Minecraft Video Series Prompts the Question: What is Trolling?

Minecraft Video Series Prompts the Question: What is Trolling?

What is "trolling" and can it ever be an acceptable part of gaming? That's what Mojang's pondering right now.

What do you think of when you hear the word "trolling?"

Someone in the comments section telling the author of an article that their opinion is wrong? Someone deliberately provoking and harassing other people? Someone aiming to spoil the experiences of others? Or light-hearted silliness of the "practical joke" ilk?

Minecraft creator Mojang is currently pondering that very question after an apparent dispute with YouTube video creator ZexyZek, a community member who specializes in "trolling" videos. In the various episodes of his Minecraft: Trolling! series, ZexyZek plays practical jokes on members of his server such as knocking out blocks as they place them, turning invisible and leaving messages, and hitting people with lightning. Here's the first episode of his series, which has been running since last August, and which regularly attracts millions of views -- ZexyZek himself has over 700,000 subscribers.

ZexyZek noticed a change in Minecraft's terms and conditions that specifically prohibited "trolling" and consequently wondered if he was now in breach of the game's agreement. He did the only thing he could do: he asked Mojang if trolling really was against the rules, and given the text of the terms and conditions, the only possible answer was "yes." He took this as a request to cease production on his YouTube series and, in depressingly predictable fashion, prompted a backlash against Mojang from his fans.

Minecraft creator Markus Persson, despite not being actively involved with the game's development any more, took to his personal blog to discuss the situation.

"It made for a very hostile situation for us to figure out," he wrote. "My first reaction when being screamed at to do something is a sort of immature impulse to just ignore it. My inbox is getting flooded with really nasty emails, and I know this is happening to other people at Mojang as well, and it's kinda making us feel defensive and bitter since we didn't intentionally do anything wrong."

Persson explains that he had nothing to do with the terms and conditions of Minecraft, because, in his words, "I find legal documents very boring, and I just want people to have an excellent time in general." The terms and conditions are in there in the first place "because we have to have them," says Persson, but notes that they're there in an attempt to "prevent things that would be negative for the game."

The trouble arose over the definition of "trolling," then. ZexyZek specifically refers to his videos as "trolling" members of his server, but also notes that he rolls back any damage he does after finishing a session rather than being deliberately malicious -- a practice he distinguishes as the difference between "trolling" (temporary, not malicious) and "griefing" (deliberately malicious, permanent). Persson notes that he has no intention of shutting down ZexyZek's series "as long as it's not genuinely malicious," and that "talented and entertaining people making videos about Minecraft is an incredibly good thing for everyone involved."

"I will ask the people in charge of the boring legal texts to clarify 'trolling' with better words," says Persson. "If they really did mean what was perceived, I will ask them to remove that line. [But] please consider not sending hate mail to people. You're sending it to real people with real lives, and it really sucks. I don't mean to just us, I mean in general. Be awesome instead of mean."

This particular incident perhaps raises questions over a broader issue: behavior in freeform online multiplayer sandboxes such as Minecraft and more recent titles like DayZ and Rust. In the latter cases, people often point to other players being deliberately malicious or mean as a highlight of the experience, but in an inherently creative rather than aggressive sandbox like Minecraft it's easy to see how someone playing practical jokes -- particularly jokes that affect things people are working on -- could be perceived as a negative thing, even if that's not the intention.

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