The Fool and the Villain

Is there such a thing as compassionate trolling?

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Community Creations Editorial Psychological Social


The wise fool is a trope of classical literature and drama.  This character is seen as bumbling and nonsensical, however beyond their apparent silliness their antics tend to expose the ridiculousness of the world around them.  In King Lear, Lear’s fool is perhaps his fiercest critic – he just happens to make his damning arguments from behind a veil of motley.

This is exactly why I love the right type of internet troll.  They eviscerate self-seriousness wherever they go. Their willingness to degrade themselves just to bring the level of discourse down into the mud with them I find charming and funny, and there’s nothing more invigorating than a smug or self-righteous target getting obliterated by a truly skilled troll.

Second Life, the multi-faceted MMO, is essentially troll paradise.  With its own functioning economy – complete with an actual exchange rate to IRL currency – and including opportunities for many different kinds of simulated sexuality, the opportunities for trolling are vast; I only became remotely aware of Second Life by learning about various people who were trolling it.  To this day I’ve never played Second Life, but I began to watch more and more videos of people intentionally disrupting its social ecosystem.

My favorite Second Life troll is Ralph Pootawn.  This player seeks out other players engaging in virtual sex and then simply watches them as they do the deed.  Since Ralph is a stunted green orc thing with a corn cob pipe, this tends to kill the mood a little bit.

Another example of Second Life trolling I’ve been introduced to recently is Esteban Winsmore. His best trolling involves going to what appears to be an in-game gentlemen’s club and repeatedly getting on an “employees only” stage and dancing.  After being warned many, many times by the establishment’s owners, who devolve into fury at their club being made a mockery of, he is booted.  But by the time he’s gone, everyone has had to engage with the idea of a virtual strip club with a virtual “employees only” dancing platform to a considerable extent.

One can even peruse the catalogue of Second Life trolldom on Encyclopedia Dramatica, the trolling compendium of the internet. (BE WARNED: don’t open this at work unless your employer doesn’t mind a lot of poorly rendered dicks on your monitor).  You’ll find an array of knowledge on trollable locations, known opponents of Second Life trolling, past endeavors… and a good portion of it is pretty damned funny.

But there’s an underside to it, a persistent maliciousness that extends beyond simple pranksterism and becomes something else, something less funny and more mean.

This is a dichotomy that is present in all of trolling, actually.  All of it is based on the act of causing another party confusion at best, or emotional harm at worst.  And while I gleefully support making the world more interesting by injecting a little kookiness into it, or exposing the idiocy of a situation by playing into it, I’m not a full-blooded troll.

This griefing raid, for instance, doesn’t strike me as particularly funny: a World of Warcraft player who had actually died had a memorial service planned for her.  In-game.  On a PvP server, where players were permitted to assault other players.  Admittedly, a somewhat naïve plan, but when the funeral was invariably attacked by other players, what was supposed to be a heartfelt virtual send-off became a free-for-all.

While the resulting forum thread is intermittently pretty funny (“I mean Winterspring was a pretty stupid location… I would have gone to Mulgore”), it does make clear that people who were attempting to mourn were made to look like fools.  This kind of thing is almost as distasteful the phenomenon of strangers posting insults or pornography on Facebook memorial pages – more an act of random cruelty than any kind of whimsical idiocy.  But, disturbingly, even the meanest acts of trolling contain some kernel of childish charm, and even the tamest trolls have some glimmer of sadism in their souls.

Second Life trolling is all built around the concept of making less real the constructs that people have put their time and effort into.  For some, these are actual commercial endeavors, since the in-game currency (Linden) has a direct exchange rate to real-world money.  For others, their avatars are their ideal selves, and when someone like Ralph Pootawn goes out of their way to make them ridiculous, it really can hurt.

And even though I find a lot of the endeavors on Second Life anywhere from mildly to completely ridiculous, I also acknowledge that many people in the mainstream feel that way about my hobbies.  If a real, full-blown Song of Ice and Fire MMO ever exists, I would want everyone to be fully in character at all times – how cool would it be to actually escape into what felt like another world, without trolls breaking the fourth wall at every opportunity?  There are people who would call that desire to be called “Ser” continually a stupid desire.  Why are the realms of nerd-dom where I want purity any more sacred than the places where my interests don’t lie?

But even with these misgivings, I’m not yet ready to give up on trolling.  I think a middle way can be found, where people’s lives are made more interesting and pettiness is brought to light, while being a complete asshole is avoided.  And so my mission begins – to troll Second Life as a fool, and not a villain.

Check in for Part II, coming soon!  Now to find a laptop with the specs to run Second Life…

[Photo credit]

[Photo credit]

Filed Under: Community Creations Editorial Psychological Social

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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