69 percent of gamers admit to “smurfing,” despite hating it

A new study on gaming toxicity has found that 69 percent of gamers admit to smurfing, despite hating it when others smurf at them.

The uninitiated may wonder what smurfing is, or perhaps imagine that 69 percent of gamers paint themselves blue and replace all their verbs with “smurf” during a gaming session. If you suspect that, you are smurfing quite far from the truth.

When you play an online game against other players, the game tries to match you with players of a similar skill level, because game developers know that it is less fun for players if you are constantly crushed by opponents well above your skill level. But people find ways around this – creating new accounts or borrowing them from other gamers – to play against people with a much lower skill level than themselves.

In 1996, two Warcraft 2 players became so notoriously good at the game that fellow gamers would withdraw from matches when they saw their usernames. In order to play the game they had purchased, they created second accounts called PapaSmurf and Smurfette, and continued to crush all their opponents under these new profiles. The term “smurfing” originated there and is used to describe any player who deliberately creates new accounts to play against players of lower skill levels.

Gamers report that smurfing is common, with 97 percent of participants in the new survey saying they sometimes play against smurfs. The behavior is considered toxic by the gaming community, yet 69 percent admit to smurfing themselves sometimes, and 13 percent say they do it often or almost always.

“Compared to Smurfees, participants considered Smurfs more likely to be toxic, withdraw from the game, and enjoy the game,” the Ohio State University team wrote in their study. “There were also pronounced self-other effects. Compared to themselves, participants thought other gamers would be more likely to be toxic, less likely to continue playing the game, and less likely to enjoy the game.”

At the end of the study, the team asked for feedback and found that gamers (recruited by Reddit) informed them of a number of reasons why they smurfed, ranging from wanting to play with friends of different levels, to wanting to crush a bunch of noobs. The team conducted a second study, asking players to evaluate these different reasons for smurfing, after being told that they were real reasons given by the smurfs who had won the game in which they were smurfing. They were also asked what level of punishment should be given to the Smurf.

The team expected people to adopt a “motivated guilt perspective,” or to generally think that smurfing is wrong regardless of the justification.

“This perspective says that if something is wrong, it doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s always wrong,” lead author Charles Monge explained in a press release. “The idea is that it doesn’t matter if you’re just being fair. smurfs so you can play with your friends, you made me lose this game and now I’m angry.

However, the team found that gamers evaluated whether smurfing was wrong on an individual basis, rating some types of smurfing as more objectionable than others and wanting harsher punishments for smurfing with less justified reasons for smurfing (e.g. wanting to crush less skilled players).

A third study found that non-gamers had roughly the same socially regulated perspective and saw nuances in Smurf behavior. While interesting in their own right – given the toxicity often associated with gaming – the team hopes the findings can be applied elsewhere.

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

The research has been published in New Media & Society.

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