Good Grief! Can Online Harassment in Games be Stopped?

Events transpired this week in my MMO of choice that has led me to question certain aspects of in-game harassment and how it should be dealt with. LOTRO is somewhat famous for it’s helpful and welcoming community, so when that ecosystem is disrupted enough by a single player to spawn several forum threads and to cause some long-time players to question why they still play the game, it catches my attention. Without going into too many of the gory details, certain player-run events have recently been disrupted by a single individual who his choosing to place his/her player in a inconvenient spot, irritating the attendees of the event. Those who report the player are told by the in-game GMs that the player is not doing anything wrong, and that they should stop submitting tickets.

What is Griefing?

As far as I can tell, “griefing” is a term unique to online video game experiences, but may eventually work it’s way into more common language (like pwn’d or noob). Trion does a nice job of describing griefing in their harassment policy (part of their code of conduct):

Griefing – This refers to players who do not play the game as it was intended, but instead seek to harass other players as their main focal point. ….. To “grief” simply means that you are trying to negatively impact the game play experience of another player.  – Glyph Harassment Policy

In other words, griefing could be a lot of things. Many policies have definitions that are written vaguely in order to not paint themselves into a corner. The reason for this is simple. When defining something like griefing using only specific examples, they limit themselves in what recourse they can take against players who find “loopholes” in the policy. for example, if Trion were to say “griefing is defined as bouncing up and down in front of another player”, it wouldn’t take long before someone decided to jump up and down beside another player, and they would (by definition in the example given) not be guilty of griefing, and therefore could not be punished for violating the policy. The problem with leaving the language vague is that it requires more of a judgement call to be made when complaints arise. While the offended will claim that a griefer is attempting to negatively impact their gameplay, the accused would likely counter with a denial that this was their intention. Thus, an overworked and cranky GM is responsible for deciding whether the behavior in question does or does not violate the policy. This leads to inconsistencies between GMs, and possibly even with the same GM on different days.

This inconsistency has already led to confusion in the LOTRO community. The griefer in question attempted to disrupt the huge Weatherstock event earlier this year using his tactic of choice, and was dealt with swiftly and decisively. Recently, though, calls for help at similar, smaller events have gone unheeded.

Terms of Service

How is Griefing Different than Harassment?

Griefing is handled slightly differently within the four policies that I’ve read so far. Trion is the only one that specifically uses the word “griefing”, but other studios describe the actions that are generally understood to be forms of griefing in their harassment policies. Here are some examples.

In their Moderately Inappropriate section of the harassment policy, Blizzard describes the following:

Zone or Area Disruption

This category includes language and/or actions intended to disturb groups of players or areas of the world, such as:

  • Disruption of player events or gatherings.
  • Excessive use of in-game sounds or visuals.
  • Excessively casting spells with noticeable effects in crowded areas.
  • Impeding or blocking access to an NPC, doodad, doorway, or any other area of the world that a player would normally be able to access.

Blizzard goes on to say that repeated violations of the ToU (Terms of Use) often results in suspension from the game.

Curiously, LOTRO’s definition of harassment sounds very much like the scenario described in the opening paragraph:

Player harassment is defined as an attempt by a player to cause distress, game disruption or to intentionally offend other Lord of the Rings Online players. Player harassment may come in many forms, but the underlying similarity between all harassment and abuse incidents is player malintent. If the offending player’s actions are intentionally directed to cause disruption, grief or distress, no matter what the situation, this is considered player harassment.

Turbine sounds very strict and intimidating when mentioning their “zero tolerance” policy against harassment, but provides no specifics on penalties.

Even EVE has a policy against harassment that seems to call out griefing (2nd bullet – yes, they used both bullets and letters in their outline format):

Severe offences may result in an immediate ban without warning; however, warnings may be given for first time offenses, followed by account suspensions of varying degree and ultimately a permanent ban if a player:

  • a. Is abusive, obscene, offensive, sexually explicit, ethnically or racially offensive, or threatening to another player or an official EVE Online representative.
  • b. Uses role-playing as an excuse for violating the guidelines regarding fair play with others.

So, griefing is online harassment. So much so, that three out of the four policies don’t even differentiate it, and the fourth simply considers it a sub-section of the overall harassment section.


How Should Griefing Be Dealt With?

This is the tricky bit. Spoiler alert: I don’t have a good answer.

There are several ways to deal with a griefer, some of them are even suggested in the harassment policies linked above. Talk to the player to make sure it’s not a misunderstanding (good luck). Use a technical solution, like /ignore (if the griefing is via chat). Walk away (if they’ll let you). But let’s be honest, a true griefer will not succumb to any of these attempts at a reasonable solution, because their actions and intents aren’t reasonable to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to know that no matter how many times you sit down and explain to your toddler the values of leaving that last cookie in the jar for someone else in the family to enjoy at a later time, as soon as you turn your back that cookie will be gone. Sometimes you’ve got to smack the hand or put the cookie out of reach. And yes, I’m comparing griefers to toddlers.

I’ve already mentioned the judgement call required of an in-game GM in trying to determine whether griefing has actually occurred. Suppose this large hurdle is overcome and the GM makes the determination that a player is guilty of harassment. What type of repercussion is appropriate? The GM must now make yet another, perhaps even several judgement calls taking into consideration intent, severity, and history. Doling out punishment to a (possibly) paying customer is kind of a difficult thing to do, considering all of the subjective calls that have been made by a single person up to this point. The easy road in this case would be to determine that harassment has not occurred to avoid all of the subsequent work, judgement, and punishment that falls on the other side of the flowchart.

Majority Rules or Mob Mentality? 

The tight-knit LOTRO music/RP community was quick to take up the cause of harassment once it began to impede on their events. They took to the forums and social media to plead their case, attempting to get the immediate issue resolved as well as to seek clarification of the policy, since many within that group had been told that the behavior in question did not amount to harassment. To me, the issue seemed pretty clear. The behavior being described aligned almost perfectly with the description of harassment within the policy outlined by Turbine. A majority of players (regardless of playstyle) seem to agree. So why didn’t democracy prevail? Why didn’t LOTRO listen to it’s players?

My good friend Ethelros brought up a good point. The tweets have since flowed beyond my reach but I’ll attempt to paraphrase. It’s not a good idea for a group of players to be able to dictate the space that another player occupies within a game. This is a problematic precedent to set and could lead to bullying in other forms. Imagine teams of griefers forming groups and roaming the landscape in search of new players to relocate or ban. Granted, it’s kind of a far-fetched scenario but certainly possible. After all, it’s the word of many against the word of one! Yet another consideration for the monitors of the playground to make.

Lots of People

Has GG Changed how we view online harassment?

I had one final thought on this topic that I thought might be interesting to discuss. It’s clear that griefing is a form of online harassment. However, considering that the bar for online harassment has been raised considerably since the out-of-control non-movement that is #gamergate, is it possible that simple griefing doesn’t really seem too bad anymore? Nobody’s life is being threatened. Nobody is seeking shelter in an undisclosed location or cancelling public appearances out of fear for their physical safety. By comparison, a guy standing in front of a band in order to irritate people has somewhat lost it’s bite. The “dwarf jumping up and down in your peripheral vision”* feels more like a little brother trying to push buttons than actual harassment. By attempting to bring awareness to online harassment, have we trivialized some forms of it? Sometimes I wonder.

* TM Roger Edwards


13 thoughts on “Good Grief! Can Online Harassment in Games be Stopped?

  1. Ranni, the Flamingbard November 11, 2014 / 11:28 pm

    You brought up so very good points. Mob-mentality griefing IS a thing (both sides of GG, in my opinion) and done as easily as a warg pack stealthed near GV. That said, Turbine saying it’s harassment or griefing at Weatherstock set a precedent and they need to be consistent.

    The bar being raised on online harassment, yeah, it does make stuff like this pale in comparison. I just don’t think they can be compared. I think the bar was raised so high it entered into a whole other category and can’t be considered as griefing anymore. I do think it’s made us more aware and maybe more touchy about it.

    Oh, and sometimes toddlers ARE griefers! But they’re cute and cuddly so they get away with it.


  2. Fredelas (@BrandywineFred) November 11, 2014 / 11:34 pm

    This was a very thoughtful piece. When it comes to griefing, I always thought it was one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” kind of things. But then I realized people can still come to very different conclusions when observing the exact same behavior, especially when it comes to trying to guess another person’s intent.

    For example, during the “Take the Hobbit to Isengard” events in LOTRO earlier this year, the community manager running the event threatened publicly on a Twitch stream to take actions against the accounts of players who were annoying him. They were annoying him by being on mounts or displaying cloaks while following a large group of players. Apparently, this was against the rules for the event.

    How were the players he publicly accused supposed to know about these rules? He didn’t take the time to send them a tell and ask them to dismount or hide their cloaks. And even if he did, he wasn’t playing on an administrative account or even under his own name. They probably didn’t read about it on the official forums, and they had no reason to be watching the live stream if they were already following along in-game.

    If I saw a large group of players take off out of Bree-town, I would probably follow them just out of curiosity. I might even mount up if I wasn’t a hunter or warden and couldn’t keep up with the group on foot with their run-speed boosts. I might not even know that I can disable my cloak in-game, or what impact that might have. Yet the community manager had already judged the intent of these players as malicious.

    We can’t expect community managers or GMs to be mind readers. Often, the only evidence they may have is chat logs, which can’t always tell the full story. And we should be careful ourselves about judging the intent of other players. I think it’s wise to remember Blackstone’s formulation: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”


  3. cithryth November 12, 2014 / 12:00 am

    I came to this post expecting more waffles.

    You made a really great write up here. Your last paragraph is an especially good point I hadn’t thought of, however I’ve definitely seen the attitude that this kind of harassment doesn’t ‘qualify’ as real harassment, even years before GG. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the phrase, “Welcome to the internet, grow a thicker skin,” in response to complaints about griefing like this (and worse cases of harassment as well, but you get the point).


  4. Hagu November 12, 2014 / 12:45 am


    It is the same concept that Damion Schubert explains in relation to the history of Ultima Online: “His [Gordon Walton] contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible. He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you. Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.”.


  5. Alistair Beswick (@Aeladriel) November 12, 2014 / 10:16 am

    I have some suggestions with how to deal with Griefers. What won’t happen is a straight ban unless it’s an extreme case; this would lose revenue ultimately, which is unfair for everybody as funding would be cut from development, etc. Griefers ultimately only get their jollies if they get a reaction. If it becomes difficult to do so, they will get bored. So in a game like lotro, a few options. If it is in chat, implement the current changes for free accounts with chat being limited for several hours upon logging in for greifers, accounts can be set back to regular access after say 1 week if there are no further infringements. If it is in-game griefing via interrupting events etcetera, make it so players get short-term bans or even more useful, add a filter which prevents people marked for griefing to be visible/audible to other players for say the same time period as with the chat, again for a week at a time. This will make the game still accessible to them but prevent them from griefing effectively.


  6. Arcadius November 12, 2014 / 2:09 pm

    If anything, Braxwolf, I feel just the opposite about in-game harassment. I’m more sensitized to griefing now because I think we have a clear vision of where it leads. Those jumping dwarves are the fertile field for GG recruitment.

    The online community (to use very broad terms) brings the impressionable 10 year old into an environment of harassment and abuse and griefing and teaches them that this is the normal way to behave and that part of their maturing process is to “harden up.” Fourteen years later, some of them are emotionally and morally damaged.

    The guy disrupting the community event and the guys ridiculing a new player in general chat and the guys posting personal stuff in Reddit are the same people, using the same hate-filled misogynist rhetoric.

    This whole “harden up” approach isn’t working and only empowers the griefers.


  7. wallcat November 13, 2014 / 9:01 am

    I’ve had situations where I’ve been prevented from playing a game at all because of large groups of griefers. If I’m paying a subscription on the game but can’t play then I feel I have a right to complain because I’m not getting what I’m paying for. This can result in a loss of paying customers as otherwise loyal fans will turn their attention elsewhere. As a result, the community continues to go from bad to worse.


  8. Lilikate Buggins November 15, 2014 / 5:43 pm

    Open communication between game staff and the player base can only improve the way incidents like these are dealt with. After trying to have my issue addressed privately I was left with no alternative but to voice my opinion on the official forums.
    People pay money to play these games and so long as they are not breaking the ToS or CoC, folks should be left to play, in whatever style they choose without harassment.


  9. Pasduil November 17, 2014 / 10:29 am

    It seems Turbine have updated their stance, and the original lack of action may have been due to some GMs not understanding what the intended policy was. To my mind that’s a good thing.

    Maybe the best way to approach the question would be to forget the question “Is it griefing?” There can be behaviors that are problematic without them having to fall into buckets we’re willing to call griefing, harassment, trolling and the like. Think of real life… there can be behavior that is merely thoughtless and inadvertently impacts on other people without the person doing it having any intention to cause hurt. A boisterous group in a restaurant where other people want to have a quiet meal for example, or people using their mobile devices in a cinema. Think about changing attitudes to smoking in public places. Smokers don’t have to mean to harass anyone for it to be legitimate to have no-smoking areas, and enforce them.

    If something is disruptive and harmful to other people and there’s a simple action the GM can take to remedy it, they should. Start by treating the person as if they meant no harm, explain the problem and ask them to stop. If they still won’t stop it shouldn’t be hard to give GMs a range of tools like a forced-dismount, or a forced-logoff with a two hour barrier to logging on again. If people then continue to be repeat offenders, you could move on to the tools that are more appropriate to use against griefers, such as longer term or permanent bans.


  10. baghesty April 23, 2015 / 8:44 pm

    Online “griefing” via being a jerk in game literally has no problems for a person except inside a video game. How can that compare to threats or other forms of cyber harassment that are aimed at individuals as known entities outside a game world?

    The only time I would consider it online harassment is when someone explicitly knows the player behind the character and is attempting to harass them as a person.

    Most of the “blocking doorways” griefing is impersonal, and again, bullies only have power over us when we give power to them. Its so easy to just not participate in the process of getting mad and giving “griefers” what they want.

    Its never been anything serious, just a mild annoyance that the crying “women” of the PC (political correctness) world have pushed as an agenda because they aren’t grown up enough to deal with it. You think griefers are immature? Look at the “victims”.


    • Braxwolf April 24, 2015 / 9:04 am

      It sounds like you think there should be no rules for social conduct within a game due to anonymity. So, if a group of gang members starts shouting at me in an intimidating fashion and following me down the street, that’s not considered harassment? They don’t know me. I don’t know them.

      More germane to the example in the post: Games are a form of entertainment, like sports. Suppose I went to a baseball game where people could sit anywhere they wanted (like lawn seats, for instance) and a man with a big Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat sat in front of me so I couldn’t see the game. I move, and the man notices that I had to move. It amuses him, so he moves to once again position himself so I can’t see the game. This happens five or six more times. He’s impeding my enjoyment for his own enjoyment. What would you do in this situation? Alert security? Confront the man yourself? This is a real-life example of harassment. No, a life is not at risk but the enjoyment and the money spent to see the game both are. Harassment doesn’t have to involve a physical confrontation, and in most cases doesn’t. But by your definition this man is doing nothing wrong because he doesn’t know me. I would respectfully disagree.

      Honestly, the post wasn’t written for men or women, liberals or conservatives, but for people. People from each of these groups have the right to enjoy their favorite pastime without fear of harassment. More importantly, though, people don’t have the right to do whatever they want in a video game simply because it provides anonymity and the lack of a physical space. Perhaps the anonymous behavior of some individuals is a scary peek into their true character. I prefer to believe that we’re all still learning how to function and interact with one another in these relatively new digital worlds. Whatever the case, to deny that harassment can exist within a game is to misunderstand the definition of harassment.


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