Believe you me, I tried to abstain from the discussion on this one. As bloggers everywhere took sides about the introduction of the Battle.net RealID system, I stayed silent. As guildies and former guildies sent me random emails saying “Let’s be RealID friends!” (including one from a former guildmaster with whom I didn’t have the best relationship, a wtf moment if I’ve ever had one), I stayed silent. As the forums erupted in discussions of invasion of privacy or use-at-your-own-risk, I stayed silent. Until today.
Yesterday will go down in internet gaming history as the day that Blizzard launched a major salvo against forum trolls and internet asshats and dared to suggest the establishment of a new precedent. In one swoop (although not yet implemented) Blizzard will attempt to pull back the veil of anonymity from the WoW forums and scare/embarrass the ill-mannered and ill-tempered into posting no more. From Battle.net’s forums:
The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it.
The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players — however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before. (Source)
Needless to say, I don’t think Blizzard anticipated the response they received. Bluetracker has been absolutely inundated with new threads, all subsequently closed by mods, condemning the change and calling for Blizzard to recant. And as much as I abhor making a scene, drawing lines in the sand, and delivering ultimatums, on this topic I’m willing to stick my neck out a bit and contribute to the fuss regarding the “RealName” (as I’m going to call it) forum launch, because this issue hits so very close to home.
The Problem Set
Although Blizzard didn’t divulge very much of their reasoning behind the RealName forum decision, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the problem they’re attempting to address is one suffered by forum boards near and far—heavy trolling and the disengagement from community participation that it encourages. For Blizzard, community participation is something that keeps interest in their product alive, and public perception is a key factor in maintaining, and growing, their market share. (In fact, I’ll bet that at some point, someone probably talked about the cost/benefit of blue forum posts. I know I would have!) So, it’s in their best interest, as a publically traded for-profit company, to give as many customers as possible a warm and fuzzy feeling. But in an internet environment, where people like you and I can demonstrate some of the worst malicious and antagonistic behaviors without fear of repercussion or punishment, Blizzard effectively has had very little leverage in the moderation of their own community.
Detractors from the RealName Argument
While I appreciate Blizzard’s attempts to make their forum community a more hospitable place, where good nature and helpfulness are commonplace, I cannot help but harbor a small amount of resentment for being placed in a position where I’m forced to choose between participating in a community that I take pride in being a part of and relinquishing my personal privacy. But, beyond that, through all of the discussions, rants, and commentaries that have been waged over the past 24 hours, a few key themes have emerged which I see as real counter-points for Blizzard’s proposed implementation:
1. Shame as a motivator
Interestingly enough, the change from forum names to RealName isn’t a substantial one at all for most people. It will likely have no affect on the actual content presented (although it potentially stands to remove some of the garbage) and will likely have no effect on the opinions players hold. Instead, what RealName seeks to do is inspire people through threat of public shame or ostracization, to treat others in a more socially acceptable manner. What this premise fails to address, as Greylo wonderfully put it, is that shame might still not be enough of a motivator to prevent the behavior that Blizzard is trying to avoid. In fact, with some it may likely have no weight at all. What strikes me about this approach is that it employs exactly the same tactics as peer pressure or mob mentality to effect the same result—that the target is isolated from the “mass”. Amazingly, this is contrary to one of things that I enjoy most about WoW—that players can unite in common interest without fear of being ostracized for being something other than “normal”.
2. Professional Impacts & the Gaming Stigma
As Miss Medicina so articulately stated, for many of us players and forums participants, the use of our real names has very serious professional implications. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a professional industry as a consultant, where it is not uncommon to have potential clients type my name into a search field, to get more information about my experience and publications. These are clients who call me at 6pm on a Friday and ask if I can have a report ready by 9am on Monday; a not unreasonable request, because they pay for my time and pay for it well. But they are also paying for the professionalism that I demonstrate. And although I wish it were otherwise, the fact remains that I will be looked down upon were I to be found to be deeply involved in something as “trivial” as an online game. (And yes, my work oftentimes struggles to understand my “evening commitments” which predicate me from working 16-hour days.) For people like me, posting on Blizzard’s site (the only sure-fire way to provide them direct feedback about the game) will be an impossibility. Although it may frustrate me that my profession isn’t as hip as the gaming industry and as accepting of my extra-curricular activities, I would never dream of putting my job on the line to contribute my thoughts on the latest shaman changes.
3. Public Exposure & Accessibility
I had a system admin friend who once advised me, quite sagely: “Complete network security is an illusion. Anything can be hacked given someone with enough time, resources, and dedication. Your ‘security’ is just there to try to get in their way.” And since reaching the age where Point 2 (above) has started to matter more to me, I’ve taken this advice to heart. I don’t Facebook, I don’t MySpace, and I’m very careful what information about me I make public. But given enough time and Google dedication, I’m quite sure a determined reader would find out everything there is to know about the real me. Just like I’m sure that if someone wanted into my home, they could find a way. The point, as Bashiok so discovered, is to not make it easy. Blizzard’s forums, like most other forums and comment boards, are in the predicament of being privately managed space open to the public, which means they are just about as accessible as anything else you might put out there. But, in an online community where temperatures run high over things as simple as a change to Pennace or nerf to Rage generation, this potential exposure borders on dangerous.
In all of the discussion, I honestly see the most compelling argument against RealName as being the very genre that WoW is credited as having made available to people worldwide. Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Games can range from pseudo-reality to intensely fantastical, but the one characteristic of them all is that I, the player, am *pretending* to be something else. I am not a virtual me; I am a commando, jedi, fleet commander, or giant blue troll. I am male, female, machine, or beast, and I am not necessarily human. As much as I may groan and whine over the extensive RP incorporated into WoW (how many times do I have to listen to your speech, Tirion?!) the fact remains that WoW is built around my involvement in a fantastical environment. When I play WoW, I am Vixsyn, Vix, Tartlet, Psyrin, and a host of other characters. I write from their perspective, I argue on their behalf, because that is a part of the nature of the game. Without the RP elements, WoW becomes an odd mix of Facebook and Second Life instead of the genre-defining force it truly is.
One player’s decision
In the end, like so many other players and bloggers have said, the road to hell is paved in good intentions. I wholeheartedly applaud Blizzard’s attempt to make the forums a valuable resource for the community, just as I applaud their efforts to engage their customers through Blue poster’s constant presence on those forums. But as much of a cheerleader as I am for Blizzard’s past decisions, I simply do not see RealName as a way to reach the end goal that they’re striving for. Utilizing community disdain and public exposure as consequences for bad behavior strikes me as an incredibly inappropriate solution when the potential for increased moderation (a la EJ) and a unified account identifier, could be implemented without such extreme adverse consequences or the loss of community participation.
Ultimately, the result is that players like me, those who see the potential risks inherent in participation, will turn away from the forums for good. As much as it is my driving desire to help the community, to participate in the discussion, to improve the game as much as I can, it will come at too great a price. I’ll turn to other outlets which let me guard my privacy as an author and as a person, and I doubt it will be a minor inconvenience to anyone other than me.
I think the Supreme Court justices put it best, when addressing the issue of the right of anonymity of an author (albeit a political one, in this case):
“Despite readers’ curiosity and the public’s interest … an author generally is free to decide whether or not to disclose her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, at least in the field of literary endeavor, the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. [n.5] Accordingly, an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.
The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But … in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.” (As referenced in: McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n (93-986), 514 U.S. 334 (1995) )