Consider the case of the Avatar class Titan, flown by the Band of Brothers Guild in the massively multiplayer deep-space EVE Online. The vessel was far bigger and far deadlier than any other in the game. Kilometers in length and well over a million metric tons unloaded, it had never once been destroyed in combat. Only a handful of player alliances had ever acquired a Titan, and this one, in particular, had cost the players who bankrolled it in-game resources worth more than $10,000.
So, naturally, Commander Sesfan Qu'lah, chief executive of the GoonFleet Corporation and leader of the greater GoonSwarm Alliance — better known outside EVE as Isaiah Houston, senior and medieval-history major at Penn State University — led a Something Awful invasion force to attack and destroy it.
"The ability to inflict that huge amount of actual, real-life damage on someone is amazingly satisfying" says Houston. "The way that you win in EVE is you basically make life so miserable for someone else that they actually quit the game and don't come back."
To see the philosophy in action, skim the pages of Something Awful or Encyclopedia Dramatica, where it seems every pocket of the Web harbors objects of ridicule. Vampire goths with MySpace pages, white supremacist bloggers, self-diagnosed Asperger's sufferers coming out to share their struggles with the online world — all these and many others have been found guilty of taking themselves seriously and condemned to crude but hilarious derision.Griefers defend their behaviour by claiming that they're merely giving those who take the internet far too seriously a reality check. The implied subtext is that anything that happens online is just a game and doesn't count. Though, given how the internet has become a mainstream part of many people's lives (witness, for example, the rise in social networking websites), this assertion makes about as much sense as Tom Hodgkinson's call to kill your Facebook account, throw away your email address and instead socialise in the pub with people near you. There's not a great leap from asserting that anything that happens online doesn't really count and absurdly ludditic claims like "if you don't know what someone smells like, they're a stranger".
On the other hand, there is no such thing as the right to be respected, or even to not be ridiculed. If one posts a web page detailing one's peculiar political views, conspiracy theories and/or sexual fetishes online, one can expect to be laughed at and even snidely remarked about. Though there is a distinction between demolishing someone's homepage in a blog or discussion forum and actively gathering a posse and going out to hound them off the net.
Griefing happens in the real world, though it's usually called other things, such as bullying. The difference is that the internet has democratised bullying. In the real world, in more conformistic societies, bullies can typically only be those either of or contending for alpha social status, enforcing an exaggerated version of majority values by picking on those perceived to not conform to them (witness the use of the word "gay", sometimes semi-euphemised as "ghey", as a general-purpose term of derision), and in more liberal or pluralistic environments, even that is frowned upon. Online, anyone can find a group of like-minded misfits, make up a cool-sounding name, set up a virtual clubhouse and start picking on mutually agreed targets, with little fear of social consequences.
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