You Guys Suck! Social, Ludic and Spectacle Griefing in Online Worlds

Esther MacCallum-Stewart

What is griefing?

Griefing has been looked at in some detail in the past, but often along very specific lines:

  • three types: griefing, cheating, and social griefing (my term)
  • the three are usually conflated, and this means the nuances of social griefing are obscured.

I believe that by separating out social griefing it can be given more perspective.

Cheating is specifically defined in EULA and TOS agreements in which their terms are broken for ludic gain eg. gold farming, using cheat programs.

Griefing is harassing or causing another player harm, again through a ludic action eg. ganking, corpse camping. This distinction is usually made but then not really applied so specifically. Very often articles describing this act will go on to talk about power gamers or gamers playing for commercial gain (Consalvo, Taylor, Castronova). Whilst goldfarmers are breaking EULA agreements, power gamers are not. It could be suggested that because so many games scholars analyse this condition narratologically and socially, that they are a bit floored by the ‘difference’ of this last group.

Problem – there are types of acts that if these were ‘old’ style games (non digital), would be classified as cheating. However they are acts that pretty much everyone does. Many people participate in, for example looking up quests and walkthroughs, sending their characters money from other avatars, being boosted by more powerful players and asking for help with solving difficult puzzles. However the conception of cheating within digital games is different, and as Consalvo argues, these definitions have also been constructed differently (especially as things like walkthroughs are supported by an industry – magazines, websites etc). The social implications of these actions are also a factor (it’s fun to hang out with friends and be boosted, for eg.:

  • we play games in a spirit of experimentation
  • we don’t want to do everything the hard way all the time – this isn’t real life, we aren’t ‘at work’ – it shouldn’t therefore all be as boring!
  • Many players see challenging the restrictions of the game as part of ‘play’

There is crossover therefore, between cheating and play.

Mia Consalvo discusses how when she asked players if they cheated, she was treated with hostility – as if she had asked if they were partaking in criminal activity. This suggests rather that cheating is in fact regarded more on a moral scale – the two concepts (cheating and immorality in games) becoming confused. Quite simply, digital game cheating is altogether more complex than it is in real world games.

Griefing vs Social Griefing

Let’s assume that griefing is simply making people’s lives a misery by continually killing them every time they resurrect. But what about all the social nuances that are elided by that assumption? Players can cause all sorts of disruption in online worlds in a social context, because these games are intensely social, and because the games lend themselves much more to social, narratological and ludic readings than simply classifying grief as killing someone a lot in the same place. Therefore this type of grief which is intrinsicly linked to defined actions, I hereby rename as Ludic Grief. Ludic griefing only seems to cover ganking etc – we even use game terms to define this which don’t allow the more subtle meaning of ‘grief’ (feeling greatly upset emotionally), than perhaps the feelings of frustration and anger we would get from being ganked.

Social griefing can include actions – issues – such as bullying, harassment and stalking. These have ludic griefing rolled into them (I can stalk someone and gank them), but they are also more subtle forms of grief, using more complex means within the game. There are also degrees of this. These are created through the the complex social engagements in online worlds. Most notably, the lack of social cues and the tendency of players to form tribal units interferes with play and causes social disharmony. Secondly, the relative invisibility of communication is an easy way to compound this quickly and effectively.

How do we know what is morally right in an online world?

Clearly, this question should underpin our understandings of what is or isn’t griefing. But it’s more complex than that…

TOS and EULA (Terms of Service and End User License Agreements, which the player must sign before they enter a world) specifically remain vague about these actions, and they don’t define what correct behaviours are or should be within their spaces. Instead the narrative of the game usually suggests a nebulous heroic structure in which people are meant to read appropriate codes of conduct on a broad scale. EULA policies about griefing are specifically reactive, not proactive. There is therefore a clear clash between ludic, semi ‘legal’ rules, and narratological, ‘suggestive’ rules within the game

Social psychology argues that groups take their cues from each other, but online worlds are places where people are not in physical contact (both literally and virtually – online worlds are huge). Even in guilds they are often far ‘apart’ from each other and linked only by a few chat channels. Occasionally they meet and perform group activities, but in the main, even in high end raiding guilds, players spend most of their time alone, interacting through chat channels. This means it’s very difficult for players to determine norms, because even when they do, how are they enforced…?

Players split into small groups (guilds, factions etc) which are self governing. Guilds promote small group unity (tribalism), but this same tribalism means that they can come into conflict with other tribes. One guilds’ meat may be another’s poison….

So we have four specific problems,

Game designers would rather not define social griefing, and they would rather not define codes of behaviour in an online world, because that would disenfranchise the multiplicity of players in any one world. Therefore, there is no in-game law other than what the players try to enforce… and they are not the law makers…

Players in any one world come from all over the place, with different social, cultural, political, religious, gender orientated, sexually orientated, abled etc. beliefs. There is no consensus to behaviour, and they can’t see each other to create these.

Players are encouraged to form small groups which become very tribal in nature. And they can’t hear each other.

The final problem is a generic one. Some players do not intend to grief individual players; often they are making a point (protest, kill all bad guys, political argument, argument against game dynamic), or they have unintentionally offended someone, or they simply have poor social skills and make a mistake. All of these factors are compounded by the three aspects above. Accidental mistakes can be constructed by the beholder as much as deliberate ones. The classic example of this is the guild member too young to know why the word ‘Hitler’ was offensive.

Griefing within tribes.

Players form small tribal units and are encouraged to do so by game functions such as guilding. They often set down their own rules, but one of these rules highlights how they often confuse codes of conduct with laws. This is the ‘be excellent’ rule which basically states that players in a guild should be nice to each other, and behave in the manner they see fitting (some examples here).

  • it’s very difficult to enforce as it’s a social criteria, not a law and is also entirely context specific
  • it can’t work because it is totally arbitrary, and not providing pointers that define ‘being nice’ makes the rule a nebulous one.
  • people can’t see each other to follow basic patterns
  • with the best will in the world, it isn’t a law set by any sort of authority other than the guild
  • cultural standards intervene
  • situations in the game are totally different (and people take their social cues from their circumstances, when they can). It’s fine, for example, to shout, scream and abuse people in pvp – it’s not fine to do this in a party – in some raids, this is pretty much all the raid leader does. Like a real world, there are different ‘spaces’ within online games, and different criteria for each which over-ride the guild basic rules.

Tribes are however, intensely loyal to each other (this is encouraged by the heroic game narrative which enforces simple roles). This means that they justify their own actions at the expense of others, but that they often have a great deal of tolerance for aberrant behaviour inside the tribe, seeking to mediate it when they can. In short, guilds put up with a lot of shit before they finally get rid of someone/act to curb deviant activity. This can have a ripple effect, sending out the wrong signals.


Group psychology argues that deviant players inside tribes will eventually be more disliked than those outside, because they are perceived as disrupting the harmony of the group, and because they are more identifiable as disruptive agents (Hogg and Tindale). Deviant play within a guild can be defined just as it is by group psychology elsewhere – it is an action which disrupts, challenges or conflicts with the groups’ idea of collective self. Again this isn’t actually necessarily deviant play – it is merely perceived as such because it contravenes group norms. A player with poor social skills, who is argumentative and challenging, or who is depressed and becomes an emotional burden on others could be seen as a social griefer within this context. They are not really doing anything ‘wrong’, but they are contravening social standards and often cause huge disruption. In a small tribal group, if one person starts to become disruptive, this can have a huge effect.

Social expulsion is very easy – you can wipe someone off the slate by using ignore functions (you can completely block their incoming conversation so quite literally, need never speak to someone again). This can be a Sword of Damocles because it is so final, but it also holds people from the brink for longer.

Reputation is very important – interestingly, a player who is ostracised for behaviour also comes to be seen as a bad ludic player. This is only partly because online gaming relies so much on teamwork. Again social psychology suggests that people believe that there is something ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ with deviants – this is an obvious way to contextualise it.

Social griefing might seem to be trivialising the real effects caused by disruptive actions by suggesting it can be all in the eye of the beholder.

Well yes it does, and that’s because for some people, griefing is just that – their perception of ‘wrongness’ in a culture where defining ‘rightness’ is virtually impossible. It’s actually a mistake to underestimate this, because it allows the real griefers to slip under the radar and cause real harm. There are very serious aspects of social griefing. Unfortunately, the ideas already laid down mean they are very hard to ‘really’ punish in any effective way, and they can cause real harm as a result.

Like what?

Firstly, communication happens across multiple channels simultaneously, because of the way chat channels are provided. Not everyone can see everything all the time, but there are shared and dedicated channels where they can. Players can also create their own, for example by whispering a player or forming a party or raid group. Rather than gossip trickling down, it can go on at the same time (rather than waiting), undermining and disenfranchising group members on the spot. It is for example, possible to immediately disparage something someone has said in another channel that several people can see. Similarly, the power of the long silence, of modifying your speech in an obvious way to other members, is also possible. Players can extend this by, for example, badmouthing players when they are offline, or for example performing deliberately destructive activities such as organising events or groups over the other persons, spreading misinformation, acting up in a group they have organised in such a way to make the griefed player look bad, or simply not turning up to things that they have done. No player likes to be kept waiting, and so manipulating time and organisational tactics such as this can not only be disruptive, but it can also be inferred that it is the griefed player’s fault (poor organisation, inference that they aren’t doing what they planned etc etc). Sometimes this sort of manoeuvring is very difficult to spot in a group of people who may not all be ‘listening’ at the same time, or who may not know either player particularly well. In the absence of physical social cues this can be taken to extremes.

Using communication channels to shun, deride, ignore or minoritise players is griefing. In a small community like a tribe this can go on for a long time, and it can have a real effect.

A second way is through disagreement or persistent challenging of authority. Guild leaders have a difficult job (see Nick Yee’s work on this), particularly as they have to be skilled interpersonal managers as well as practical ones who further the group’s ends. Often (as in successful businesses), these roles are fragmented into two or three people with duties – for example someone who works almost as a pa, doing functional work, sorting out new members, tending the bank etc, an interpersonal manager who looks after the guilds’ social needs and keeps order, and an events manager who takes care of organisational policy. Further leaders such as those who are good a running groups (or raids) often evolve. However, since usually people have not been trained to do this (or if they have, it is part of their work and thus causes dissonance when applied socially to their friends), all of these roles need in some part to be supported by the affirmation of the group. Usually, group psychology suggests that most people recognise that this is a practical way to survive as a unit. In a game however, people might see it as playful to disrupt this. There are also less cues to recognise good leadership; so it can seem very arbitrary and thus can go horribly wrong when things start to collapse (there are no structures to prevent this disintergration).

However, some people just cause problems – as in real life these are often people with poor social skills, who like argument and upsetting people, who are vindictive, who want to be the centre of attention and will grandstand in order to get it or more extreme, have personality disorders. The likelihood of encountering them is actually quite high (just like in real life). These people are naturally at odds with the community to some extent and thus there is always a certain amount of disagreement in the group. It is the ways these are expressed that causes problems (since debate and discussion is welcomed by most groups as healthy, but is problematic when it becomes extreme). In a world of play, it must also be remembered that people enter the world in more of a spirit of experimentation and often either feel ‘safe’ behind their ‘invisible’ online identities, or are more willing to behave in more extreme ways within a ludic context. This final aspect also means that when things go wrong, they can be very spectacular; guilds splitting and absconding with all the money, people who spend years holding grudges, attacks on other people’s avatars – often performed through acts that would be illegal and morally reprehensible in the real world – theft, murder, fraud etc…

A final type of griefer is the spectacle griefer, who does things for attention. Usually a non-specific group is targeted (ie. it is often an attack targeted at ‘them’ rather than a named entity). Players who joined the evil faction on Everquest’s ‘no holds barred Sullon Zek’ realm were the target of Fansy the bard, who used exploits to kill a vast amount of them whilst shouting ‘Go go good team!’. The gnome teaparty and warrior protest in WoW were both initiated by groups of players who wanted to protest against imbalances in the game. In Second Life, griefing is almost entirely defined by this sort of social and political protest – attacking property developer Anshe Chung with giant flying penises or swamping bureaus of fascist political parties installed in the game. Perhaps the most famous poor taste griefing was the ‘bombing’ of Serenity Now in WoW; where one guild attacked another whilst they were holding a funeral for a player who had died of a stroke in real life. All of these attacks were against perceived iniquities or people perceived to be themselves causing grief to others (one can argue that not only was holding an in-character funeral for a real person in poor taste, but that deciding to do it in a pvp enabled area was plain stupid/deliberately asking for trouble). In this case its interesting again to see that deviant acts promote deviant behaviour, often of a more spectacular nature. These acts are regarded specifically by game moderators as grief, although in fact since they are often against direct or indirect target it is more appropriate to perhaps qualify them as protest or spectacle grief (where the object is to make both a spectacle and a statement at the same time).

In Conclusion

Grief is far more complex that has been previously discussed. This is partly because it is so nuanced that researchers get sidetracked! Similarly, attempts to prove that games are social during the early stages of Games Studies meant that often, definition of basic activities (such as power gaming) need to be isolated.

Ludic Grief, Social Grief and Spectacle Grief are three ways to classify the actions players use to cause harm. This harm isn’t always intentional; very often it is in the eye of the beholder, but that does not diminish it’s impact.

Both the tribal nature of online groups, and the ways that game designers separate ludic and social clauses (often effectively washing their hands of straight definition) mean that responses to griefing are usually reactive. This is a shame, but perhaps unavoidable at present. Many scholars who have looked at EULA or the legal/ethical position of MMORPGs feel that the situation cannot remain as it is at present, as there is transgression of both human/virtual rights and a great deal of wool (companies covering their backs in these agreements).

Self policing is an interesting, but idealistic alternative, and there is not time to discuss it’s problematic effect on grief here (but I have elsewhere).

Overall, as games become more complex, so do the means to grief. At the same time, there is something intrinsically human, and also quite mundane about the ways that virtual griefing can be mapped onto real life alternatives. Virtual griefing may appear more complex and be facilitated through more advanced means, but at root it still comes from social deviance. Thus, whilst social psychology can be applied to it, we should be wary of the extent to which we map the same criteria from the real to the virtual.


Castronova, E. Synthetic Worlds, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Consalvo, Mia. Cheating, Gaining Advantages in Video Games. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007

Hogg & Tindall, eds. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003

Taylor, T L. Play Between Worlds, Massachusetts, MIT Press: 2006.