It's August 2013 and a boy called Nicholas is issuing death threats over Minecraft. His opponent is a YouTuber called Noobface37, who (unbeknown to Nicholas) is recording the whole thing on video. There's lots of shouting; the video starts with a warning to turn your volume down.
Nicholas's voice sounds high-pitched and very young. He rages, "FUCK YOU. You just had to do that. DUMBASS... SHUT THE FUCK UP BITCH!"
Noobface37, who has invaded Nicholas's server, dances among the buildings wreaking havoc. Nicholas is screaming now. You can hear his mother calling in the background, asking what's going on. For a child, Nicholas really knows how to curse. He says that his friend's dad is a top-level hacker who'll track down where Noobface37 lives. "YOU LITTLE FUCKTARD I'M GOING TO BRING A GUN AND SHOOT YOU IN YOUR NUTSACK... DIE BIIIIIIIITCH!"
In Minecraft, this is what grief sounds like. Nicholas has just encountered a griefer.
Griefers are common to online gaming. They gang up on newbies, obstructing and reversing progress, burning and demolishing and gleefully wrecking other people's work in the manner of children who kick sandcastles at the beach. Griefing was a mainstay of multiplayer online games in the early 2000s. Now, thanks to Minecraft, the griefer is experiencing a renaissance.
Gamers and cultural commentators have grappled with the definition of "griefer" for decades. Distinct from trolling, which is often done by a single aggressor (griefers like to travel in mobs), and which causes more light-hearted annoyance than actual damage, griefing is brutal and persistent. By definition, "grief" implies sorrow and loss, an effect deeper than nuisance.
Know Your Meme lists the earliest known use of the term in 2000, in a USENET group discussion of the MMORPG Ultima Online, but the griefing tendency goes back further. Multi-User Domains (MUDs) in the early 90s were full of griefers. Traumatic, sexualised griefing in the LambdaMOO MUD was the subject of Julian Dibbell's seminal 1993 essay "A Rape in Cyberspace," which concludes with an oddly prescient discussion of the implications of griefing as "free speech" in a world where words are an extension of the body: "...[T]he more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real."
Other, less serious instances of griefing include the infamous "flying phalluses" incident of 2006, in which a CNET interview conducted within Second Life was interrupted by a plague of animated dicks raining down from the ceiling.
Gaming fan site Warcry Network hosted a competition in 2004 to find the "World's Greatest Griefer," promising a $5,000 Best Buy gift voucher in return. Their rallying call was a griefer checklist:
Do you delight in others' misfortune? Do you think you are the supreme schemer? Then pit yourself against other self-proclaimed masters of mayhem in the first ever World's Greatest Griefer Contest. That's right—we are inviting all PKs, ninja-looters, and scammers to compete against each other to decide, once and for all, who is the World's Greatest Griefer.
Even Wikipedia has a griefer problem, with "tag-team editors" conspiring to undo others' work.
But today, the term "griefer" is most often associated with smashing virtual bricks. Minecraft is among the best-selling games of all time; it makes sense that it would attract antagonists. On Urban Dictionary, three out of 12 definitions of "griefer" allude to Minecraft, while a YouTube search for "Minecraft griefer" throws up around 355,000 results. If Minecraft is a maker culture, it has bred within itself a subculture of destruction.
Minecraft griefers are a community all their own. Their work goes beyond smashing blocks; before that comes the social engineering required to gain access to a victim's server, by somehow convincing the owner to let them join their private world. Once inside, griefing can be every bit as creative as its counterpart: You can set traps, you can steal resources, you can flood a building with lava. You can alternate between multiple accounts to stave off getting caught. You can grief without directly destroying anything at all, by simply causing weeds to grow all over an adversary's home.
On YouTube, videos advise on how to proof your buildings against griefers, by building walls lined with obsidian or posting re-spawning witches at your door. A great many others catalogue the exploits of griefer collectives. Team Avolition is among the best known channels. Then there's Perfect Griefer, Grief Nation, The TNT Empire, Unstoppable Luck and Vexage Griefing, formerly known as I Can Has Grief, who I spoke to over Gmail.
"I got into griefing from watching Team Avolition," Totz of Vexage Griefing told me. "They really inspired me to start griefing and getting into hacked clients." Totz said that he griefs both for his viewers and for personal amusement. "I'm not going to sit here and say I've never griefed a person just for fun."
Griefing often takes methodical preparation and strategizing. First, the griefer scouts out server owners they judge deserving of grief. Sometimes this will be due to a personal grudge. "Let's say the owner is very abusive with his power and a total turd to everyone," Totz explained. "He bans you for whatever reason." (In this case you'll need to come back to grief with an alt account.)
Other targets are found through dedicated scouting: "We usually just stumble upon a server one of us finds and see if we can find a corrupt, money whore, bigoted owner or staff."
It might be the case that griefers are often the older kids making fun of younger kids; the bullies of a virtual playground.
Having found their prey, the team of griefers share the IP among themselves, spend time lurking on the server to case the joint, then finally go in for the kill. Totz told me, "It really just comes down to hacked clients, time, and our combined heads."
Totz explained that a hacked client is a downloadable modification you can use to gain an advantage over other players. He also sent a long list of examples, including "Nuker" (breaks auto-blocks), "Kill Aura" (auto-attack), "Jesus" (allows players to walk on water), "Fly" (a common hack which, predictably, allows players to fly) and "Derp Mode" (makes the player glitch out on everyone else's screen, though on their own they appear normal).
Another YouTube griefer I spoke to over email was Zcs (both griefers chose to use pseudonyms) of Pursuit of Gamers, who was also inspired by Team Avolition and has griefed with them in the past.
Zcs told me he joined the game around Minecraft Beta 1.5.1, a version released in 2013, playing on YouTuber Junkyard129's server. "I stole items from chests and messed with people's houses as much as I could without getting caught, but I did get caught and banned for griefing," he said. "That's where I learned what griefing meant."
Zcs's team aims for technically complex and visually impressive griefing. "We find something that would elicit a good response for YouTube, because that's what gets views," he explained. "Often we don't discover the exploits that we use in the videos—they get passed around the griefing community like gossip."
Both the griefers I spoke to played Minecraft as non-griefers before, and were the targets of griefers themselves.
After spending five or six hours building a gigantic wooden mansion, Totz logged in the following day to find it burning to the ground. "I've never understood why people get mad about their stuff getting destroyed," he said. "It's Minecraft, you can do anything and ideas should pop into your head and make new things with them. Don't whine about your house getting destroyed. Make a new one, maybe one hidden or hard to destroy."
Griefer videos take on a curious double function as both warnings against and tutorials for griefers, depending on the viewer. The comments below them include pleas from newbies to accept them to the team, exclamations of disgust, requests for them to grief servers and reasons why they deserve it, and even one or two complaints from those they've attempted to attack in the past.
Minecraft's popularity was built on its credibility as an indie underdog (pre-sale to Microsoft), along with an air of child-friendly wholesomeness (the New Yorker called it "shredded wheat for the mind"). Though no official breakdown of Minecraft user age demographics exists, the game is known for its popularity among children, so much so that an education edition was launched in January of this year.
Extremely young-sounding voices often feature in griefer videos, not as those doing the griefing but as their victims. It might be the case that griefers are often the older kids making fun of younger kids; the bullies of a virtual playground.
There is a quote attributed to Dostoevsky which goes, "Right or wrong, it's very pleasant to break something from time to time."
A study of MMORPG griefer culture in Taiwan (where griefers are known as "white-eyed players") published over a decade ago concluded that while there was no certain way to identify the age, gender, or identity of those they studied, they could ascertain that, "MMORPGs have, it seems, allowed human beings to experience their very first large scale, cross-age co-playing. And we believe that playing grief, the griefer stigma, and the associated othering mechanism all resulted from this brand new anxiety toward cross-age coplaying."
Minecraft's griefer culture could well reflect such an anxiety, a clash of older "serious" players and far younger ones. It seems likely that for some players, turning griefer marks a coming of age. Recruitment posts for griefer teams reflect this: On the Multiplayer Game Hacking forum, a reply to a call for recruits reads, "Yo dude. Im up for this. Professions: Griefing, DDoS, client scripting. Im only 13 btw but im not some lowlife call of duty player (No Offense)." Another user asks for a free account as they can't convince their parents to hand over their credit card.
There is a quote attributed to Dostoevsky which goes, "Right or wrong, it's very pleasant to break something from time to time." But in videos, Minecraft griefing can be exhausting work. Some of the griefer videos on YouTube go on for hours; knocking down buildings is almost as labour-intensive as building them. It's a repetitive, oddly luddite act within a laptop screen, sometimes executed on empty servers and seen by no one. Why go to all the trouble? If a treehouse is felled in an empty forest, does it even cause grief?
"I would grief if I wasn't recording," Zcs insisted. "Playing the game to piss off other people is significantly more fun than playing with good intentions."
But generally, griefing is something public now, done in teams and watched by thousands. It might even be the case that Minecraft has finally taken griefer culture mainstream. Now there are griefer memes and griefer ebooks. There is even a Minecraft level in Story mode called "Griefer Madness." In 2012, noted Minecraft troll Deadmau5 released his track "Professional Griefers," accompanied by the most expensive electronic dance video made to date. Gerard Way steps in on vocals, singing an ode to the griefer mindset: "Cause we are the last disease/ Another broken life that's full of all the awful things that I made…."
The griefer has come a long way from the solitary MUD-lurker, though they remain as tenacious and menacing as ever. The difference is that griefing is public now: If you build it, they will come, and they'll catch the whole thing on video.
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