Gamers say they hate ‘smurfing’, but admit they do it

Gamers have a complicated relationship with 'smurfing.'

Online video game players believe that the behavior known as “smurfs‘ is generally wrong and toxic to the gaming community – but most admit they do it and say some reasons make the behavior less objectionable, new research shows.

The new study suggests that debates over gaming toxicity may sometimes be more complex and nuanced than often recognized, the researchers said.

Online video games use so-called ‘matchmaking systems’ to pair players based on skills. Smurfing involves players cheating these systems by creating new accounts so they can play against people of lower skill.

The practice has become controversial in the gaming community, with some people defending it while others say it ruins the game.

This study suggests that the practice is common, even though many players claim to hate it Charles Mongelead author of the study and PhD candidate in communications at The Ohio State University.

Nicholas Matthews“Gamers say they really don’t like Smurfs. They also say they do it, but they don’t ruin the games and only do it for valid reasons,” Monge said.

Monge conducted the study with Nicholas Matthews, assistant professor of communications at Ohio State. The research was recently published in the journal New Media & Society.

“Gamers put Smurfs in the bad category, but bad has nuance,” Matthews said. “It was really interesting to see people saying they were ‘bad’ for smurfing, but only a little – unlike others whose behavior was much worse.”

The study began with a baseline survey of 328 people from gaming-specific subreddits on the social media site Reddit and a gaming club in the state of Ohio. Participants reported playing video games an average of just over 24 hours per week.

The results showed that participants felt that Smurfs were more likely than other players to be toxic – such as trolling and flaming the weaker players they dominated.

But 69% reported that they smurf at least sometimes, and 94% thought other people smurf sometimes. Still, compared to themselves, participants thought other gamers would be more likely to be toxic if they smurfed.

But the researchers were surprised by the responses they received when they asked participants at the end of the study if they had any comments.

“There was a flood of responses that basically said, ‘Hey, I smurf sometimes, but it’s actually not always bad,’” Monge said.

“It got us interested in learning more about what made Smurfs okay in their minds and under what circumstances.”

In a second study, the researchers wanted to investigate how gamers determined blame for Smurfers. They had 235 participants from Reddit, who were heavy gamers, complete an online experiment evaluating Smurfs in competitive team-based video games.

Participants were given different reasons to evaluate Smurfs. Some reasons were less culpable – such as wanting to play with friends who had less experience with the game. Other reasons were more blameworthy – such as simply ‘crushing a bunch of people’ [lesser skilled players].”

In some cases, the researchers tried to influence participants’ judgments by imagining scenarios in which the reasons players gave for smurfing could be ignored.

Overall, the study found that participants honestly evaluated people who smurfed based on the reasons they gave – and did not show strong evidence of bias in any scenario.

The response of participants in this study is consistent with what scholars call the “socially regulated” perspective on guilt, which suggests that there may be some nuance, that there may be reasons that can make an action more or less blameworthy.

That’s not what researchers thought would happen.

Based on what most online research predicts, the response researchers expect is called a “motivated guilt perspective,” which assumes what is blameworthy is black and white, Matthews said.

“This perspective says that if something is wrong, it doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s always wrong.”

Monge added: “The idea is that it doesn’t matter if you were just smurfing so you can play with your friends. You made me lose this game and now I’m mad.”

A third study involved a group of non-gamers, to see if they would have the same perspectives on guilt even if they weren’t as interested in the importance of the games. It turns out they did – they also used the socially regulated perspective.

The issue of smurfing in the gaming community has only recently grown, the researchers said. Valve, the company behind the gaming platform Steam, banned 90,000 Smurf accounts in their game DOTA2 and publicly stated that “smurfing is not welcome.”

But this study makes it clear that many gamers may have a more complex relationship with Smurfs and that saying it’s not welcome for them may be an oversimplification, the researchers said.

The issues explored in this study could have broader applicability than just gaming, the researchers explained.

“Games can be a very powerful tool for testing things that aren’t about games,” says Monge. “The way we blame in an online context can allow us to understand how people place blame more broadly.”

Matthews added: “Social scientists can use virtual gaming environments to test human interactions on a large scale. We can understand people in these social contexts, while the mind is usually a black box.”

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