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69% of gamers say they “smurf,” even though they hate it

A recent study on gaming toxicity revealed that 69 percent of gamers acknowledge engaging in smurfing, despite harboring disdain for others who smurf against them.

Those unfamiliar with the term may be curious about the concept of smurfing or possibly imagine a scenario where 69 percent of gamers cover themselves in blue paint and substitute all their verbs with the word “smurf” during a gaming session. If that is your conjecture, you are significantly distant from the truth.

During online gameplay, the game employs a matchmaking system that aims to pair you with players who possess a comparable level of skill. This is because game developers understand that it is less enjoyable for players to consistently face opponents who greatly surpass their own skill level. However, individuals devise methods to circumvent this restriction by either creating new accounts or borrowing them from other players, enabling them to compete against opponents with significantly lower skill levels than their own.

In 1996, two players of Warcraft 2 achieved such a high level of skill in the game that their fellow gamers would withdraw from matches upon recognizing their usernames due to their notorious reputation. To engage in the game they had acquired, they established additional accounts titled PapaSmurf and Smurfette and proceeded to dominate their adversaries using these fresh profiles. The term “smurfing” gained popularity and is now commonly used to refer to the intentional act of creating new accounts with the purpose of competing against players who possess lower levels of skill.

A significant number of gamers have reported the occurrence of smurfing, with 97 percent of participants in a recent study acknowledging that they believe they encounter smurfs during their gameplay. The gaming community perceives this behavior as detrimental; despite this, 69 percent of individuals confessed to engaging in smurfing on occasion, with 13 percent admitting to doing it frequently or almost always.

Participants in the study by the Ohio State University team believed that smurfs were more likely to be toxic, disengage from the game, and enjoy it than smurfees. In comparison to their own experiences, participants perceived other gamers as more prone to displaying toxic behavior, less inclined to continue playing the game, and less likely to derive enjoyment from it.

Upon concluding the study, the research team solicited feedback from gamers recruited from Reddit. The feedback revealed various motivations for smurfing, including the desire to play with friends of varying skill levels and the satisfaction of dominating inexperienced players. The team conducted a subsequent study, wherein players were asked to assess the different justifications for smurfing. They were informed that these justifications were actual reasons provided by smurfs who had achieved victory in the game they were smurfing in. In addition, they were queried about the appropriate degree of retribution to be meted out to the smurf.

The team anticipated that individuals would adopt a “motivated-blame perspective,” wherein they would universally consider smurfing to be morally objectionable, regardless of any justifications.

“According to lead author Charles Monge, this perspective asserts that if an action is deemed wrong, the justification behind it becomes irrelevant as it remains inherently wrong,” as stated in a press release. “The concept is that it should be irrelevant whether you were simply engaging in casual gameplay to join your friends. Your actions caused me to lose this game, and as a result, I am experiencing anger.”

Nevertheless, the research team discovered that gamers assessed the morality of smurfing on a personal level, categorizing certain forms of smurfing as more culpable than others. They also expressed a desire for more severe penalties for smurfs who had less legitimate motives for smurfing, such as wanting to dominate less skilled players.

A third study revealed that individuals who do not play video games exhibit a similar socially regulated viewpoint, perceiving subtleties in smurfing behavior. Although intriguing due to the commonly associated toxicity in gaming, the team aspires to apply the findings in other contexts.

“Games can serve as a highly effective tool for testing concepts that are unrelated to games,” Monge stated. “Examining how blame is assigned in an online setting can provide insights into how blame is assigned in a wider context.”

The research is published in the journal New Media & Society.

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