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In video games, when the makers increase the power of something, it is sometimes referred to as a buff. If they decrease the power of something, it is called a nerf or a de-buff. This also applies to player abilities to temporarily increase or decrease their power.

Where do these terms come from?

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    I would imagine that the noun buff comes from the adjective buff that is used to describe someone who is muscular.
    – Kosmonaut
    Oct 20, 2010 at 3:09

5 Answers 5

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Wikipedia gives info on origin and context of both terms:

Nerf (computer gaming):

In video gaming a nerf is a change to a game that reduces the desirability or effectiveness of a particular game element. The term is also used as a verb for the act of making such a change.The opposite of nerf is buff (in one of that term's two usages).

The term originated with Ultima Online, and refers to the Nerf brand of toys which are soft and less likely to cause serious injury.It is used in the context of virtual worlds such as MMORPGs (like UO) and MUDs, but has become a part of the general vocabulary of gamer slang and can be found in various places where adjustment of power levels from one version of a game to the next is relevant.

Buff (computer gaming):

Buff is a term used in some video games, especially MMORPGs and MUDs, to describe increases in the power of a game element. There are two main usages. The first describes a permanent (or at least indefinite) increase in power levels as a result of adjustments to game mechanics, usually in pursuit of game balance. In this usage, buff is the opposite of nerf. The second usage of buff describes an effect (usually cast as a spell) that temporarily enhances a player.

You can read the linked articles for more.

Online Etymology Dictionary has an entry for buff as well:

1570s, buffe leather, from M.Fr. buffle "buffalo" (15c., via It. from L. bufalus; see buffalo). The color term comes from the hue of buffalo hides (later ox hides); association of "hide" and "skin" led c.1600 to in the buff, and use of buff or suede to polish metal led to sense of verb "to polish with a buff" (1885). Related: Buffed; buffing. Buff-colored uniforms of N.Y.C. volunteer firefighters since 1820s led to meaning "enthusiast" (1903).

The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic. [N.Y. "Sun," Feb. 4, 1903]

Adj. meaning "well-built, hunky" is from 1980s, from sense "polish, make attractive."

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The Wikipedia article cut and paste is not incorrect, but neither is it very illuminating.

The noun "buff", in a game related context, is related to the verb "to buff". The verb carries the same meaning as "to polish". In a game, a buff is a bonus or other benefit applied to some object. Using a verb as a noun is called nominalization, and it happens all the time in English.

The noun "nerf", which may be used equivalently as a verb, seems to have been used in print first around 2003, in a book called "Designing Virtual Worlds" by Richard Bartle. "Now you're only making 40 UOC per pelt. What do you do? Either you accept the realities of the free market or you dash off an email to the community service team screeching 'Your STOOPID game NERFED snow wolves!!!' Raph Koster, who's well known as a game designer, gives the following explanation of the etymology: "For the record, the term 'nerfing' entered online gaming vocabulary because of [Ultima Online]. At some point, we reduced the power of swords in melee combat, and players started complaining that they were hitting each other woth nerf swords. The rest is history." Nerf, of course, is also a brand name for a line of foam toys such as swords.

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Nerf, I would assume, comes from the Nerf company who manufactured foam projectile toys and sports balls for safe, indoor play. To "nerf" an effect, is to decrease its potential destructive output.

Buff, refers to a buffer:

  • a device or a piece of material for reducing shock or damage due to contact
  • a means or device used as a cushion against shock
  • something that serves as a protective barrier
  • a person who shields another

In more general gaming terms, a buff is something that provides a beneficial status effect (usually temporarily or under certain conditions).

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Nerf is also the name of a brand of brightly-colored firearms that are aimed at the 8-12 year old demographic; as such, these toy guns were only capable of firing soft pellet darts made of foam.

So I guess you could say that by 'nerfing' a gameplay mechanic, it's in reference to making it less effective by any means possible.

Conversely, the word "buff" (which I would imagine is short for buffering), would act as the complete opposite; someone who is getting buff is building up their stats or characteristics.

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  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. I believe "buff" has been used for some time to mean physically fit, or strong.
    – J. Taylor
    Mar 4, 2018 at 0:33
  • I'm actually sort of impressed that you seemingly derived the etymology and intent of "nerf" by pure intuition, though... seeing as that's exactly how it came about, but doesn't seem (at least to me) particularly obvious going in the other direction.
    – FeRD
    Jun 29, 2019 at 19:12
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The correct answer to this query has already been submitted, however, I would like to expand somewhat on the reply;

NERFED is a player-created term used to describe the reduced effectiveness of certain aspects pertaining to the player's acquired abilities or materials in a particular game. This term is a negative response by the players to developers making adjustments for game balance in response to issues caused by the power of the ability or materials prior to the adjustments.

It is important to understand that if the developers made another choice and tried to power up the rest of the game to match the power of the unbalanced property, escalation would begin. Often the developers are forced to make hard choices that players may be unhappy with but ultimately are there to maintain game playability over the longer term.

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