Late last year the avatar Anshe Chung, a property developer in the virtual world Second Life who is said to have made more than $1 million dollars on virtual real estate deals, was assaulted by flying phalluses in a 'griefer' attack during a live media interview. The attack brought to attention the increasing phenomenon of anti-social behavior on the web.
Online gaming is becoming increasingly popular, but so are incidences of 'griefing'
We expected so much from the internet in the early days. It was to be a libertarian's paradise, where people could meet and form lasting relationships with other individuals from around the globe, free from the constraints of daily existence - all without having to leave their bedroom.
But it seems cyberspace may just be a magnification of the worst aspects of human nature.
In the online world, users are bullied, assaulted, even raped. In the expanding world of online gaming and social networking, anti-social and malicious behavior has become universal enough to give birth to a whole new vocabulary of terms such as "griefing" and "trolling". But can the worst aspects of cyberspace be regulated or is it a universe that is impossible to control?
What is griefing?
A recent report by Pew Research's Internet & American Life Project found that 32 percent of all teenagers who use the internet have experienced some form of "cyber-bullying". And it is not limited to adolescents, where you would expect it.
Griefing, which is often used to describe behavior on multi-player online games in which individual players intentionally frustrate others by disregarding the rules of etiquette has become so widespread that it has even generated sub genres -- terms such as kill stealing, corpse camping, spamming and ninja looting.
But griefing can also describe any form of anti-social and malicious activity performed within the confines of the internet. "If you are going to be technical about it [griefing] should be defined as harassment that one couldn't do in real life," explains Steven Davis of IT GlobalSecure, a security adviser to producers of online multi-platform games.
"I place mines in front of planes," an anonymous griefer told G4 TV, describing his behavior on the multi-player games Battlefield 1942. "When someone tries to take off, they're blown to bits. I also take advantage of a glitch in the game that allows me to ride the wings of a plane. Then I kill the unsuspecting pilot midair and parachute to safety."
While examples such as this might prove little more than an annoying hindrance to the enjoyment of other players, some griefing can have far more damaging consequences.
One of the earliest recorded incidences was the now infamous "Rape in Cyberspace", as described by the journalist Julian Dibbell in the Village Voice in 1993. Dibbell had been part of LambdaMOO, a text-based virtual world (the world was described with words on the screen rather than with graphics) .
One of the members of the world, Mr Bungle, managed to run a "voodoo doll" subprogram which controlled the actions of other characters within the room, and two of the characters were forced to perform sexual acts upon him, and themselves, against their will.
While no physical sexual act took place, the user whose character was a victim described to Dibbell how "post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face" as she discussed the incident with other members of the group. It only demonstrates how the boundaries between what's real and what's virtual can often blur.
It's true to say that anti-social and behavior occurs frequently within the real world but it would appear that the internet acts not just as a mirror to the real world but as a magnifying glass, exaggerating malicious tendencies.
Griefing -- why does it happen?
Most observers of the problem agree that the main contributing factor is the anonymity behind which users can hide on the web.
"We've known for a long time from the fields of psychology, anthropology and other areas of social studies that peer pressure is probably a more significant driver of human behavior than laws," says Raph Koster, a game designer and creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies.
The internet can act as an amplifier for bad behavior; the increased reach can encourage griefers to perform to an audience. "In computer science there's this term -- an Nē problem," explains Koster. "This is where, as you add more things to a system, each new thing interacts with all the existing things so that problems scale exponentially rather than lineally. Human behavior is a kind of Nē problem."
Judith Donath, a professor in media, arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Sociable Media Group, agrees that anonymity of the perpetrator and an ensuing lack of peer pressure are key contributing factors to the increasing growth of cases of griefing, but also believes that the problem is exacerbated by the dehumanizing effect of the Internet.
"[The internet] changes people's perceptions of what the rules and constraints are. Obviously people do pull pranks and do mean things to each other in real life but online not only are they anonymous and feel safer doing things like that but there's also less of a sense of the humanity of the other that might make some people stop and think: 'I really shouldn't do this.' It's very easy to think of the people they are corresponding with as not quite human."
Donath believes that while in the early days of the web, cases of trolling -- deliberately inciting arguments by posting controversial messages on discussion boards and forums -- did exist, the problem was kept in check partly because most of the early users knew each other, but also because the size of the chat groups reduced the chances of true anonymity.
The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar formed the theory Dunbar's Number, which proposes that 150 is the maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship. The theory concludes that beyond a group size of 150, civil society breaks down because individuals no longer feel a connection with other members of the group. In much the same way, as the volume of traffic on the web has increased and sites have become more populated, so acceptable behavior has deteriorated.
Koster believes that one of the solutions to stemming an epidemic of griefing or trolling is to break down online communities into smaller numbers where individuals within the group can exercise influence over destructive participants.
Another path is the one forged by countries such as South Korea, where any South Korean citizen who wants to post comments on a blog or forum, or take part in an online game, must submit their National ID number. This reduces the potential for anonymity and consequently the inclination for anti-social behavior. But human rights groups have condemned such policies, claiming it impinges on free speech.
Ultimately, Koster believes the solution lies in an 'Avatar Bill of Rights' which would give players in online communities a measure of protection against the power wielded by administrators -- and against fellow players. He proposes a structure by which users are empowered to take action against griefers and are given the chance to collectively ban someone. Users should also be able to file grievances against each other in a more organized fashion than currently exists.
"There's a whole raft of things like this that don't currently exist as infrastructure," he says. "They have them ad hoc, every community does it differently and most of them don't offer the full sweep. There's almost nothing out there that offers the array of things that the real world does for dealing with similar problems."
But some are more skeptical about such a proposal, believing that the internet is too large and too diverse to police and that it would be difficult to apply rules that will stick and remain relevant to such a rich variety of worlds. "I don't think there's going to be a universal set of laws like that carried out across the net," says Judith Donath. "Right now we tend to see these spaces as markedly different and I think that over time it will be about having spaces that are a little more transparent."
As virtual worlds become more popular and more intricate -- some games even offer players the chance to win real world money - it is plain that the brave new world of the internet will eventually have to find some way of regulating itself. E-mail to a friend