If you grew up playing videogames, there's a good chance you knew “that kid.”
They were the ones that seemed determined to ruin everyone's good time at any cost, through a variety of methods. Some were satisfied using physical means like knocking the controller out of your hand, or hip-checking you at the arcade. The more clever among them found ways to exploit something within the game to their extreme benefit. Perhaps it was by choosing the divinely gifted Bo Jackson in Super Tecmo Bowl, or rushing ahead in Contra just to watch the edge of the screen kill you over, and over again.
Back then, the method of dealing with these kids was relatively simple. You just didn't invite them over, and eventually forced them to either play along, or take up collecting Pogs for a hobby instead. However, as the Internet became the place where people congregated to play games, “don’t invite them” suddenly was no longer an option for that subset of troublemakers. They had global access any game, at any time.
When that happened, the “that kids” of the world became known as trolls. And their exploits became the stuff of legend.
In 1997, a troll by the handle of Rainz killed Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott's in-game character while he was visiting the beta test of the game on a sort of diplomatic mission. A World of Warcraft player named Angwe once spent the better part of two months killing any low-level character that came near a crucial section of one of the game’s servers. His presence became such a problem that entire FAQ pages began to appear online that suggested methods of how to avoid him. This ranged from the use of valuable teleportation stones all the way up to taking an arduous swim around the lands he claimed for his hunting grounds.
Indeed there are times when the very presence of trolls in gaming feels like an inevitability.
In one memorable occurrence, an EVE Online player even went so far as to disband a major guild, effectively crippling the characters of everyone that was in it, and severely disrupting the in-game economy as well. So far as anyone can tell, this action was done solely for personal amusement.
And so, just as trolls everywhere adapted with the times to spread their ways like never before, those that opposed their methods had to come up with new ways to prevent them from doing so. While many companies implement some form of a basic user reporting and ban system in their games, others like Rockstar go so far as to create special troll-only servers for repeat offenders. When speaking about their upcoming game Destiny, developer Bungie even mentioned they are anticipating the specific potential actions of trolls within the game, and are designing the rest of the game to ensure that those actions have as little impact as possible.
Yet, despite even the best efforts, no definitive solution has yet been reached. Indeed there are times when the very presence of trolls in gaming feels like an inevitability.
Actually, there is a new generation of games that are banking off just that.
There are a few recent titles that approach the appearance of trolls in videogames not as a roadblock, but rather a potential asset. Rather than hinder the presence of trolls, they go so far as to encourage their players to engage in the act itself in order to get the most complete experience out of the title possible. In the past, this accommodation of trolls may have been viewed as a concession of sorts, but in reality the approach is not quite so simple as that.
Take, for instance, the zombie apocalypse multiplayer game DayZ. While the early versions of DayZ largely played out like an episode of Man vs. Wild with zombies, it wasn't long before players took to killing, robbing or even just humiliating one another, for both survival and entertainment purposes. Given that this tends to be the natural order of things when players are given few resources and the ability to harm each other, perhaps that shift was to be expected.
What wasn't expected, however, was the volume of these occurrences. DayZ's creator Dean Hall once commented that the number of players engaging in these practices worried him, as he felt it that resorting to these methods for entertainment purposes was somehow a comment on the quality of the game itself.
Yet the key thing to consider is that the team behind DayZ did not immediately go out of their way to squelch either the presence or impact of these players in the game. Instead, they incorporated a mechanic that allowed for the game to visually identify those players who consistently exhibited troll behavior (known in the game as “bandits”), from those who actively tried to help other players, or were otherwise neutral. In essence then, they morphed these players who were organically choosing their own role into this world into more traditional in-game characters.
The decision to do that helped to foster a singular in-game environment. DayZ always excelled at providing a somewhat realistic look at your odds of surviving the zombie apocalypse, but by allowing players to essentially have free reign regarding their interactions with each other, they added a layer of tension and fear of their fellow survivors that otherwise could not have been implemented. Every encounter with another player in DayZ is entirely unpredictable, and that's due in large part to a conscious decision to allow for the unpredictable nature of people to play out, without hindrance.
The inherent desire some possess to troll others is all you need to yield a multiplayer element.
Though DayZ's approach to trolling may be the result of an adaptation to circumstances, other games that have followed since have adopted a similar design from the outset. This is perhaps most evident in the survival-based Rust which shares a similar philosophy on player interaction. Like DayZ, it was not necessarily built exclusively for competitive action, but it does have a competitive element largely built upon the mere presence of other players in the same game as you. Rust acknowledges that there is a constant threat of player v.s player violence, simply because those other players may take to violence on their own accord, and the game is not going to prevent them from doing so.
Demon's Souls (and its spiritual successor, the Dark Souls series), is built upon a similar logic: the inherent desire some possess to troll others is all you need to yield a multiplayer element. Though the Souls games can be played offline, it's only when opening your game to the rest of the world that you get the ability to communicate with other players through a communal messaging system, and even directly enter the world of others. Both of these systems can be used for beneficial purposes, but can just as easily be used to intentionally mislead, or simply kill, other players. The mistrust and dread these mechanics allow for affords the game an extra level of tension and horror that would have never been possible otherwise.
But this laissez-faire attitude towards trolling is exclusively the property of games that deal largely in death and dread. Even Super Mario Bros. for the Wii U includes an ability for one player to set up additional blocks for others. These can just as easily be used to help as they can be used to hinder all progress. To some, the inclusion of such a potentially infuriating ability may seem out of place in a Nintendo title, but to others the realization of this power is something of a full-circle moment that may just bring up fond memories of using the second controller in Duck Hunt to manually maneuver the ducks away from the shots of your unsuspecting sibling.
These games all exhibit a willingness to not let the taboo of trolling hinder a creative approach. Had any of these titles let the negative perception of trolling in videogames prevent them from incorporating aspects of it within their game design, they would have been left with what is in retrospect incomplete experiences.
This approach is not a solution to the problem of trolling but the use of it as a tool. Slot it alongside motion controls, virtual reality or even 3D graphics. It is a device that, once revealed, allows for games to pursue entirely new creative outlets not necessarily considered before. These outlets ask, “What is possible once the desire to suppress instinctive behavior is put aside?”
It's a question that is already being answered. DayZ and Rust show that the philosophy of becoming a monster yourself when fighting other monsters is capable of being expressed within a game. The Souls series reveals that our definitions of what constitutes multiplayer in gaming—as well as the very nature of how we interact with each other in-game—doesn't have to be as black and white as it once was. Even Super Mario Bros. shows that the desire to throw a hissy fit the likes of which you haven't since you were eight years old is itself an act of nostalgia.
This disruptive manner of thinking has just begun to be explored by developers. As long as it continues to expand the creative boundaries of gaming, the results will justify all the fury. Maybe someday soon we can all find it in our hearts to forgive that kid who just wouldn't stop picking Bo Jackson, and instead return the favor by making them dance for a bag of rice in a virtual zombie apocalypse. We dare to dream.