Skip Links

Cyber-bullies prowl online world

By Layer 8 on Fri, 06/01/07 - 10:05am.

Seems that bullies are developing into a real pain in the cyber-world. A study released today says people who are bullied at work or school may not be able to escape their tormentors in the virtual world either. Researchers from the University Of Nottingham claim that bullying, known in cyberspace as griefing, is as big a problem in the virtual world as is in the real world.

With the permission of Linden Lab, the makers of the virtual world Second Life, researchers from Nottingham University Business School, The Institute of Work, Health and Organizations and The School of Computer Science and Information Technology, set up a cyber-based focus group to discuss the problem. They rented a plot of virtual land and interviewed 50 residents, known as avatars, about their experiences. Their responses were monitored by real psychologists.

They found that newcomers are often subjected to griefing when they first enter the domain in which people communicate through instant messaging. Some reported being attacked when moving to a new area within the Second Life world. Others claimed their virtual homes had been destroyed and they had been shot at.

Dr Iain Coyne, who helped carry out a study of bullying in Second Life, said: "Similar to bullying at school and work, power is a key factor in griefing. In Second Life it appears that the power imbalance between a griefer and a target is focused on knowledge and experience. A new resident, or newbie, may be targeted because of their naivety and inability to stop the griefing.

As one participant put it, information is power, experience matters." Other behaviors observed by the researchers which can be seen as bullying were people shooting others, hitting them with swords, nudity, annoying noisy objects that followed people around and lots of swearing. In some "safe areas" these behaviors are deemed acceptable, whilst in others they are deemed as abusive. It may be, say researchers, that bullying in the virtual world is more common because the real users are anonymous and therefore less inhibited.

According to the National Ban Bullying at Work Campaign more than 2 million people are bullied at work in the U.K. today and workplace bullying is now a major cause of stress related illness. There is evidence that e-bullying at work is on the increase and computer experts say residents of the virtual world will have to develop similar strategies to cope with the problem. Oddly a study a couple years ago found that 2 million Britons were bullied at work costing U.K. businesses 18 million working days a year as a result.

The griefing issue is a concern as communities like Second Life grow. For example, IBM has a significant presence in Second Life and other large companies are looking at carrying out development and training there. Reuters has an all digital bureau in Second Life, the BBC has rented a virtual tropical island to broadcast online music festivals and Sky News is about to establish a permanent presence in this virtual world.

Second Life opened to the public in 2003 and now has over 6,800,000 residents. The population is growing at 20% a month and business is booming, the group said in a statement.

In the study, residents discussed potential coping strategies such as clubbing together with other residents to ban griefers from owned land, use whatever method the environment has to combat griefers, at the moment that is to file an abuse report, and to use the avatar to shield the user from personal attack.

Residents also suggested that Linden could change the gaming culture of Second Life and make the environment less tolerant of griefers. However, Linden would rather the residents themselves deal with the problem - in line with the "your world, your imagination" philosophy, which is their slogan.

The findings will be presented for the first time at The European Conference on Information Systems being held in Switzerland on 6th and 7th June 2007.

If you want to meet a real griefer, check this out. Here a griefer sheds some light on the dark side of gaming. He agreed to reveal some of his tricks on the condition that we keep his identity private.