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Thinking Virtually

#45: Dirty Words: Of PK and Grief Players

An Alternative View to The Competition Conundrum by Travis S. Casey
February 25, 2002 (originally posted Feb 18)


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In this final Alternative View to The Competition Conundrum, I'm reprinting part two of Travis Casey's discussions of the "PK" dirty word. If you haven't yet read part one, you might want to do so; it's Thinking Virtually #43. Travis also offers some brief comments on the article that ran here last week, Jessica Mulligan's That Darned PvP Stuff Again. Today's article originally appeared as a part of Travis Casey's Building Stories, Telling Games. I'll return next week with a totally new piece, on the Balance Bother. --Shannon


Two weeks ago I talked about what PK is, reasons why people like and dislike it, and some of the ways in which it's controlled on games that allow it.

So — why have PK at all? What does it add to a game? Well, that's really another way of asking "why do people like it". We covered that last time, but all the reasons given really boil down to one: competition. Many people like to compete with others, and find competing with another person to be more emotionally satisfying than competing against their own best, or against a computer program.

Why not have PK? Well, the main answer to that is grief players.

The same thing that motivates PK fans, taken to extremes, creates the grief players. I'm sure you know the kind — they get their jollies by making other people unhappy. I like the term "grief players" for them — their goal is to inflict grief on others. Many of them love PK, because killing someone else's character is often an easy way to inflict major grief on them. But even without PK, they'll work hard to find ways to hurt other players.

The real trick in managing PK is managing the grief players. Although PKers and grief players overlap a good bit, it's far from being a 100% overlap.

Some games just don't allow PK at all. This takes away one of the major things that grief players like, but it won't get rid of 100% of them. On a game that does this, non-grief PK fans will often simply choose to leave. Those that do stay won't try to PK. This means that this sort of setup makes it easier to separate grief players from PK fans — the PK fans may grumble about the game not allowing what they like, but they won't actively try to circumvent the restrictions, while grief players will. Some determined grief players will try to operate in such games, but most will look for greener pastures.

Some games have unlimited PK. This would seem to be grief player heaven, but it's not necessarily. Since almost all players on such games are PK fans, they accept character death as a normal part of the game, and don't tend to take it personally. Since a grief player's joy is in making other players unhappy, this sort of environment doesn't sustain them well — they're not really hurting the other players by killing their characters, and the players are who they want to hurt.

That leaves games with a mix of PK/non-PK. This kind of environment, depending on how it's set up, can give grief players a lot of opportunity to get their fun. Sometimes they can manage to attack and kill non-PK players, and, since PK is legal, they can try to justify their actions by saying they were trying to get another PK player, and it was an accident. A non-100% PK mud is also likely to have people who are trying PK for the first time, or who are "PK dabblers", if you will. These players may not have the dedicated PK fan's idea that "death is just part of the game", and can therefore be more hurt by a grief player's killing of their character than a dedicated PK fan would be.

There's also a further difference that tends to exist between all-PK and mixed-PK games. In an all-PK game, the main emphasis is on the competition between players, since that's what PK players love. Because of this, the differences in power between characters is often fairly small — the game is designed in such a way that it's player skill that matters more, rather than having a great character. Mixed-PK games are more likely to follow the traditional paper RPG setup, where experienced characters are vastly more powerful than new characters. Since a grief player is looking to hurt someone else, rather than really looking for a challenge, grief players like the opportunity to attack and bully weaker characters.

A Quick Note on PK vs. PvP

I couldn't help but noticing that after my last column was posted, Jessica Mulligan talked about PvP [last week]. Personally, I prefer the term "PK" to "PvP", because "player versus player" can cover a lot of other ground beyond player characters being able to fight and kill each other. Such things as races, scavenger hunts, games of capture-the-flag, and games-within-the-game are all ways of allowing players to compete against each other, without having to allow player characters to fight and kill each other.

These sorts of things can also stand as an alternative to PK — they can provide the challenge of competing against other people which most PK fans love, while lowering the level of opportunity for grief players. Thus, I prefer to use the term "PvP" to cover any sort of setup in which players are pitted against each other in some way, while reserving "PK" for those games where player characters engage in combat against each other.

And, indeed, there are dedicated PvP games that don't feature PK. Skotos' own Galactic Emperor: Succession is such a game, where all the players are competing against each other, but players cannot kill each other's characters.

How to Keep Grief Players Out

Personally, I like the challenge part of PK, but I don't like the grief players who tend to come along with it. I've had a few ideas over the years on how to do PK while discouraging grief players, and I thought I'd toss them out for all to see, think about, and maybe even use.

  1. Deny them their fix. Grief players generally like to do more than just kill their victims; they want to make the victim suffer. One of the main things they'll use in doing this is taunts to their victims. One way to keep down the grief players, then, might be to prevent PKers from talking to their foes. This could be set up with a good game-world reason — for example, if different species are fighting each other, they may not speak the same language.
  2. Make it hard to get in. Most grief players are immature people in general. They don't want to have to wait a long time to get into a game. What's more, they're usually more interested in hurting other players than in playing the game itself. Because of this, games which require players to apply before they can get in, such as many MUSHes, tend to have a much lower number of grief players.
  3. Have an effective way to throw grief players out. On a traditional free mud, a grief player whose character has been banned will just make a new character and be back again. Banning IP blocks used to be an effective practice to keep particular players out, but with the increased number of national ISPs, grief players can shift from one set of IPs to another. Further, banning IPs isn't as much of an option for non-free muds, especially when a grief player is coming from a large ISP. Right now, probably the most effective way to ban grief players would be through credit card info. Unfortunately, that's not really an option for anything but commercial games.

Closing Thought

PK tends to be one of the more divisive issues in online games. In closing, I'd just like to say that it's not a black-and-white issue. Some people like PK in theory, but hate the grief players who often come with it. Some people like a taste of PK every now and then, but don't want to do it all the time. Some like it all the time. Some don't like it at all. But that's why we have so many games — because there's no one perfect game that's going to make everyone happy. With PK, as with anything else about a mud, it's important to know what you're going into when you join a new mud. Ask around, look around on the web, and then make your decision.

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