"Maybe I'm just a bad person," he said. "Maybe I'm just a bad person."
That was the half-confession, half-boast of a self-professed video game troll I met in a bar. He'd just gotten done regaling a friend and me with tales of his preferred method of playing games: messing with people, sometimes even driving them to tears. A slight chuckle followed. Was it simple nervousness, or a hint of childlike mirth, a smile glinting unmistakably in the dark like a poorly concealed dagger? At that point, I was fairly certain the answer was both.
It was an odd conversation—the sort where neither side ever saw eye-to-eye, but it wasn't exactly an argument. Personally, I just wanted to understand more than anything else. Even if I disagree with somebody, they're still human. We've got that much in common, at least. This person made no bones about his favorite thing to do in games. He liked to push people. Shout at them. Mess with them. Make them break. Make them cry. Talking to him face-to-face on equal terms, I wanted to get a better grasp on why he derived so much joy from making other people, well, miserable.
The fact that somebody like this exists wasn't news to me. Almost every frequent online player has at least one story about a bonafide, no-nonsense, perhaps even cruel troll. But trolls gain their power by standing behind a shield of Internet anonymity, or so I thought. Bring them into the light of day—real life—and I figured they'd be totally different people. Or at least maybe a little less... Internet about it. But as we sat at that increasingly empty table in that darkened bar, it became all-too-apparent that this person was—more than anything else—proud.
He smiled as he told us about a kid in League of Legends who he wouldn't stop verbally poking and prodding. He did that a lot. Eventually the kid started yelling back at him, audibly in tears. A job well done, he said. Apparently the kid wasn't a very good team player, so he felt justified in dishing out punishment. He'd gotten bored of playing LoL the normal way, though. Justified or not, he liked to pick a player and prey on them from time-to-time. It was something new. Something different.
At this point, my friend—a very, very tall teddy bear of a human being—asked how our newfound drinking buddy would feel if someone did the same to him back when he first started playing LoL. He didn't really have much of an answer. "Maybe I'm a bad person," he chanted again after a couple contemplative seconds. "Maybe I'm a bad person."
I don't think he really thought that about himself, though. The vast majority of people consider themselves inherently good, their actions just in the heat of the moment, if nothing else. Aside from this little habit of his, he didn't really seem like a bad person either. He was an average enough dude, and he conversed jovially with plenty of people at the table. These were games, he rationalized. This was just his way of playing them.
I countered that he wasn't engaging people on the same terms. He got to play the way he wanted, but his playmates (or playthings, really) inherently got the short end of the stick. They weren't prepared to give as good as they got because they didn't even know that's what they'd be getting. They didn't sign up for this. Like an unassuming gravel-voiced cyberpunk security officer with just the right amount of stubble, they never asked for this.
He didn't seem to mind that so much. It wasn't his problem, he said. That, more than anything, is what really got me. That attitude. At best it was merely dismissive, at worst it was utterly chilling, bereft of basic empathy. I wanted to keep a cool head—it was just a conversation, after all—but I could hardly suppress my rage at his refusal to at least own up to possible harm he was causing. Responsibility is important. It's not necessarily an admission that you're doing something wrong, but it's an understanding that your actions do have an impact on other people. It's a nod—or at least a sly wink—at the fact that you own your decisions.
He was basically foisting blame on other people for not enjoying the results of his actions. I told him as much, and I could feel an edge in my voice, a rumble in my chest. I wasn't ready to blow my top just yet, but I could feel the smoke rising in my ears.
He went on to recount the way he and a few friends would earn the trust of new players of massive sandbox space game EVE Online and then send them on what essentially amounted to suicide missions. They'd laugh as these players lost every space-penny to their space-names. Again, my friend and I retorted with concerns about things like these people's leisure time—that this might be their only fresh air in a day or week of suffocating stress, and he was taking that away from them—but his responses were more or less the same. His game, his terms.
At this particular point, however, I couldn't stop a peculiar thought from creeping into my mind, and it ended up being one of my biggest takeaways from the whole night. Maybe, I realized, not all trolling is bad. It has rotten roots, sure, but it can lead to good outcomes in certain games.
Case in point: I was still frustrated, but EVE Online is strange. You could argue that some of its best moments—massive battles, complex corporate heists, tales of years-long subterfuge—have essentially been the result of large-scale trolling. Moment-to-moment, EVE is about languidly steering a ship through space's nigh-incomprehensible black, but the real meat of it is human interaction. Sometimes that leads to manipulation and betrayal. It's the nature of the beast, and I don't think EVE would be even remotely good without it.
There's a difference between that sort of mental warfare and picking on unsuspecting newbs, filling them with false wisdom and delighting in their fall, but the foundations are similar. Sad to say, one kind of enables the other. Moreover, this big, wonderful monstrosity that is EVE wouldn't exist if people on the Internet hadn't decided to start being jerks to each other before it was the norm. Or at least, it wouldn't be thriving in its current form. Granted, one could argue that, even way back then, players turned nasty to get an upper hand in the game—not for the sheer joy of provoking a sad or angry reaction.
Maybe that's the distinction. Not necessarily the what, but the why. I mean, it's fairly clear-cut when games' player reporting systems (or even something more robust like League of Legends' tribunal disciplinary system) are involved, but in games with more of a gray area as to what's fair play, I feel like intention goes a long way. If it's part of the game, then so be it. But if you're explicitly out to bring down others—to ruin their fun, to hear them shout, curse, and cry—then maybe that's a problem. Or at least it's worth a little self-examination, a better understanding of why you do it and how it's affecting people.
I say this, but then I think of sandbox games like DayZ and Rust, where many people mess with each other just for the sake of it. Lawless lands that developed incredibly vibrant, fascinating stories and cultures precisely because some players just wanted to wreak havoc and watch the world burn. DayZ, arguably, is about the feelings it creates, the feelings you create in other players (and vice versa). Some of those feelings are incredibly negative, and people's motivations for causing them are sometimes dubious. Those moments, however, give rise to incredible stories, and they also make the impact that much more powerful when people aren't unforgivable, Walmart-caliber jerkstores.
These days it's just sort of understood that you're going to get that kind of experience in DayZ, but it wasn't always that way. Again, people had to make virtual life hell for their fellow men and women to establish the pattern. Even institutionalized jerkitude requires pioneers.
I walked away from my impromptu under-the-bridge pow-wow with Mr Troll infuriated—more from frustration than anything else. I'll admit that a large part of it came from the things he said, but I also felt caged by my own confusion. I hate the idea of people being purposefully, unrepentantly shitty to each other—especially while creeping Rambo-style through the underbrush of online anonymity—but I can't deny that it's facilitated some video game experiences that wouldn't be possible anywhere else.
So where do we draw the line? How do we discourage meaningless dickery (or at least encourage people to take responsibility for their actions) while also allowing for—and I don't use the word lightly—incredible exceptions like DayZ, Rust, or EVE? Those games weren't made for trolling, but they were arguably made better by its existence—or at least made unique. How do we reconcile this? Where do we go from here? I honestly do not know, and I can't help but feel a little terrible about that.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.