There is an old saying: it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Whenever I think about the issue of griefing at a LARP, I like to change that saying to ‘It’s all fun and games until someone threatens you out of game with character death.’ Okay, so that’s not quite as snappy, but the point still stands. Any good LARP experience can be marred by the presence of game harassment known as griefing, so let’s break down the practice in its many forms.
A griefer is defined as a player who intentionally spoils a game for other players.While that might seem too wide a description, in many roleplaying communities it has become a term for players who use their character’s capabilities to seek to kill other player characters to either show off their character’s superiority, to loot for in-game goods or gear, or to act out some out-of-character vendetta against another player. The term is used heavily in online games like MMORPGs where griefers might be players who camp out at respawn points to murder newly returned and weak players, or higher level players that camp out in low-level areas to harass the new players or extort them for loot. This kind of player versus player (PVP) action is segregated to certain areas in many online games to allow players who just want player versus environment (PVE) adventures to play in peace. Still, that is not the case in every online game, and in LARP that kind of segregation of player population is nigh impossible. Unless a game outlaws PVP altogether, the issue of griefing can occur.
Each of the ways in which griefing expresses itself can have vastly different consequences and reasons behind it. The first kind of griefing can occur when a player just wants to show off the strength of their character. To gain attention, they’ll take on other players and push a player versus player agenda into their character just to get the opportunity to kill others. This is perhaps the least insidious form of griefing because at its core it is pretty blatant as to the motivations. Player A wants to feel powerful while playing his character, so he’ll target other players to rack up a kill count. Usually it is easy to identify this kind of griefing because the actions the player takes with their character will often not match up with plot or storyline, and the player will probably go out of their way to kill another character ‘just because’.
The next form of griefing is what I like to think of as mercenary griefing. Since most games have an in-game economy that player characters participate in, the quest for resources can put people into competition with one another. If a player wants that new piece of armor, or a better weapon, they’d better have the gold for it; sometimes there just aren’t enough enemies dropping loot to get everyone what they need. The impulse can then turn to treating fellow player characters just like you’d treat NPC enemies, and kill them for their gear, goods, or gold. This kind of behavior can have lots of causes, but I postulate that it might stem from identifying the self as the sole important part of the game and everyone else as background characters to the individual player’s ‘success.’
The third kind of griefing is far more insidious. Griefer has also come to mean someone who threatens to or kills another player’s character due to out of character reasons. That out of character reason might be personal (‘I don’t like Jimmy, so I’m going to kill Jimmy’s character Ferrox the Unholy’) or it might sadly be more ideological (‘I don’t like Jimmy because he is ______ so Ferrox has to go’). Still other times it can come from more unfortunate inter-game conflicts in which players may try to dissuade someone from playing in multiple games at once. Most LARP communities have at least one instance of inter-game feuds that they can reference from their history. Two games occur near one another, jealousy over player base sizes can occur, and somewhere along the line pressure is put upon players to decide where to go.
Regardless of the reason behind the griefing, when a player begins to see killing a person’s character as retribution, that’s when the unfortunate out of character/in character line is crossed. While all three ways to grief another player can be harmful to player experience, this last one is the most troubling. It steps outside the in-game exercise of player versus player into a meta-game that can be straight harassment. Many games include anti-harassment policies that include considerations about vendetta actions like these and may be consider such actions as subject to punishment.
So where does the impulse to grief come from? The behavior might be tracked back to a number of factors. To start with, what some may see as griefing can be seen by other players as simple competitive exercise within the game’s rules. In that mindset, player versus player battle is only another way to engage with the environment, as they treat other players the same as they’d treat an NPC without consideration for the out of character feelings of the killed player. It is that last part that turns PvP into something more than just two players vying against one another and turns it into what might become an uncomfortable situation; a PvP situation isn’t griefing until it steps over the line into spoiling the game for someone else. In the end, it really is all fun and games until someone gets killed in-game for making someone angry out of character. Then, it’s just a giant, painful mess.
What do you think? Is griefing such a huge problem, or merely an exercise in differences of opinion? What kind of griefing do you think is the most problematic? Share your experiences and let’s break down this phenomenon a little more.