Sometimes, all you can do when you read something is laugh.

Ignoring for the moment a colleague who apparently honestly believes grief play is impossible in a PvE game – because, as you know, the Ultima Online Old Man Rule applies to any PvE/PvP discussion and it will inevitably devolve into a discussion about The Good Old Days When We Could Kill People – let’s instead look at these paragraphs.

John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., has studied deviant behavior in online game communities and found that griefers fall into two basic camps.

"Some of them are kind of antisocial types, where their cause is to fight the authority figure," Suler said. "They take more pleasure in the grief they cause for the company that runs the game. That may stem back to difficult relations with parents and authority figures."

For the other basic type of griefer, it’s personal.

"Sometimes it’s just a matter of wanting to hurt other people, cause grief for them," Suler said. "It might be a form of displacement for people who have been victimized in other areas of their life. They cope by turning the passive into the active: ‘Now I’m the person who victimizes other people.’"

So grief players have problems with authority who are hurting inside. Gosh. This must be why some people get doctorates and some of us have to actually fix things. Thank you, Mr. Pop Psychologist, for the keen analysis of the gamers’ psyche that must have taken at least three minutes of study – and, as a bonus, actually ignored the core problem of why grief play exists.

As in all things in life, the simple truths come from cartoon characters. I have never yet seen a description of the grief player phenomenon that has been better than this Penny Arcade comic:

See, a disturbing amount of otherwise rational and sane people, when presented with the no-risk opportunity to be an ass – surprise – are asses. They can’t handle the responsibility of anonymity. They flip out and become jerks. They kill steal. They PK newbies. If male, they sexually harass female avatars (ironically, knowing full well that the chances are good the person on the other side is also male). They spew random obscenities over and over in public chat. They curse at you in one on one matches and yank the cable out of the console when you win. They Just Can’t Handle Themselves.

They fail J. C. Watts’ character test. Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking. And all too many of us fail that test. On the Internet, when no one is looking, when no one can actually pin you to the unbelievable tripe coming out of your mouth, you can do whatever you want. And all too many do. Over and over.

This is why the less anonymous an arena is, the less grief happens. It’s all about accountability. If someone knows that their bad behavior can impact them – can be linked to them, that they can be called on it, that at some point, someone can point at them and "name and shame" them – then the grief stops happening. Magically. The more accountability exists, the less people act like raving idiots. This is also why newbies in MMOs tend to have such a hard time of it. No one trusts them. They’re new. They have no social accountability. Who knows what they’re capable of? They have to prove themselves before they can get reliable groups, a spot in a good guild, etc. They have to prove their accountability, by showing a reliable identity.

You see, it’s not that grief players are "bad people" or "immature children" or "unloved by their mothers" or whatever else pop phrase we choose to use to absolve ourselves and others of personal responsibility today, it’s that people are used to all the strictures and structures of society that constrain their actions in real life. If they go from day to day not punching people randomly in the mouth, not because they are somehow good people or moral or whatever, but simply because if they punched people in the mouth randomly they would get in trouble, and then are put in an environment where that risk of trouble is removed… surprise! You start having people punched in the mouth. Failing inculcating a strong sense of morality and justice in everyone in society (which admittedly might be a good idea but is probably outside the scope of basic game design), leveraging as many tools as possible to remove anonymity’s cloak is a far better way to attack the problem of the grief player than shrugging and saying that people are sometimes sad.

There, I think I’ve grief blogged enough for one evening.