| The Albion Park section of Second Life is generally a quiet place, a haven of whispering fir trees and babbling brooks set aside for those who need to be alone to think, or want to chat privately. But shortly after 5 pm Eastern time on November 16, an avatar appeared in the 3-D-graphical skies above this online sanctuary and proceeded to unleash a mass of undiluted digital jackassery. The avatar, whom witnesses would describe as an African-American male clad head to toe in gleaming red battle armor, detonated a device that instantly filled the air with 30-foot-wide tumbling blue cubes and gaping cartoon mouths. For several minutes the freakish objects rained down, immobilizing nearby players with code that forced them to either log off or watch their avatars endlessly text-shout Arnold Schwarzenegger's Get to the choppaaaaaaa! tagline from Predator.
The incident, it turns out, was not an isolated one. The same scene, with minor variations, was unfolding simultaneously throughout the virtual geography of Second Life. Some cubes were adorned on every side with the infamous, soul-searing "goatse" image; others were covered with the grinning face of Bill Cosby proffering a Pudding Pop.
Soon after the attacks began, the governance team at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life, identified the vandals and suspended their accounts. In the popular NorthStar hangout, players located the offending avatars and fired auto-cagers, which wrapped the attackers' heads in big metallic boxes. And at the Gorean city of Rovere — a Second Life island given over to a peculiarly hardcore genre of fantasy role-play gaming — a player named Chixxa Lusch straddled his giant eagle mount and flew up to confront the invaders avatar-to-avatar as they hovered high above his lovingly re-created medieval village, blanketing it with bouncing 10-foot high Super Mario figures.
"Give us a break you fucks," typed Chixxa Lusch, and when it became clear that they had no such intention, he added their names to the island's list of banned avatars and watched them disappear.
"Wankers," he added, descending into the mess of Super Marios they'd left behind for him to clear.
Bans and cages and account blocks could only slow the attackers, not stop them. The raiders, constantly creating new accounts, moved from one location to another throughout the night until, by way of a finale, they simultaneously crashed many of the servers that run Second Life. And by that time, there was not the slightest mystery in anyone's minds who these particular wankers were: The Patriotic Nigras had struck again.
The Patriotic Nigras consist of some 150 shadowy individuals who, in the words of their official slogan, have been "ruining your Second Life since 2006." Before that, many of them were doing their best to ruin Habbo Hotel, a Finland-based virtual world for teens inhabited by millions of squat avatars reminiscent of Fisher-Price's Little People toys. That's when the PNs adopted their signature dark-skinned avatar with outsize Afro and Armani suit.
Though real-life details are difficult to come by, it's clear that few, if any, PNs are in fact African-American. But their blackface shenanigans, they say, aren't racist in any heartfelt sense. "Yeah, the thing about the racist thing," says ^ban^, leader of the Patriotic Nigras, "is ... it's all just a joke." It's only one element, he insists, in an arsenal of PN techniques designed to push users past the brink of moral outrage toward that rare moment — at once humiliating and enlightening — when they find themselves crying over a computer game. Getting that response is what it's all about, the Nigras say.
"We do it for the lulz," ^ban^ says — for laughs. Asked how some people can find their greatest amusement in pissing off others, ^ban^ gives the question a moment's thought: "Most of us," he says finally, with a wry chuckle, "are psychotic."