A lag switch is a piece of equipment installed on a home network that temporarily delays the flow of traffic to the internet. In an online gaming context, the physical toggle can be switched on to delay gameplay to give the lag switcher the upper hand.
Lag switches are unrelated to normal network switches and are typically not the cause of general lagging on computer networks.Jared DeCinque / Getty Images
How a Hardware Lag Switch Works
One example that indicates a lag switch is being used is if the opponent jumps around on the screen when you shoot at the character. Or maybe the character appears invisible and completely unscathed from point-blank shots.
Lag switches are not part of normal gameplay; online gamers who care about sportsmanship do not use them. Some gaming communities ban players that they suspect are lagging on purpose.
When a lag switch is activated, it runs on a short timer that typically lasts a few seconds. During this time, it effectively blocks all network traffic between the gaming console and the internet.
Because the game recognizes that the user's internet is down, the player appears to be paused and unresponsive. However, the game doesn't kick out the user because it assumes the connection will resume shortly. However, during this time, the user can play locally.
When the lag switch timer expires, the local device re-synchronizes with the online game, which appears to opponents in a sudden burst.
What a Hardware Lag Switch Looks Like
The basic hardware lag switch is a small Ethernet device where either the orange or green wire of a CAT5 cable has been spliced to a push button or other physical switch.
This device connects to the game device (typically a PC or console) from the home network router (or broadband modem if no router exists).
Other Types of Lag Switches
Some video game consoles are designed to detect hardware lag switches through a voltage indicator that understands when the switch has been flipped. However, there are other ways to simulate a loss of internet connection that works much like a physical lag switch.
For example, unplugging the network cable for a few seconds disrupts the flow of traffic to the point that the game can't synchronize with the internet. Much like using a lag switch, pulling the Ethernet cable for long enough, and then reattaching it, is an innocent way to lag without using a lag switch.
There are also software-based lag switches that use a program to flood the local network with so much data that the bandwidth is almost used up. This is similar to disconnecting the Ethernet cable or toggling a lag switch. However, it can't be used for too long or the game will assume the player isn't returning and will disconnect them from the game.