GOOD GRIEF(ING): FOR THE LULZ, FOR THE WIN

 

The members of GoonSwarm embrace—nay, embody—the practice known as griefing. Griefing is an activity that takes place in various online environs, from Second Life, Habbo Hotel, and related simulation spaces to out-of-the-way fetish forums or popular MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies. It often involves visual or textual references to anatomical vulgarities (as in a horde of flying penises raining down during an in-game meeting), as well as ethnically or racially sensitive matters (a barrage of swashtikas, for example, or racial slurs). In fact, many of the members of GoonSwarm, who trace their provenance back to the shock-humor forum somethingawful.com, actively participate in griefing within these various places. While most members would simply say this activity is mainly for fun (or the lulz), it is also a way of building camaraderie: denigrating the "normal" players, creating and building upon internally generated memes, and working collectively towards a goal of frustrating everyone outside of the alliance. This isn't necessarily mindless aggravation for its own sake, however. As Burcu Bakioglu argues in his article "Spectacular Interventions in Second Life: Goon Culture, Griefing, and Disruption in Virtual Spaces," the practice of griefing has a decidedly political dimension to it:

Underneath the rhetoric of game play based on targeting those who take the Internet seriously, however, there exists a cultural signification with serious effects. They not only jam the world's signification system and subvert the bourgeois taste by spamming the environment with offensive objects, but also attack capitalistic ideology by crashing sims and significant media events, and regularly launching raids in-world which result in causing in-world businesses to lose money, thereby hurting the virtual economy at large. (11)

And so it is with GoonSwarm. Far from being a simplistic, punkish, scorched-earth policy, there is method to this griefer madness. In EVE Online (unlike the other online spaces where griefing takes place), Goons play to win, collectively manipulating the game's rule set and social conventions by undertaking such tactics as intentionally sacrificing a fleet of smaller ships in order to take out larger enemy vessels, relentlessly antagonizing the opposition through various channels (in-game, external discussion forums, propaganda videos), and being openly dismissive regarding enemy victories (e.g., "meh—whatever!"). All told, such methods are deliberately strategic, as they unsettle rival factions, better allowing GoonSwarm to garner territory, money, and other in-game goodies.

As frustrating as some players find griefing, we argue that it can be regarded as a model of effective, if unconventional, civic discourse, the kind that Hart-Davidson, Zappen, and Halloran endorse. The tactics characterized as griefing, both within and alongside the gamespace, demonstrate a critical understanding, and active complication, of the procedural rhetoric of the situation. Generally speaking, griefing-style tactics have the potential to effect positive transformative change by destabilizing otherwise “naturalized” rulesets. This is a potential that GoonSwarm itself has already begun to realize (e.g., see the final section of this piece, where the alliance's political maneuvering has resulted in game developer CCP revising game mechanics and other rules, arguably to the benefit of all EVE Online players), and one that holds promise for dispossessed groups engaging in real-world civic discourse.

 

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