The timer ticks down toward zero. We tear across the Boneyard, one of Halo: Reach's best multiplayer maps, my good friend Rus driving with me sitting shotgun. I'm clutching the blue flag in hands that would be sweating if they were real. We shed our red teammates like skin; they race past us going the other direction on foot and in alien vehicles, crashing to pieces against the blue players that pursue us. They fall, re-spawn, hurtle past, and fall again. All the while the timer ticks down.
Seconds left. No blues in sight. No more obstacles. No chance of losing now. But something happens. The clock reaches zero. The game is over, and it's a tie. We imagine our teammates, hands gripping controllers, first puzzled, then enraged. Maybe they'll press "B" to exit the lobby in frustration instead of letting the game whisk them away to the next match. Maybe they'll watch the instant replay, fast-forwarding through to the end to find out how we could have possibly let that victory slip away.
Then they'll see us drive past our base, me still clutching the flag, passing within feet of where we could have scored and won, instead putting virtual pedal to the metal and driving off the edge of the map and into oblivion. We take the team's win with us, but earn ourselves a different sort of victory. We are trolls. It's what we do.
We'll play a game straight for hours, our teammates unsuspecting, hunting for that perfect moment.
There's an art to good trolling. It's not about being as destructive or antagonistic as possible. Anyone can chuck grenades at their teammates. That takes no guile. It's philistine. What's the point?
The term itself, "trolling," has become worryingly mainstream, its definition growing nebulous through overuse. Judges are using it to define shady attorneys and copyright abusers. It's being applied to basically anyone who acts like a dick. Third-rate trolls with no craft have become universally despised for ruining games, and most gamers have forgotten what it even means to get truly, honestly trolled.
Urban Dictionary gets it: trolling is "the art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off…trolling does not mean just making rude remarks," it says. "Trolling requires deceiving."
It's not the act of screwing up someone else's game that gets us off. It's the thrill of the chase. We want to surprise you. We'll play a game straight for hours, our teammates unsuspecting, hunting for that perfect moment. The moment that will make the anonymous eyes behind a dozen scattered televisions widen in surprise. We'll make you rage. We'll make you cry. You'll throw your hands in the air in frustration. And afterward, if we've trolled you right, you'll laugh.
Death at a funeral
Seven years ago an avid World of Warcraft player suffered a tragic, fatal stroke. Her online friends organized a very public ceremony during which friends and enemies alike could come and pay their respects.
A rival guild, ironically named Serenity Now, decided to crash that ceremony, and a bloodbath ensued. It was brutal, calculated and somehow, naively, unexpected. Or so the story goes. Regardless, the video remains hilarious to this day.
I've never met Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, but if I ever did I'd ask him how big a troll he considers himself. I'm fairly certain what his answer would be.
Dark Souls was made for trolling. Summoning other players to help in your world requires you to transform into a vulnerable state that leaves your virtual back door open to invasions from malicious players hoping to prey on the weak or unsuspecting. Dark Souls features underhanded spells that turn your avatar into a tree or a statue so you can hide out in the open, and weapons that let you steal valuable in-game currency called Humanity from victims too slow to move out of your way.
One evening recently I found myself invading other players' worlds, as I am wont to do. I lose some games and win others. That's how it goes. But two sociopathic thugs showed me the meaning of trolling that night.
As I spawned in my would-be victim's world, I saw two players on either side of my still-loading character, each casting a spell. A golden aura instantly surrounded me, and I found myself trapped in magic molasses, doomed to move at a snail's pace. Powerless to escape or fight back, I became easy prey for their devastating Humanity-stealing attacks. Once they'd had their fill ("yummy," one messaged me later, after calling me a "noob pussyfart"), they dispatched me easily. I returned to my world feeling utterly defeated.
We had more encounters that night, but the dishonorable duo usually came away with the upper hand. They were playing a dirty game. That spell is frowned on in PVP circles for being far too debilitating. And the Humanity-draining attack, though normally easy to dodge, is not exactly sportsmanlike. After playing Dark Souls more or less continuously since its release, I thought I had seen everything. I never expected to be ganked so hard, and I never saw it coming. I still haven't stopped laughing about it.
Making a list, checking it twice
If you managed to sneak in some Dark Souls this past holiday season in between football games and family dinners, you may have come across a white-haired player dressed in red robes. He may have dropped an item on the ground and gestured for you to take it. If you were a nice boy or girl, you'd get to keep the present.
But if you were naughty and tried to attack your benefactor or steal another player's present, you'd be dealt with accordingly. Dark Souls Santa doled out holiday cheer and deadly justice in equal measure. The video above is one of my favorites.
Rus and I spent a few summer months hopelessly entangled in the block-shaped world of Minecraft, rapturous at the idea of playing splitscreen co-op on my massive TV on the Xbox 360 version of Mojang's world-building masterpiece. At first our sessions were strictly exploratory as we tested the limits of a game he and I had previously only dabbled in. But in a game where you can build anything, things quickly turn nasty.
Back to Halo: Reach for a moment. In Forge Mode—a simplified map editor—I would often craft house-sized teleporters that would send other players to the bottom of the ocean and rake them back and forth across the battlefield like a vacuum cleaner for trolls. In Minecraft, we started smaller, laying simple traps and plundering each other's supplies.
He spent hours building pointlessly huge structures made of easily-harvested materials. I dug elaborate systems of tunnels in search of elusive diamonds. Once my companion realized it was easier to steal my diamonds than find his own, I made it my goal to build a Rus-proof vault. That's not easy in a game where the primary mechanic is destroying things with a pickaxe.
This consumed me for several weeks, and eventually I built a structure I hoped would prove impenetrable. The vault floated, magically isolated, a hundred feet in the air. It was made entirely of obsidian, the hardest (and hardest to mine) material in the game. The entrance consisted of a contraption that required two players working in tandem to open it. I covered the entire thing in flowing lava, and wired it with TNT that would detonate if it was tampered with.
It was elaborate. I considered it masterful. I stored my loot inside, along with some food and a bed in the event I was besieged. Yeah, I may have been too into it. When I lured Rus back into my world, he was appropriately puzzled for several minutes. I grew smug. Then he battered down the door, rushed past the molasses-quick lava, and plundered my diamonds anyway. I was out-trolled and I knew it, but it was still worth those few minutes of satisfaction.
The long con
EVE Online players have actually built themselves a virtual economy that is, if anything, even more complex than the real-world one. Maybe in EVE, it's not considered strange to spend a real year of your real life plotting to take down a powerful corporation, entering its ranks at the bottom level and working your way up the corporate ladder until you can pull the trigger on its CEO and decimate a $16,500 (real money) company at the behest of its main business rivals.
Or maybe the members of the Guiding Hand Social Club, a shady agency that did exactly that all the way back in 2005, were just hardcore enough to pull it off. Either way, epic troll.
It's easy to be a mediocre troll. Anyone can throw grenades at their teammates in Modern Warfare or scream expletives into the mic during an otherwise friendly game of Team Fortress 2. It takes no forethought to simply blow up all your team's vehicles, leave your friends behind in Left 4 Dead, or harass online strangers in fits of sheer boredom. Anyone can mod their console and make themselves invincible or steal a friendly player's air-dropped care package. Those forms of "trolling" are unimaginative and easy. But most things that are easy aren't really worth doing.
I love a good solo, narrative experience. I much prefer it to stale, repetitive competitive multiplayer. I was playing Zelda while other kids were absorbed in endless Counterstrike matches. I also don't like sports. There's a pattern there, I think.
But as I've gotten older some games have continued to mirror the real world more and more closely. Now the will of the player is more important than the rules of the game, and just like in real life our interactions with other people define our experiences. That's what makes it interesting.
Playing by yourself is fine, but it's when others challenge the very boundaries of your experience that things really get good.
I visited Bungie last year to get an early look at the Halo makers' next game, Destiny. They promised a game with seamless multiplayer that will allow players to jump in and out of each other's worlds without even realizing it. When I asked them what kind of limits they're going to place on player-to-player interactions—will there be PVP zones? Will I be able to attack other players on sight? Can I be a troll if I want to?—their noncommittal answer did not fill me with hope.
Long after I've finished the main missions and the side quests, tried all the challenges, and unlocked every achievement, I continue returning to games like Dark Souls and Minecraft because I can manipulate their systems. Being able to push the boundaries makes a game endlessly interesting, especially when you can do it in a social setting. Maybe Destiny will end up being safer for the masses, but if its PVP doesn't allow a little wiggle room for trolling it might not hold my attention for very long.
I touched on this months ago in an article about blurring the lines between single player and multiplayer. Playing by yourself is fine, but it's when others challenge the very boundaries of your experience that things really get good. I hate falling into a routine. What I want is to be surprised. Trolling is how I accomplish that, but I always troll in a way that I hope will cause my victims to have a more unpredictable—or even shocking—experience as well.
It's this thought that drives me to enter the next match and wait for my opportunity to do the unexpected—even if it means losing. Some victories are fleeting, but our teammates in Halo might just remember those two idiots who drove off the edge of the world and laughed on the way down.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. When he's not taking pictures of his dog, he's serving as Kotaku's occasional weekend guest editor. Follow him on Twitter for regular glimpses into the asinine stream of his consciousness.