How Gaming Griefers Reveal Broken Systems

How Gaming Griefers Reveal Broken Systems September 23, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Over the years, I’ve played and administered a whole bunch of games — both in real life and online. In that time, as you might expect, I’ve encountered my fair share of absolutely awful gamers. But there’s one kind of gamer who just takes the cake for sheer malevolence: griefers. You won’t run across griefers in every single game, though. It takes a certain gaming environment for them to flourish and proliferate and — ultimately — to poison the game for everyone. Today, let me show you what that environment looks like — and why this one kind of gamer depends so much on it.

smokey gray cat meme why we can't have nice things
Obligatory. Also, very true, especially in gaming.

PvE, PvP, and Griefers in Gaming.

“It’s Algonquin for ‘bloodsport.'”

Archer, on lacrosse

First, let me whisk through a brief definition of terms. This won’t take long, I promise.

In roleplaying games, players are the human beings engaging in the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game itself. These players pretend to be characters (or PCs) in the game. All other characters get played by the person/people running the game, and they’re called non-player characters (or NPCs). An NPC can be a person, monster, animal, or anything else; all that matters is that no players animate that character.

The person/people running the game go by a lot of different names in turn, like dungeon master (DM) or game designers/developers (“devs”).

There are two major types of gaming styles.

PvE stands for players vs. environment. In PvE games, players don’t fight against each other at all. Instead, they fight (either individually or cooperatively) against whatever the game’s designers decide to hurl at them. Usually, the “environment” here looks like computer-animated villains like monsters, pirates, or vampires (oh my!).

By contrast, PvP stands for players vs. playersIn PvP games, players can order their characters to attack, rob, and even kill other players’ characters. This kind of play can be incredibly exciting, for those who enjoy it. It’s like playing The Most Dangerous Game.

Griefers are players who make huge pests of themselves by attacking much-weaker characters or destroying people’s progress just for the sake of doing it (“griefing”). The name means they give other players grief. They’re not cheating, generally speaking. They’re just being huge jerks who play the game in bad faith.

In turn, griefers are a big part of why PvP fans can’t have nice things.

Mix and Terrible Matches in Gaming.

Single-player games (like PongSkyrim, and The Sims 3) utilize a PvE design by necessity. You can only do PvP when other players exist ingame to compete against.

On the other hand, online games tend to be straight PvP (like MechWarrior Online) or some sort of hybrid mix of PvP and PvE.

Indeed, a lot of online games try to mix PvE and PvP. Game designers do that on purpose. By offering a hybrid game, they hope to attract both kinds of gamers, and thus maximize their potential customer base.

However, without extremely careful game design PvE players in a hybrid game can easily end up becoming nothing but fish in a barrel for the game’s PvP fans. PvE players don’t usually know how to protect themselves against other players’ attacks, and their characters’ skills and gear might work great for the PvE stuff they like playing — but function poorly against other players.

For PvP-loving players, especially griefers, these inexperienced fish-in-a-barrel players are awesome. Griefers love having players around who don’t know how to protect themselves from griefing.

But as you can imagine, the PvE players quickly get frustrated with being nothing but perpetual cannon fodder. They don’t stick around to play games they don’t enjoy. Instead, they leave. The PvP players make sure to insult them on the way out for not being hardcore and tough enough to handle REAL GAMING™, and then they complain about not getting to play the way they like.

Eventually, the game’s worst elements end up pushing out all but the most PvP-savvy players. Then the griefers leave too — because all the players left in the game by then are PvP folks like themselves, and they just aren’t as easily victimized.

Desperately Seeking Gaming Hybrids.

So game developers often go through all these hoops to try to hybridize their playerbase.

I’ve seen at least one game that operates as a PvE style until players reach a certain level (or opt in, whichever happens first). Once they reach that level, the game thrusts them into a PvP environment whether they like it or not. I bet their churn rate is gruesome.

Other games operate servers dedicated exclusively to PvP or PvE alone. Players can choose whichever style they please. That way, the players on a PvP server know exactly what they’re getting into and are prepared to engage in that style of play, while PvE players can avoid that stuff entirely. That works all right from the players’ perspective, but has the serious downside of effectively being two completely different games requiring two completely different design philosophies, two sets of servers, and a seriously diluted playerbase. And inevitably, ingame events focusing on one or the other playstyle will leave the other players feeling neglected — or pushed to play in ways they don’t enjoy.

To keep everyone in the same server system, other games only allow PvP play between players who deliberately opt in to PvP. Everyone else remains perfectly safe from unwanted play styles. Others (like Elder Scrolls Online) only allow PvP in certain restricted parts of the game, and they don’t penalize other players for simply avoiding those areas. And still others allow it only between evenly-matched characters.

Very few games find a perfect balance between players’ desires and needs and the game owners’ bottom line, but game designers never seem to stop trying to find that sweet spot.

And Now: Amazon’s “Toxic Environment” Problem.

A long time ago, I heard that Amazon was working on an online game called New World. Last year, Amazon briefly allowed players into the game to test it out. Some of those players promptly showed the game developers exactly why hybrid PvE/PvP games don’t work that well. On the game’s subreddit in January, the devs wrote:

It was clear that there were concerns in the community about the impact of PvP (Player versus Player) on the overall gameplay experience. While PvP did change over the course of Alpha [a very early phase of game development], generally, it was full loot and open world with only Outposts acting as sanctuaries. Everyone was vulnerable to attack, at any time, from other players in the rest of the world. [. . .]

One of the problems we observed with this system was that some high-level players were killing low level players, A LOT. Sometimes exclusively. This often led to solo or group griefing scenarios that created a toxic environment for many players. To be clear, this behavior was not shown by all PvP players, but enough to cause significant issues.

We set out to build a compelling world full of danger and opportunity that begs to be explored. The intended design was never to allow a small group of players to bully other players. Based on what we saw, we realized that we needed to make fundamental changes and not just incremental fixes, (which we tried several times during the Closed Alpha).

But then they wrote something in that post that made me think that yes, finally, maybe some devs actually understand some of PvE players’ objections to forced-PvP gaming:

PvP is important to us and we are committed to ensuring it plays a significant role in our game. To be specific, by PvP we mean, fair fights that are organized, skill based, and opted into by all participants. Not PKing (Player Killing), which is a predatory behavior that relies on exploiting another player’s lack of experience, progress, readiness, or willingness.

That was a nice declaration to read!

Predation Requires Prey.

Predatory gamers need prey they can hunt, or they’re not having fun.

But gamers who don’t like PvP don’t like being hunted. If griefers are targeting them, then they’re not having fun.

So when a PvE player gets frustrated with how other players engage with them, that person might just decide to leave the game to find something else to play.

The griefers can whine and complain and insult these non-PvP players all they want. Mistreatment and scorn won’t magically make their intended prey want to come back to get targeted, nor magically make them enjoy being griefed. And really, part of the fun for griefers is knowing their prey doesn’t enjoy that play in the first place.

Are you seeing why this whole topic interests me so much?

The whole PvE/PvP/griefing squabble relates to religion in such a profound way.

Predation Requires Coercion.

Way too many toxic-Christian groups still see themselves as running a game that their flocks are required to play.

They try really hard to pretend that nobody has the right to leave their exalted presence without their royal permission. The fundagelical site Relevant has a writer coming very close to declaring that rule out loud, in fact! Joey Cottle wrote, in 2015:

Now, I will allow that some churches need leaving, and there are legitimate reasons for finding a new a church at times [sic].

My goodness! How very generous King Joey is to his serfs.

Yes, y’all, he’ll “allow” some defections to be granted his official approval. Ain’t that nice of him? Sometimes, he’ll even concede that occasionally a church or pastor might be so completely abusive that even an authoritarian ruler like him must accept a defection from that church as “legitimate.” But don’t get all wild here! The rest of the time, he expects players to knuckle under his judgments of illegitimacy:

But, I want to address the main complaints I’ve heard and why those complaints shouldn’t be good enough.

He’s far from the only Christian leader trying to lay down the law regarding exactly where and how Christians will play their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. The more authoritarian the group, the more intently its Dear Leaders try to dictate the game to the players in the pews.

It’s really too bad for the King Joeys of the Christian world that almost nobody’s actually asking for their approval or permission.

The Prey Just Isn’t Cooperating Like Before.

When mistreated players leave abusive Christians’ PvP servers without the approval of the King Joeys in their gameworld, he and the rest of the game’s griefers act just like online games’ griefers do: they pelt their departing victims with insults and aspersions.

The common goal of all of these griefers is to get the prey logged back into the server and returned to the game as quickly as possible — while discouraging current players from considering the same exit strategy.

These toxic PvP players will do absolutely anything to achieve these goals, too, except fix the broken system that allows for all this mistreatment that’s driving away their PvE players. After all, their server’s rules benefit them very much. As far as they can tell, the game works great!

The last thing bad-faith players like them want is for anything to change about the game.

The Rights of Consumers.

It’s just so weird, y’all, that “Jesus” lets all these Christians get mistreated right on his own game servers.

That said, I’m glad that the players of this game recognize more and more every year that they don’t have to stay with a game they don’t like. In a very real way, they’re the consumers of the product churches sell. If they don’t want to spend their money and time on that product, then they can walk away any time they want.

But that’s part of the problem toxic Christian leaders are having right now. Authoritarians like them hate not having total power in every situation.

They know that without that level of power, they can’t keep the sheep in the fold — and playing games they don’t like. If the flocks don’t like the PvP style of leaders at one church, they can leave — and they are doing exactly that. Increasingly often, they decide to opt out of the game entirely.

Ambassador Leia Organa was right: the more these authoritarian leaders tighten their grip, the more players will slip through their fingers. In this case, an inexorable decline couldn’t possibly happen to a more deserving bunch. This is one game I won’t mind seeing gathering dust on a forgotten bookshelf somewhere one day.

NEXT UP: Total participation is so important to immersion. Tomorrow, we examine good-faith and bad-faith play, and how they relate to players’ suspension of disbelief. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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