The Secret Lives Of Gamers Should Stay Secret

Everyone is entitled to a secret identity, it seems.

That's the lesson that Blizzard learned last week when they unveiled a new set of rules that would have stripped anonymity away from those posting comments in the forums for the developer's popular games like World of Warcraft and the upcoming StarCraft II. Blizzard's Real ID would have forced those posting in the official forums to use their real first and last names.

Outcry from their community, from communities around the internet, and the threat of massive boycotts forced Blizzard to kill the concept three days after they detailed it to gamers.

But it would have been an interesting experiment in the hunt for a solution to a growing problem: While the importance of online communities and the communities themselves continues to blossom, the nature of the conversations conducted in them are becoming increasingly hard to manage.

So hard that some developers have decided to forgo them completely. In 2008, Mark Jacobs, a developer for Mythic, decried the nature of official forums for massively multiplayer games like Blizzard's World of Warcraft, saying that the problem was that while most of the people reading the forums are looking for information, a "reasonable number" are just there to "cause trouble, 'grief' the forums or simply get their jollies by saying and doing things that they wouldn't do in real life."

With millions of people to manage, Jacobs wrote, it becomes "soul sucking" for the developers to deal with the issue.

But Sean Brooks, program associate for the centre for Democracy & Technology, says that the importance of online communities outweighs the impact this small group of childish uses can have on them.

"Online communities are hugely influential and have already changed our society in ways many of us never would have expected," Brooks said."As services become more interconnected and more powerful, the future truly seems limitless."

And the importance of anonymity in these communities, Brooks argues, is a huge issue.

"Never before has online privacy, particularly in regards to social connections online, been such a prevalent issue," he said. "As the 'average user' has become more mature in their understanding of how this public-facing information affects their offline life, concern has grown substantially. A new Pew study shows that young adults care more about their privacy than older folks. I think this is just another vein in that trend."

Even Mythic's Jacobs eventually came around to the idea, launching official forums for one of their games, with a strict set of rules.

Brooks says the problem Blizzard faced with their "Real ID" solution was that it alienated a massive segment of their community who had spent years building an identity in those forums and expected anonymity. It also raised the spectre of gamers being stalked or harassed once their real names became public.

The best solution, Brooks says, is for only Blizzard to know a person's real name, which would alleviate the identity concerns but still allow the developer to have a strong enforcement mechanism.

The issue at hand reaches far beyond gaming. At stake is the very nature of what has helped the Internet become such a powerful tool for education and debate. And the desire for anonymity isn't just limited to online video games. Sites like Wikipedia, Twitter and YouTube also all flourish with the help of anonymous posters.

"We must never forget the essential properties of online communities that have made them what they are today: freedom, openness and anonymity," Brooks said. "This is what has fostered the continual innovation that made the Web such a championed tool of free expression. Blizzard's online community is a great example of a service which has gone very far with the benefits of these ideals - it would be a mistake to leave them behind."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.


Comments

    Damnit, I was in full support of this too. I stopped visiting the WoW forums long ago due to the reasons listed above. I'd been hoping this change would weed out some of the morons.

    Maybe instead of posting users' real names to other users, Blizzard blues could just have a massive rule crack-down with forum bans for non-compliance. Zero-tolerance forum use!

      no one has issue with you using your real id linked to your forum.

      It just should be a handle which is difficult for you to change so that where ever you post its the same name everyone see's.

      very simple solution which they could easily do by adding an extra field to your battle.net account 'handle'

      no hard and they can still achieve what they wanted without being privacy smashers

    Surely then the solution becomes increased moderation?

    Make rules, enforce them, be consistant and continous with your enforcement. Have punishment for infractions. Hell, Blizzard have their credit card details, maybe a $5 fine for each griefing?
    Eventually the rules and denizens become self enforcing and the mindset of the group changes.
    It's kind of like parenting.

    I hate freedom of speech arguments, because no one mentions that freedom is meant to be tied into responsibilities.

    Somehow, being responsible for what you say has been lost - and I personally blame the corporatisation of the media for this, but that's an immensely long story - and RealID is how Blizzard attempted to get people back into taking responsibility for their words.

    Instead, as James Mac quite rightly states, we have to increase the amount of rules and the enforcement of those rules.

    Problem is, people tend to go overboard with rules and regulations, that's how we end up with nanny and police states (both online and offline) and we end up nowhere.

    It's a sad day where the official forums are avoided like the plague due to trolls, forcing players to go to dedicated community sites like WoW.com, Elitist Jerks, TeamLiquid etc.

    Blizzard has 1272 bajillion dollars. They can afford to hire hundreds of moderators to keep the forums clear of trash.

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