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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Smurfs, or, "Ethical issues caused by tiny blue people."

Once upon a time games had no matchmaker systems; you joined, you played...sometimes you had even teams and the game was plenty of fun! Other times you had the advantage and got to "ROFLstomp" (a technical term) the other team, and the rest you were the one being ROFLstomped. Eventually enough vocal players decided that they didn't like this paradigm; they didn't like that the majority of their games were becoming either the latter or former...either due to opponents that were not challenging, or opponents that they had no chance against. So developers stepped up and introduced ELO and other history-based matchmaking systems in an attempt to encourage more of those "even" games. This has not been without its consequences, especially for free-2-play games.





Eventually the players at the higher end of the Gaussian found, for various reasons, that they occasionally wanted to dive back into the middle. Perhaps they wanted to be able to mingle like celebrities would; unrecognized. Perhaps they DO want those ROFLstomp games again. The reasons are many. And so "Smurf" accounts were born.

The problem is, this practice is essentially circumventing the purpose of these ELO systems; and in its barest state is technically an exploit. The player is circumventing the system to artificially deflate his or her ranking. Now this is not to mean I think all players that do this should be punished, or that it's even a punishment worthy offense. One could argue that it is not an exploit because it is available to ALL players; but in the case of the higher echelon it has an effect; a player in the bottom half is not really receiving a benefit. Still, regardless of who does it, in a sense it is exploiting the "free" nature of these games.

That said, I can fully understand why some players would do this. If I were a "Diamond 1" League of Legends player I would probably enjoy occasionally taking a break from the high-stakes, high scrutiny play that such a ranking comes with. I can even understand wanting some easy wins. When I played Hawken I got my rating up above 1900; every game I played became a high-stress experience with a lot of emotional investment...and while this pushed me to play at my best, it also did make it hard to have "fun".  I felt the same as my WoW arena rating got higher, for me, trying to maintain a rating (especially an obvious one) becomes reason not to play and pushes me away from games, but that's a story for another day.

Really, every player who plays ranked will likely feel this as they reach their ideal ELO, but only the ones on the higher end have this "restart Smurf" option available to them. I sympathize with the players stuck in the middle of that pack who have to deal with the smurfs, and are otherwise following the "rules". They're the people playing in the park and having fun, when a famous person in a costume mustache shows up and ruins that dynamic.

Some games, arguably, take steps to prevent this by encouraging players to stick to one account...such as having any progress saved to your account and keeping certain content locked out (like Champions in League of Legends) for new accounts that one has to earn through time.

In the end I do not think there is a good solution; they could offer "unranked true-random" games in League of Legends in which ELO is ignored, and allow the higher skill players to roll the dice there, but the question is "Aside from them, who would queue for that?" and so they're back to Smurfs. Further, any actions that lock you to your account more would be unfriendly to new players.

What do you think?

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