Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Freedom from Grief

Griefers have been with us since the first time a MUD player decided it was more fun to attack his fellow players than it was to play cooperatively. Virtually every single MMRPG ever released has had its groups of griefer players and the degree to which they can cause grief to others tends to vary according to the game’s code and the amount of customer service devoted to controlling grief. In Second Life we have our share of this griefer element as well, even though SL doesn’t involve weapons, loot, or monsters outside of a few small simulation areas. In Second Life, the ability to write LSL code which can act on another avatar without their permission opens a very large door to all sorts of griefing behavior. Shooting and bombing are just the start. In the wrong hands, LSL’s capabilities are the virtual world equivalent of giving a 4-year old child a blowtorch and a can of kerosene.

This isn’t news. Philip acknowledged the ability years ago, but I’m not sure he connected the ability with the constant tendency of a certain small population of any virtual world to cause havoc. That fact seems to have been ignored from the moment Second Life germinated as an idea in Philip’s head. This is what he said in 2004:

Philip Linden: You can look at an online world, and ask how much freedom it gives you as a user. Sort of like the rat-in-a-cage analogy… How big is the cage? What is there to do? So when you look at historical online worlds… something like everquest, or even TSO… it seems quite obvious that in them you are far more restricted than in your waking life. There is a LOT less you can do there than in reality.
Urizenus Sklar: true
Philip Linden: So I believe this is a simple test for how basic and abusive and frustrated people will become in these worlds. The answer to the question “how much can I do?” tells us “how mean you will be.”
Urizenus Sklar: you mean the less you can do the meaner you will be?
Philip Linden: YES
Philip Linden: So SL poses a new question… what if the online environment offered you MORE freedoms than the real world, in just about every way. I assert, by comparison to these historical cases, that we might therefore actually behave better in such a place. We might learn faster, interact more deeply, and therefore become better people, at least on some levels. Little has been written about this.”

I think it’s safe to say that events have proven Philip’s theory to be wrong in almost every imaginable way.  Freedom does not equate to good behavior because human nature is not innately “good”. It is more complex than that – individual psychological motivations and social forces pre-empt any blanket “good vs bad” assertion. It is self-interested, for the most part, and usually only contained and directed by some measure of personal accountability.   Philip’s comment leads me to believe that he thinks griefers are motivated by either anger or boredom and nothing else. 

The 2004 interview in the above link also quotes Philip as predicting one million Second Life residents by 2007 – an irony that jumps out at me. The means by which we reached the 1 million account number (not residents, accounts) also followed the flawed assumption that anonymity and lack of personal accountability would not inherently create more griefing problems. The lack of preparation for that policy change tells us all we need to know about how misguided Linden policy thinking has been.

Where Philip misunderstands human nature is in his impression of the nature and motives of griefing: Griefers are not necessarily evil people nor are they simply angry or bored.   Psychologist John Suler has done a great deal of research and writing on the topic and slices to the heart of griefer motivation more succinctly than I can:

“the need to establish a “bad boy” identity in order to feel unique… the compulsion to buck the system and defy the authorities (rebels without a cause)….. the desire to feel powerful by inflicting problems on others….. the rather elitist and holier-than-thou attitude…. preying on vulnerable people (probably a way to cope with one’s own feelings of helplessness and vulnerability)…. a seemingly sociopathic inability to empathize with other people…. a preoccupation with issues of humiliation and shame…. hiding behind fantasy identities…. an inability or lack of interest in creating meaningful relationships “

Suler’s about got it right, I think, and none of his explanations have a thing to do with freedom or good and evil. All the increased freedom in Second Life has given us is an increased opportunity to cause problems for other people.

So, where are we and what can be done?

As the population in Second Life has grown, so too have incidents of griefing grown. We don’t have the exact numbers since Linden Lab doesn’t talk about them, but if we assume that a conservative 2% of subscribers cause 90% of the griefing problems in SL, we’re looking at roughly 200 to 300 griefers out of an average concurrent population of 12,000 to 16,000 subscribers. Those are the people who are costing the Lindens tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of resources and manhours in abuse report investigations.

I submit to you that one of the chief reasons Linden customer support has taken such a bad rap among us customers lately is because of this expensive and disproportionate focus on a few troublemakers at the expense of the larger group of residents. GameDev.net estimates that about 25% of customer service issues are caused by griefing and that the cost of one live help person assigned to handling abuse investigations can range from $100,000 to $300,000 per position per year. Financially, then, it should follow that finding technical means to prevent griefing should be easy to cost-justify. If a change in code costs $250,000 to implement you can save the money by eliminating one enforcement position for one year. In my real world as a customer service manager, that’s a no-brainer. I only wish I could submit an RFP with that kind of a financial carrot dangling from the pages.

It took a while for the Lindens to catch on, but slowly they’ve been making some changes to try to curb the problem. They claim they’ve implemented a way to capture and track the hardware ID of an individual computer so that one person using several alt accounts could be caught and have all of their accounts terminated or suspended. That’s a great step if it’s being used. My own personal experience with the abuse system is that it’s glacier-slow (2 to 3 weeks or more to be notified that an AR was resolved) and too often, a repeat offender is still in SL with an active account after the situation was supposedly resolved.

There’s more that can be done, however. What if each avatar had the ability to mute certain push scripts? What if muting particle effects could be sliced more finely and made a part of the mute function? Right now, we can turn off some push functions in land tools so that poseballs and teleporters still work, but (most, not all) push gun attacks do not. Yet we do not have that same functional toggle for individual avatars. I’m relatively safe on land I control, but if I’m at a large mall or a dance club or a sandbox that hasn’t activated that toggle, I’m vulnerable to griefers shooting or orbiting me. I can turn off particles if I have my Debug menu activated, but how many newbies know how to do that (Hint: CTRL ALT D!).

The developers are also talking about a way to prevent banned individuals from moving prims onto land they’re banned from – without more information I’m left wondering if that includes C4 bombs and rockets, bullets, etc? I’ve never understood how someone who has been banned from a parcel could still cause mischief on that parcel. That was the whole point of banning them, wasn’t it?

Let’s say a word about education here, too. I deal with hundreds of newbies every week, and in my opinion the Orientation Islands are inadequate for teaching new residents how this whole thing works. They go to a freebie place, pick up a cage gun or an orbiter, and think attacking other people is simply a part of “the game”. Our mentors and Live Helpers do a wonderful job but they are swamped and often don’t have the resources or time to help as much as needed. Why not add some system of small rewards for new residents who take the time to go through all the stations and exercises in OI, and throw in something about how you can jeopardize your account by assaulting other residents?

My own personal experience with griefers is above the norm, I believe. A club I help to manage ranks in the top 10 and attracts thousands of newbies, making it a prime griefer target alongside sandboxes. Most places in Second Life never see the level of griefing we do, but to me that simply means we would make a good test case for the effectiveness of anti-griefing measures. Adding the push toggle helped greatly. Raising the ban list to 300 names did, as well. Yet we still see griefers, we still see members being orbited and our events disrupted. Rather than file ten abuse reports on one griefer I think it would help both the Linden team and our residents if we had a way to make ourselves more griefer-proof. If we can’t be caged or orbited, we don’t file that AR and the abuse team can focus on more serious problems. Money is saved, frustration level goes down, and everyone wins … except for the griefers.

You can never be invulnerable to griefing, and it would be silly to suggest that. But if Linden Lab wants to save a pile of dough and improve the perception of their company in these challenging times, they should invest serious time and money into giving us more autonomy over our own avatars. If I can control whether I’m attacked by someone’s push script, we don’t have this conversation. My freedom from griefing should trump the freedom to cause havoc with other residents.

– Cin

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November 13, 2006 - Posted by | Second Life

1 Comment »

  1. interesting, caught this via one of your forum posts but this is really illuminating about a core philosophy at LL, one I strongly disagree with after over ten years online. It shows that Phillip believes in the myth that all people are good, and that a little freedom will set them straight.

    Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. With freedom comes great responsibility, as we’ve seen over the last days with the LibSL chaos – some people just lack all sense of decency and respect for others, and this population is a constant no matter where you go. 1 percent of the people causing 99 percent of the problems. It’s a given. And they do it for no other reason but they enjoy it.

    As far as the general population is concerned – only people who have learned to be responsible with freedom can handle freedom. Restraint has to come from somewhere – either rules have to be imposed from outside or within.

    Comment by Hypatia Callisto | November 15, 2006 | Reply


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