Is Griefing Healthy for MMOs?

(This was originally published on mmos.com on April 15th, 2015.)

Picture this: You’re walking through your favorite MMORPG’s hub city looking for quests to pick up. You stop by the mailbox to grab the gold you made from a recent auction house venture and you turn around to see a giant dragon staring you in the face. Some high-level beastmaster must have snuck the beast past the city guards and let it loose on the unsuspecting populace. Before you have time to respond, the dragon opens its mouth and breathes fire over you and every other unlucky soul that decided to AFK in the middle of town, leaving behind only ashes and frustration. Welcome to the world of old-school MMO design, here’s your complimentary tissue box.

If you’ve played MMOs for a long time, there’s a good chance you’ve been involved in griefing in one way or another. Some games openly accept it as a part of a balanced MMO breakfast, while others struggle to keep up with crafty ne’er-do-wells that only play games to annoy others. No multiplayer game can be 100% grief-free, but I’m curious whether the occasional griefing is a healthy part of MMO design or just something we’ve collectively decided to deal with as part of enjoying games with other people.

Some of the best griefing stories are so unique and interesting that they branch out past the circle of friends or guild that created them and enter into a pantheon of MMO gaming mythology. Eve Online players tell campfire stories about the corporate hijinks of the Guiding Hand Social Club, while WoW players reminisce about the days of kiting boss mobs across continents to lay siege to major cities. These aren’t just stories passed around by gamers. World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood Incident reached mainstream media’s attention for its similarity to the spread of real-life epidemics, as players contracted a deadly debuff that quickly infected the world of Azeroth. While it’s not always fun being on the receiving end of virtual tomfoolery, it’s hard to deny that grief-friendly mechanics have lead to some of gaming’s most popular stories.

These classic forms of griefing made the early days of MMOs feel a lot like the wild west, but it seems to have only been until recently that players started clamoring for new ways to grief each other. We live in a world where new MMORPGs proudly advertise open world PvP elements, and games like Dark Souls thrive despite griefing being the main component of online interaction. The appeal of these kinds of games goes far beyond testing your skills against another player. More often than not, they’re about the sadistic enjoyment of watching players log out in frustration after being spawn camped 1,000 times. That’s not to say that a predisposition towards griefing is entirely healthy (it’s not and you should be ashamed of yourself), but I am willing to suggest that allowing some bad behavior may be good for MMOs in general, as long as that behavior is closely managed by the developers to ensure that no real damage is done.

If we accept that some griefing can be an enjoyable part of MMOs, we must first recognize that not all griefing is created equal. Cyberbullying and other forms of serious harassment should have no place in our community, but beyond that, there are still forms of griefing that just don’t make sense for a game developer to endorse. Team Roomba’s video (NSFW) of their members purposefully making Team Fortress 2 unplayable for the rest of their team is a fine example of how griefing pushed too far can ruin a game. Griefers revel in causing havoc and frustration, but if the result is a game that simply can’t be played, either through the use of glitches or the “creative use of gameplay mechanics,” then it’s safe to assume that devs would rather gamers play nice.

The question isn’t about whether griefing should be eliminated, considering how well that’s gone in the past (I’m looking at you, Hearthstone), but rather whether embracing it will allow developers to find ways to lessen its effects on people that aren’t interested in engaging with griefers. Dividing servers by PvP and PvE content is a great start, but it seems almost impossible to create a segregated grief-friendly environment, thanks to the fact that much of the fun of griefing comes from frustrating players that don’t want anything to do with it. I’ll be interested to see how well games that promote messing with other players do once there are more of them out there, but for now, I’ll enjoy watching the chaos from afar atop my magical unicorn of friendship in Hello Kitty Online.

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