Is griefing simply emergent play that some folks don't like?
I think this is an interesting question to pursue, and I'm going to take a somewhat provocative stance and answer "no," partly to explore some territory and partly because I think there's a case to be made against griefing that doesn't founder on a libertarian objection (i.e., that if some people do something in a low-consequence environment, then it must be fun to them/their choice, and therefore must be okay).
I should state at the outset that studying cheating, griefing, and similar topics is not a principal part of my research, and there are several esteemed folks around here that do it, so I hope to learn from them if they'd like to weigh in. Here, I'm just following through on some ideas that have been percolating on meaning and games, and how they might help us answer Steven's question.
To begin this speculation, the first thing I'm going to do is narrow the topic a fair bit. Rather than discuss "griefing" in the broad sense, I'm going to focus on one activity in MMOGs that is often seen as griefing: ganking. Very specifically, I'm talking about a human player, piloting a higher-level/better geared toon, attacking a toon that is much lower level, without any other circumstances (game objectives and narratives), histories (they, or their guilds, know each other or similar), or players (on either side) involved. This is simply the killing (frequently, one-shotting) of another toon by a vastly more powerful toon. I'm drawing my sense of this phenomenon from the open PvP servers of World of Warcraft -- other games/server types may vary considerably and interestingly.
What I would like to suggest is that this kind of PvP is meaningless. Or, perhaps more precisely, that the meaning it has is so narrow, rationalized, and improverished that it is outside of, or rejects, the game in which it is situated. Games, as ends in and of themselves, are things that can generate new meanings and experiences. For the ganker, however, ganking is a means to other ends ("Personal best crit!"), not a potentially generative new experience. (And, by the way, please keep in mind that I am not talking about all PvP -- there are many other kinds, both institutionally designed by the developer and emergent, which would not fit with the argument I'm making here.)
I'm speculating that ganking happens when a player who does not want to be challenged to play a game (i.e., encounters where the outcome is contingent), instead opts to do something where the outcome is a foregone conclusion: kill a player that is vastly lower in capabilities. If meaning is found at the meeting point of inherited systems of interpretation (cultural expectations) and the performative demands of singular circumstances (something I talked about here), then ganking is a denial of that meaning. It is a retreat from the demands of the new, and it signals a disposition that does not want to be performatively challenged. Ganking lower level players is, then, a somewhat pathetic attempt to feel, well, something. But that something is not the meaning that participating in a challenging game would create -- it is removed from that. If there is no contingency, it follows that there is no meaning -- all you have left is an impoverished environment where pointless negative reciprocity (I was ganked at L24, so I’ll gank at L60) reigns.
It might be argued against this that an environment of open PvP, rather than erasing contingency, actually spawns it, generating a wide open landscape of ganking possibility for the lower level players. This would be a way to argue that there is still a game, on a broader level, and it is a cat-and-mouse game. The difference in capabilities once the battle is joined is not in question -- the cat wins -- but the game is actually about avoiding that encounter (thanks to David Simkins for voicing this argument to me). This is an interesting way to go, and I agree that it can turn out this way, under certain game design conditions. I would argue, however (again, I'm being provocative to see where this leads), that in WoW this doesn't hold, because the architecture of the game is not very flexible about alternative places to go to accomplish objectives. The quests for any given level are in a small set of vastly distributed places, and the transportation costs (in time) for low level characters are high. This means that if someone is trying to get quests done in Stranglethorn Vale, there is not a viable game in avoiding the gankers -- they have every advantage also in the "meta" game of cat-and-mouse. For most players, this means that the ganking feels, again, like a foregone conclusion, it is only the question of when it will happen that is utterly contingent (that is, too contingent). In neither aspect is there a performative challenge for the gankee or the ganker. One is left with either too much determination, or too much chaos; either way leads to a loss of meaning.
So why does it happen at all, if it's so meaningless? To answer this, one would have to make a normative, critical claim (and goodness knows those are popular around here). One would have to say that what happens is that the game objectives get replaced by utterly personal objectives, individualistic and empty goals that are the simulacra of actual (new) meaning. Gankers, this argument would say, are getting their jollies in an endless circle of confirming their own expectations, mistaking the increasing number of notches on their belt for actual personal development. In fact, this line of reasoning would argue, they are each stuck in an iron cage of false objectives.
Now, I can spin this argument out, and understand how to get from point A to point B, and it's consistent with my experience and preferences. But, on the other hand, I have lots of friends who enjoy open PvP, even the random but inevitable ganking part of it, so I hesitate. I'm also certainly one to be wary of normative claims about other people's experiences ("Yes, yes -- you say you're having a good time, but you're really just deluding yourself").
On the other hand, the argument that if people choose to do something in these domains it is just a different "style of gameplay," and therefore morally unassailable, also rubs me the wrong way. It seems to rest not only on a separation of play from real experience (and I have a whole set of strong empirical objections to that view), but also on a modernist, individualistic ethic -- it's all about the individual experience, this seems to say, and that should be our final arbiter of all matters ethical.
I don't have any real answers here, but I'm quite taken with the notion that ganking is, effectively, not a game, and with thinking through the consequences for meaning and experience that follow from this. To what extent this could be extended to other kinds of griefing, I'm not sure, but it does seem to me that quite a few players out there actually don't seem to want to play a game at all.