Griefing has become a phenomenon and you need look no further than YouTube to find out why. Hundreds of videos are dedicated to this digital art of torment, with the celebrities of this fad attracting millions of viewers to their videos as they ritually humiliate and antagonise victims online. And it all starts with one person. Willfully sabotaging play to incense teammates and determine it impossible to secure a victory. It doesn’t sound much like fun and – judging by the vitriol spouted by the enraged players in any of the said videos – the sport isn’t looked on too kindly by all, but this juvenile tomfoolery has amassed a following, one that is increasingly extending beyond just a spectator sport.
“If you’d asked me before I’d started what I think the figure might be, I thought it would have been significantly lower,” says Professor Mark Griffiths, the director of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, who has spearheaded a recent study into online videogame trolling. His research details that 59.5 per cent of gamers have intentionally trolled and almost half of participants had witnessed trolling in the last year, and those that actively antagonised players tended to be young males who play for extended periods of time. “What was quite clear in our study was the main reason that players had trolled was they were saying they did it for amusement. The phrase they kept using was they were ‘doing it for the lulz’. In fact, that was the initial title of the paper, Doing It For The Lulz. This kind of laugh-out-loud amusement factor.”
YouTube griefer GeneralMinus (real name withheld to protect his identity) is all too familiar with the lulz. His YouTube videos boast a staggering 70,000 subscribers and over 13.5 million combined views across nearly three hundred videos, and yet the exaggerated reactions of his prey continues to provide endless entertainment. “I personally enjoy trolling other players because of the way something so little can lead into such an over-the-top angry response,” he tells games™. “I’ve received threats of violence, people who claim they’ll hack my Xbox account, mum jokes… I find it funny! It never gets old to me.”
There’s little doubt that pranksters such as GeneralMinus speak to their audience, in much the same way as infamous icons of anarchy Johnny Knoxville and Dom Joly have done to previous generations. But there’s the question as to whether their approach promotes an irresponsible behaviour online. “I know for a fact that my children have been told how they should or shouldn’t behave in online environments,” Professor Griffiths states. “Obviously, there was a small number of people who do it for revenge and because they’re bored. But I think this idea that people do it because they found it personally amusing – I don’t think people really understand until it’s happened to them what the effect on the other person might be. So yeah, there’s an onus on the players themselves to think about how they might feel if they were the recipients of this experience.”
But given the environment that trolling takes place in, and features that enable players to easily disregard such anarchic behaviour, GeneralMinus dismisses accusations of bullying and offensiveness. “There’s a difference between what I do and, for example, someone who is being cruel or perhaps malicious to someone else online,” he says. “I feel we need to draw a distinction between the two. It may not seem responsible to team-kill other players in a game or generally annoy players, but it is just a game at the end the day and I feel some people need to lighten up.”
However, interrupting someone’s gaming experience is not a matter that Professor Griffiths believes should be taken unconscientiously. His hopes for the study is that it will educate, raise awareness and encourage publishers to implement measures to curb the behaviour.
“People who operate the games should have a responsibility to have a zero tolerance policy on people who troll,” Griffith states. “Now there may be some people who are just ignorant and don’t know that they’re doing it – maybe they should get warnings before being taken out of those gaming environments. But certainly moderators and people who run the games should take trolling seriously, because the psychological effects on those people that experience it can be devastating in a small number of circumstances.”
However, GeneralMinus is already aware of anti-trolling measures that have put in place in recent years that have yet to deter his anti-social online activity. “Publishers have already started clamping down on griefing,” he explains. “For example, most games now punish team killers, usually by kicking them out of the game. They’ll continue to introduce new measures to help limit girefing abilities, but there will always be ways for griefers to annoy others in games.”
GeneralMinus’s final point is one that Professor Griffith agrees on, doubting that trolls and griefers will be eradicated in the near future, if at all. “Some people who experience trolling may not have any effects whatsoever, but there are always going to be people out there who feel psychologically violated by what somebody says, and in terms of how that makes them feel that can be devastating to those individuals,” says Griffith. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop it. We’ll never stop people flaming on email, or people being cyber-harassed or cyberstalked or trolled. But I think the more people are educated about it… the general prevalence level will come down the more people know about it.”