Griefer Madness: Terrorizing Virtual Worlds

When entrepreneur and Second Life real estate mogul Ailin Graef sat down to an interview with Cnet reporter Daniel Terdiman in December, she, no doubt, did not expect to be caught in a downpour of digital phallic symbols.

Yet, considering the interview took place in the virtual world Second Life, perhaps she should have.

It’s a Miserable Second Life

Since its public launch in 2003, the massively virtual reality world has evolved to include a mix of entrepreneurs and troublemakers, or “griefers,” said Steven Davis, CEO of IT Global Services.

A griefer is a person who likes to cause problems for the sake of causing them. As the criminals of the virtual world, their goal is to make virtual life miserable for the other player. Depending on the environment, the mischief can come in the form of player killing, vandalism, player trapping or taunting.

Davis, who authors gaming blog, said that over time, the Second Life environment has become divided into two teams: those who build things and those who like to tear them down. The unstructured environment makes it vulnerable to the pranks of idle avatars, he noted.

“I think the thing with Second Life is it’s so totally open, you can do anything you like,” Davis said. “It’s got the chaos of people doing anything you can imagine. You think, ‘well, what am I going to do?’ And you get lost and you wander around a bit and some people invest in property and build things and some people end up griefing.”

Second Life is a virtual reality world created by Linden Lab in which digital characters called avatars purchase “islands” for real-life purposes, such as sell products, do research and hold conferences and classes.

There are currently about 9 million avatars on this digital landscape.

Virtual Targets

Graef, better known by her avatar’s name, Anshe Chung, became the first online personality to achieve a net worth of more than US$1 million from profits earned strictly within the virtual realm.

As a resident in Second Life, Chung buys and develops virtual real estate in the official currency of Linden Dollars, which is convertible to U.S. dollars. Chung owns several virtual store chains and shopping malls, and she has established several virtual brands, all within Second Life.

Her interview with Terdiman, which was being held in the Cnet Theater, had only been underway for a short while when they were attacked by a griefer.

Terdiman — who goes by his avatar name Greeterdan Goodell in Second Life — said its Chung’s public persona that makes her more susceptible to virtual attacks.

The attacks usually happen to high-profile people, politicians and the like, Terdiman said, so the incidences naturally get more attention than if they were to happen to everyday people.

“You might assume its happening all the time,” he said. “But it’s really not that frequent.”

Giving Grief

Although the accounts of griefing are still in the anecdotal phase, with no statistical information to refer to, there’s no question that this activity continues to garner attention.

Geographically, Second Life is comparable to Tokyo, he said. “With a city of this size, you’re going to have all kinds of problems.”

Terdiman — whose new book The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second Life, will be available in stores Nov. 5 — said he was just walking around Second Life one day when the whole sky filled up with flying Mario icons from the 80’s era Nintendo Super Mario Bros. game.

“But that was just funny,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Some griefers operate in groups, moving from one virtual world to another, causing discomfort and annoyance on large scales and then moving on. Some are loners, bent solely on their own enjoyment at the expense of others.

The problem is griefers are difficult to stop because they can initiate a new account on these worlds just as quickly as their old ones are deleted. One griefer, who is a member of notorious griefing gang the Patriotic Nigras said he and his cohorts have had as many as hundreds if not thousands of accounts.

“The Internet is anonymous in a lot of ways, for good business reasons people sometimes want to encourage anonymity,” Davis said. “But the price of that is you get the electronic equivalent of people shouting fire in a crowded theater. People are more likely to grief because they are anonymous.”

Harmless and Serious Attacks

You don’t have to have ever set one digital foot in a virtual world to have experienced griefing, according to Davis.

“Anytime people get together, there is going to be someone who abuses the environment,” he said. “There’s always the annoying guy at the party who saddles up to all the women, when you sit down to play a game of cards and someone cheats, its people playing political games in the office. That’s all griefing. It’s the dark side of human interaction. It just becomes newsworthy in these cases because these online environments are still a novelty.”

For the most part, the attacks can be as harmless and just require that the victim log off for a while. However, some cases can be more serious than that, especially for school administrators.

Last May, in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, a visiting avatar entered the university’s Second Life campus and fired at other avatars.

Currently, in Second Life, there are few, if any, processes in place to resolve legal or ethical complaints.

“The biggest problem with griefing is, in most virtual environments, it’s not against the rules,” Davis noted. “It’s playing the game legally with malicious intent. Griefers are not cheating the game, they’re not hacking the game, they’re just playing in a hateful way.”

Damage Control

The majority of the attacks take place on the main land or continent and not on the individual islands; unlike in the real world, the damage is not lasting.

“Its easy to recover from these things,” said Paul Skiera, director of technology-based learning and research at Arizona State University.

Every “island” has a server, Skiera added. Every 65 kilometers of virtual land is a different server, so recovering from an attack is often just a matter of rebooting the server, cleaning it up and taking it back to where it was before the attack occurred.

Skiera facilitates a university property called “Skysong,” as well as his own personal property. Skiera, who has been caged by griefers in the past, said it’s largely a matter of knowing what you are doing.

“You need to be careful,” he 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.”

He also said there is a huge difference between being on the Second Life main continent and the individually owned islands. The mainland is owned by Linden Labs, who refrain from exerting any control over the goings on at Second Life.

“There is a courtesy norm in any society and you are going to have people that violate that. It’s very hard to curb that,” he said. “It’s the Wild West out there.”

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