The OGRES among us

Griefers: The game world has denizens who delight in causing mayhem, much to the dismay of other players - and companies that fear they drive away customers.

September 12, 2002|By Alex Pham | Alex Pham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Kurt Frerichs comes home from a long day of fixing computers, he likes to eat dinner with his family, tuck his 2-year-old daughter into bed and settle in front of his PC with a steaming cup of black coffee to inflict nonstop misery on his fellow man.

The 25-year-old technology consultant relishes the indiscriminate slaughter of other players in online games, heaping scorn on his victims and exploiting programming bugs to his advantage.

Frerichs is what is called a "griefer" - someone who plays to make others cry. They stalk, hurl insults, extort, form gangs, kill and loot. Although they make up a tiny percentage of online gamers, griefers are prolific in sowing distress and driving away thousands of paying customers.

As a result, the habits of griefers such as Frerichs have become an obsession for Sony Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Electronic Arts Inc. as the companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars building online games they hope will stir up mass-market interest.

To these companies, online games are a rare specimen -a profitable Internet business. Titles such as EverQuest, Ultima Online and Dark Ages of Camelot may have only a few hundred thousand subscribers each, but they consistently make money.

And the financial stakes are about to become much bigger. U.S. revenues from these games are expected to grow from $300 million to $1.8 billion by 2005. There are about a million online game players in the United States and millions more overseas.

The game makers fear that virtual saboteurs will jeopardize the rise of online games by scaring away customers willing to spend $10 to $14 a month to play, and they are devoting significant resources to finding ways to stop the mayhem.

Called "persistent world" or "massively multiplayer" games for their ability to accommodate thousands of simultaneous players, they started decades ago as simple text-based games. As personal computers grew more powerful, the games acquired graphics that evolved into rich, immersing, fantastical worlds. Players can acquire virtual jobs, adopt pets, marry and own property.

At their genesis, these games were meant to be online Camelots where players adhered to a code of honor, but instead, they quickly descended into anarchy. Stealing, killing, taunting and other forms of bad behavior against online characters mushroomed.

For a griefer, it's not the killing that is fun, because combat is inherent in many games. It's the misery it causes other players that they love.

"Griefers feed on the negative reactions of the people they kill," said Frerichs, who savors his evil online persona and saves every nasty e-mail he gets from the people he has antagonized. "There's nothing sweeter than when you kill someone and they spout insults at you for hours. That's when you know you got him. It sounds really cruel, but it's fun."

Frerichs has received messages from parents of players, pleading with him to play nice with their children, who are driven to tears by his antics.

The griefer's arsenal of annoyance is large and varied.

Lately, "Ninja stealing" has become rampant. A griefer waits around while another player slays a monster. Once the monster drops dead, it often gives up weapons, coins or other desirable items. Before the player can pick up the spoils, the griefer snatches the items and runs away.

Griefers also can form a virtual mafia, blocking access to desirable areas of the game and demanding bribes. They also run cartels, hoarding game components like eye of newt or red hair dye, and charging inflated prices for them.

"There are all kinds of virtual assaults where people are basically confronted in ways they didn't think were possible. Sexual stuff, racial stuff. You name it, and it's happened," said Gordon Walton, who was head of online services for Ultima Online and is now executive producer at Electronic Arts for a new game targeted at mainstream players called The Sims Online.

Internet communication often encourages people to say things they wouldn't in real life, said Patricia T. O'Conner, co-author of You Send Me, a book on online writing.

"Because of the anonymity that online writing affords, people get away with behavior they couldn't in the real world. What's the worst that could happen?" O'Conner said.

Some argue that online games are mirrors, however distorted, of the real world, where evil coexists with good and every classroom has its bullies. There is even a school of thought that griefers play a vital role, sniffing out technical bugs in the game and lending games a sense of flesh-and-blood tension.

"When we get together with old friends from these games, we don't talk about the goody two-shoes, we talk about the characters who made our lives hell," said Rick Costa, a longtime player of online games. "They're kind of a force of nature, and you remember them."

Most game companies, however, don't make such distinctions between good grief and bad, preferring to toss out the worst apples and build controls into their games that circumvent the rest.

But as quickly as developers build fixes, griefers find ingenious ways around them.

The result is an endless cat-and-mouse game that, although fun for griefers, has become costly for game developers. Sony's customer service manager, Alan Crosby, estimated that each of his 60 customer support staff members spend an average of one hour out of an eight-hour shift dealing with grief-related activity.

"You can't ignore them," said Kelly Flock, who used to head Sony Online. "If you do, they'll just destroy the game and drive away your customers."

Try as they will, though, companies are likely to find that it is as difficult to eradicate griefers as it is to eliminate crime in the real world.

Alex Pham writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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