily? Sure. But go further: Could we turn griefers, despite themselves, to productive ends?
It isn't completely silly. Think of Curtis Sliwa's Guardian Angels, a volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrols; the original patrollers were at-risk youth and former members of New York City gangs. But this comparison is faulty in that the Guardian Angels were reformed thugs, whereas it's silly to expect griefers to reform.
A better analogy? Spammers. Though spam is an online pestilence, some computer scientists are trying to harness spammers to solve complex CAPTCHAs that embody A.I. problems like image and speech recognition. Spammers have strong commercial incentives to defeat these obstacles. By doing so, they unwittingly further A.I. research.
Like spammers, griefers can be exploited because of their strong motivations. Griefers obey psychological compulsions to push boundaries, demonstrate superiority and punish perceived arrogance and naiveté. Some griefers rationalize their pathological actions as "teaching a lesson" to their victims. These compulsions make the griefer vulnerable to shrewd manipulation or punishment.
Can such manipulation serve a constructive purpose? Here are some approaches worth trying. (Note: These techniques assume the MMOG operator has first identified and "flagged" the griefing player's account.)
Rather than simply banning flagged griefers, offer bounties on them. Age of Conan proposed bounty hunter NPCs that would hound griefers relentlessly; why not crowdsource that function to players? Make the flagged characters continuously vulnerable to player-versus-player combat, and give attackers the advantage. The griefer will continue to fight to demonstrate superiority. Ideally this distracts him from griefing. With the right incentives, griefers could regard each other as ideal prey.