There's a moment in 2002's Jackass: The Movie which has become something of a perennial favourite among fans of Johnny Knoxville and company. Hiding in the bushes on a golf course, the pranksters proceed to blast a deafening airhorn whenever the hapless golfers attempt to line up a shot, sending their perfectly-honed swing way off kilter. It's childish, irresponsible, anti-social, silly, ultimately pointless and pretty much devoid of any artistic or cultural worth whatsoever.
It is also bust-your-gut, wet-your-pants, double-you-over-in-stitches hilarious.
Jackass was, of course, the most famous millennial extension of the prank show format. Tricking members of the public for fun and profit has been a TV mainstay for years: Allen Funt and his Candid Camera, the fake-beard antics of Beadle's About, Dom Joly's meddling about in Trigger Happy TV. Of those examples, perhaps the last show contains the most interesting aspect: the famous prank in which Joly yells into a massively oversized mobile phone, disturbing the peace in various social situations.
It's a gag reliant on the technology of the time - mobile phones only really came of age in the late nineties. Which is why, in recent years, a new phenomenon has emerged - one dependent on the increased ubiquity of online multiplayer gaming and video platforms like YouTube. There's a new generation of pranksters out there, firing up their headsets and utilising the likes of Xbox Live to ply their trade. Ladies and gentlemen... Meet the griefers.
"Call of Duty is serious business to a lot of people. It's all about your kill/death ratio more than it is just having fun with friends."
We're probably all familiar with them, but for the sake of clarity, the average griefing video goes a little something like this: player joins an online game (more often than not Team Deathmatch in a shooter like Call Of Duty). Player makes a series of increasingly inept manoeuvres that result in countless deaths upon the same team, thus making it impossible to win the match. Player attempts to justify said manoeuvres with ridiculous excuses. Other players rant and rave. Arguments escalate.
Doesn't sound like much, sure - but just like that Jackass clip, it can often be charged with a weird kind of guilty pleasure. You know you're not supposed to laugh at someone breaking wind or falling off their chair (you're far too civilised) but damned if you don't chuckle along anyway. There's a reason the Jackass movies raked in the cash at the box office: let's face it, puerility is funny.
While the griefing 'celebrities' of YouTube might not be operating on Johnny Knoxville's level, one look at their account stats shows that they're still capable of pulling in a crowd. General Minus, and Spartan Jay (yep, we're going for the whole 'real names have been withheld' thing here) are the big boys in the playground - both are YouTube comedians with serious subscriber numbers, Minus clocking in at over five million views, Jay heading towards the 3.5 million mark. 17-year-old whippersnapper KillerKarrit has amassed over one million views, while mw2losers is the new kid on the block with just under 300,000. None of these figures, needless to say, are small potatoes.
"I am still to this day shocked about how popular my videos are," says Spartan Jay. "I started making the videos as a joke. I still can't believe that millions of people have heard my voice." General Minus is similarly amazed. "I never expected my videos to get so popular," he remarks. "I think it's great that so many people will watch my videos and have a good laugh."
So: they've become online sensations, bona fide griefing gurus. How did it all start? "It was something I did for fun before even thinking about making short movies," recalls Spartan Jay. "Whenever I would get bored of playing a game, I would always choose to get kicked, rather than leave. Halo 2 was always fun for griefing. You would get people coming together to play a custom game of Zombies. Back then it was up to the players to change team after being killed. I was always the idiot that refused to change team. The reactions I got!"
"I never originally intended to make videos from it," General Minus agrees. "I'd just do it for my own amusement. I started watching some griefing videos on YouTube - which had a much smaller audience at the time - and it inspired me to do it myself on the Xbox 360 because of the amount of rage some people will vent over a video game."
These, of course, are merely all logistics. There's a more pressing question to be asked: is griefing just a bit of harmless fun? Is it merely a brief comedy diversion on YouTube? Or is it actually a genuinely annoying blight on the world of gaming? There are those who would fervently argue the latter: people have paid for the privilege to play these games, after all, and the last thing they want is to be wound into a frenzy by someone deliberately antagonising them.
The thing is - just as the victims of prank TV shows mostly laugh things off once the setup has been exposed - the griefers maintain that most people simply find their online antics amusing. Obviously they pick the most extreme reactions for their videos, but the majority of people just laugh at the silliness on display. Far from being enraged, most gamers are good-humoured enough that they simply play along.
"I think some people just have fun," mw2losers explains, "and even though it is affecting them, most of the people who have seen themselves in my videos get a great laugh." Killer Karrit muses how "lots of people just generally don't get annoyed. In a series I have called Grandad and Grandson, in which one of my friends pretends to be my grandad, I've had lots of people laughing at us."
Spartan Jay backs this up: "I would say that around 80 per cent of people that play online games are troll-proof. I guess my videos give people an unfair assumption of what the gaming community is really like. Most people I come across on games are fairly chilled out people. Sometimes when making a video, it can take over an hour before I find someone that will get angry over my griefing."
And it's that seething, disproportionate anger which provides the comedy. It often spills out of the game and into the real world too. "I get at least one death threat per day," Spartan Jay reveals. Interestingly, mw2losers states that "certain sexual preference insults seem to be the favorite of most ragers" - which ties into one of the most satisfying elements of the griefing videos.
We've all been in multiplayer games in which violent, sexist, racist, homophobic and generally hate-filled insults spew forth from certain players. Most of us choose to ignore it - but one could argue that much of the hilarity stems from the griefers' willingness to take these people on headfirst. Just like Bill Hicks' famous joke about 'walking into a Klan Rally wearing a Boy George outfit', there's something undeniably funny about stoking the ire of some of the more disagreeable characters online.
And - as if to fulfill the notions set down by the Battlefield fanboys - it's a sad truth that most of these unsavoury types dwell within the world of Call of Duty. "Call of Duty is a top choice for most griefers," General Minus explains. "Some people can take it very seriously and care a lot about their stats. It doesn't take much sometimes to get a player really annoyed on that game. In my griefing videos I tend to talk really calmly and play the innocent guy whilst one or more people are raging at me over the microphone, which makes for funnier comedy in my opinion." According to mw2losers, "Call of Duty is serious business to a lot of people. It's all about your kill/death ratio more than it is just having fun with friends."
Spartan Jay, meanwhile, thinks that griefing opportunities are more down to the game design rather than certain types of player. "I don't think it's necessarily the game that makes people angry," he says, "but there are many advantages for using Call of Duty to grief for reactions. The main one for MW3 is the fact that there is no way you can be kicked at any time in the game. I could be more creative with my griefing on Halo: Reach but there is no way to turn the game volume down, so it is hard to hear the reactions. I believe that if Halo 4 has a game volume option, it will become the game that most people grief on."
All well and good - but in the end, though, isn't this just a bunch of guys engaging in a simplistic wind-up? Isn't the whole thing beneath analysis? Well... not quite. Just as Jackass and Trigger Happy TV often amused audiences with their creativity, some of the angles taken by the griefers are getting increasingly elaborate. Be it a droning 'live commentary', posing as a moderator, getting revenge on would-be account hackers, turning the match into a life-or-death gameshow, or acting as the 'camping police' - whatever you think of griefers, it can't be argued that they're not a creative bunch.
So: how will this peculiarly modern phenomenon evolve next? There's already something of a griefing community, in which the most successful personalities often join forces to make teamkilling supergroups.
"I do talk to some of the the other griefers on YouTube," General Minus explains, "and sometimes I'll team up with somebody to make a video. It can be a good laugh griefing with someone else." Plus it seems that new griefing protégés are often being fostered.
"There are many up and coming griefers that are starting to make a name for themselves," Spartan Jay says. "I like to promote new griefers that have just started, as it's hard to get the views in without help from others. The other griefers are always promoting new people on the scene. So I guess we are a community. At the same time, we are always trying to make the best griefing content out there. So I also see other griefers as rivals. I believe that is a good thing as if there was no competition, my content would be nowhere near as good as it is."
Hated or hailed, the hit counts for these griefers are growing day by day, and that essentially guarantees they won't be going away anytime soon. We could well be witnessing a new breed of celebrity pranksters - or just a soon-to-be-forgotten method of wasting away five minutes on YouTube. Either way, they don't seem too fazed. They have motivation enough as it is. As General Minus sums up, "I find wind-ups very funny... and that's my main reason for wanting to do it really."