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My take on Blizzard’s RealID campaign: World of Warcraft gamers, please just grow up

By on July 9, 2010
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The announcement that Blizzard was about to force its gamers not to be anonymous kicked up a (can I say shitstorm? Yes? Yes.) well, a shitstorm.

The BBC calls it a “row”; CNET calls it a “controversy”, TechCrunch ran a post entitled “When privacy meets hypocrisy: Blizzard Real ID edition”.

Isn’t it time we all grew up?

This move is long overdue. The days when it made sense for the Internet to be anonymous are over.

A lot of mileage has been made of the battle (and I’m hugely disappointed about that Blizzard has now backed down from implementing RealID).

Here’s what went wrong. Blizzard announced the policy and a whole bunch of childish, Internet trolls hid behind anonymity and pretended it was terrible. A forum moderator who rejoices in the unusual (and highly Googleable) name of Micah Whipple said he was happy to use his real name, and within minutes people had Googled his name and discovered all sorts of personal details on the web.

And who were these people who released personal details on the web: cowards hiding behind anonymous names.

Don’t they get it? This is what Blizzard were trying to stop. The only reason these overgrown children could behave petulantly is because Micah Whipple outed himself before everyone else was outed. So they could bully him with privacy issues while hiding behind anonymity. Take away the anonymity and the stalker can be stalked, the bully bullied, the troll… – well actualy, if you have sense, the troll will just be ignored.

But to do this, you have to take away *everyone’s* anonymity, not just some people’s. And that’s where this got out of hand.

To be fair, I don’t blame Blizzard for backing down given the shitstorm. It’s important to listen to your customers, and lots of customers hated RealID.

But for me the Micah Whipple example doesn’t say “anonymity is good”. It says quite the reverse. Anonymity is bad, and partial anonymity is the worst of all.

Rob Fahey, over at GamesIndustry.biz (registration required) argues the opposite: that anonymity helps those who need to explore their identities in a safe environment (or just not get hit on all the time) by being anonymous. I sort of get that, but think that the downsides outweigh the benefits.

So I was hugely excited by Blizzard’s huge steps to end the anonymity of the Internet, and am deeply disappointed by their retraction.

But what do you think? Is anonymity a good thing for the Internet, or do you believe, as I do, that the faster our real identities are the same online and in the real world, the better the Web will be?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Excommunicated

    “Blizzard announced the policy and a whole bunch of childish, Internet trolls hid behind anonymity and pretended it was terrible. “

    Yeah, that's not biased to your point at all. Done reading at that line.

    I'm not a troll, but my personal information isn't anyones business. If I want to tell you my info, I will… if not, you're not entitled to it.

  • David Hayward

    One point about real names being tied to payment is there there are a bunch of teenagers whose posts would be tied to their parents real names. If I were a parent, I really wouldn't want that.

    This metafilter comment goes through bad points pretty exhaustively:
    http://www.metafilter.com/93492/But-my-name-rea

    Nicholas, I agree with your utopianism to an extent, because I like the idea of being more accepting and living without compartmentalisation.

    However, stalkers don't need to interact with people on the forums to get information about them. There's no equilibrium in a reveal such as RealID, because there's not necessarily any connection visible between a stalkers harvesting of information and subsequent malicious/creepy/inappropriate actions against their target.

  • Nicôle le Strange

    To be honest, I can see good and bad on both sides of the debate; however, there's actually nothing stopping someone setting up a fake RealID, thereby still being anonymous.

    I'm aware that very often fora require 'real' email addresses, not Hotmail and its ilk, but when I bought my domain, I didn't have to prove that I really am the person I say I am – that I'm not actually Boris McHard, a 57 year old fat, bearded truck driver from Cumbria!

    My point is that I could have bought borismchard,com, or even elizabethwindsor.co.uk (both of which, incidentally, are available!), registered on a forum with a 'real' email address, used the name which went with it, and nobody would be any the wiser. To all intents and purposes, I'd look like I was using my real name but of course, I'd still be just as anonymous if I'd joined as Zarg the Stinky, using [email protected]!

    True, where payment is involved, it's going to be different but how many fora require funds?

  • I'm afraid I don't know what heteronormative means.

    And I always thought that the way to identify a troll was to look for CAPITALS. Does that mean that I am feeding the troll?

  • In the end, Rob, I think I believe that transparency is the heart of a civilized society.

    Shining a light on MPs expenses has been key to starting the process of cleaning up politics. Transparency is key to the financial markets. It's key to exposing the BNP for what they are.

    The more society is open about all of its participants, the harder it becomes for bigots to survive. I believe that, in the long run, minorities will be better served by transparency than by skulking in the shadows.

    I agree that stalking is a problem (as much in real life as on the web). I believe that stalkers start to feel that it is safe (and normal) behind the anonymous veil of the web. If everything was public, the light would be shone on their actions as well, making it much harder to believe that being a stalker was acceptable, and making it much easier for people to discover that people are stalkers too.

    In the end, I can't wait until the web is 100% RealID. Only then will it be a civilised place. And by displaying to the rest of society how previously “taboo” activities, sexualities or behaviours are widespread amongst people they know, the more it will defeat prejudice, not increase it.

    I may be being utopian, but I feel that there are few things that are better for being hidden in the mouldering dark.

  • Thanks for replying, Pseudonym.

    I think my point is that it has hard for the Internet to grow up while anonymity exists. Bringing real identity into the Internet is critical for society accepting it, and our hobbies are normal. I accept that I am probably more comfortable with admitting I play games (given that advising games companies is what I do for a living.) But I also admitted for 10 years when I worked in the City, which is not exactly the most forward thinking part of British society.

    In the end, I'd like us all to be able to be ourselves. RealID was, for me, a good step in that direction.

  • I think you are right that there is a difference between “what is good for the Internet”, “what is good for Blizzard” and, for that matter, “what is good for society as a whole”.

    Yes, this world is fantasy. But it's also one that has consequences. People who hide behind anonymity seem to feel that there are no longer consequences, and I think that this is one of the web's biggest downsides, not it's upside.

    But most of my commenters appear to disagree with me.

  • Actually I totally agree with this post OH WAIT THE FORUMS ARE GOOGLE INDEXED, PUBLIC AND THEREFORE ACCESSIBLE BY ANONYMOUS REGARDLESS IT REALID IS IMPLIMENTED. Of course there's also concerns about outing transfolks and allowing irl stalking to continue ingame but since the author is apparently incapable of empathy and heteronormative as fuck, this falls on deaf ears.

    You want trolling to stop on the forums, there's this miraculous new invention called “IP bans”.

  • Alice

    Ouch, disagree.

    +1 to everything Rob said, he's outlined the reasons against very precisely.
    More here: http://habitatchronicles.com/2010/07/realid-and

  • I think you're being extremely unfair to the people who posted Micah Whipple's information onto the forum. He posted his name in a very direct “look, there's nothing to fear from this!” sort of way, and these people promptly proved that he was completely wrong about that. Yes, they did so in a somewhat ungentlemanly way, but their point was made.

    You claim that this is exactly the kind of thing Blizzard wanted to stop, yet I fail to see the logic of your argument. Sure, it would dampen enthusiasm for people posting abusive messages or bullying each other on the forum, but there are worse things than that out there. These guys published Whipple's personal information on the web, which you describe as bullying – but what of those who would do far, far worse things with such information?

    This isn't an idle bit of movie plot fantasy, either – there's a good reason why many people, especially women and minority groups, are extremely careful about revealing their identity online.

    I've seen the consequences of this going terribly wrong first-hand. I've been involved for years in running weekend events about Japanese culture in the UK – we bring over Japanese bands, secure rights for early screenings of new films, and so on. On one very memorable occasion, the organisers were approached by a very distressed girl, who had just discovered that a guy she'd talked to on the Internet a few times had turned up at the event just to meet her – having tracked down her details online and flown over the whole way from Texas explicitly for this purpose. Upon discovering that she wasn't prepared to immediately elope with her extremely weird stalker, he started following her around the event, muttering threats and curses under his breath. He became aggressive when the venue's security tried to intervene, and eventually we had to call the police to resolve the situation.

    The kind of details which were posted about Micah Whipple are exactly the kind of details about a young woman which a man like that could use to do something very serious.

    Personally, I use my real name for almost everything online – but I'm a white, middle-class male living in an extremely liberal city, and have no concerns about my sexuality or identity. Anonymity isn't very important to me. That doesn't mean that it isn't important to other people – or in some cases, even essential to those people's safety and security. Cleaning up an uncivil forum is not worth putting people at risk in that way to accomplish.

  • WoW forum posters are not truly anonymous, unless Blizzard are allowing people on trial accounts to post, which surely they could stop. WoW forum posters should have their avatar name tied to their payment details, which makes them far from anonymous.

    Taking another forum, ebay, where sellers and buyers are required to provide real details for a transaction to take place, many forum posters use a posting id on the discussion boards, because many times posters have found themselves finding their listings attracting troublemakers because of their views on the discussion boards.

    Many people even in this day and age of easy information are concerned about revealing too much information, privacy organisations advise people to be cautious, yet Blizzard were starting down the path of throwing caution to the wind and that's why this caused such a storm. RealID is designed for sharing your info with real life friends and colleagues, people can choose to take it further, but the goalposts were being moved by Blizzard and that really wasn't on.

  • Pseudonym

    I have to disagree with you on this one.

    I’m an avid gamer and active community participant with a very Google-able name; searches for just my surname turn up fewer than 5,000 hits – searching my “first last” name turns up fewer than 500. My dayjob is a mid-level role in a fairly stuffy industry, and it is very important to me to keep secret certain details of my private life.

    The proposed changes to RealID would have significantly hampered my ability to participate in the official community forums. Guild recruitment, technical support, class theory discussion; all of that would have become off-limits to me. Given my typical volume of activity, I imagine that the Google results for my name would highly rank my posts which, while usually well-written and carefully considered, would nonetheless expose my enthusiasm for a hobby which is still exceptionally taboo.

    It is important to me that my LinkedIn and other public profiles are highly searchable and scrubbed of any details which could harm my career advancement. Even the publically-viewable aspects of my Facebook profile have been carefully crafted to keep any “incriminating” details from ever being publically viewable to anyone not inside my close circle of family and friends.

    As it stands, the threat that Blizzard *might* implement this in the future has forced me to consider when and where I will participate in the future. Anonymity is the shroud that allows me to enjoy that which I have always enjoyed, and even the threat that the veil might be lifted has forced me to think long and hard about how I enjoy my hobbies.

    The bottom line is that games still carry a social stigma among particular crowds. None of my colleagues are privy to my hobbies –video games, miniature wargames, and amateur/hobbyist game development – because “serious” individuals in our market don’t enjoy that. It’s what their kids do, which is part of the problem for me – I’m young for what I do, and anything that would expose me as “younger” could significantly hamper my career advancement.

    I agree that there are parts of the Internet that don’t benefit from anonymity, but gaming and hobby community forums are not one of them. Until society in general “grows up” and gaming becomes a hobby with an acceptance rate on par with golf, fantasy sports, and wine collecting, there are those of us who need to preserve our anonymity.

  • There are clearly places on the internet where real identities are appropriate; Facebook being the canonical case, but this comment via Twitter is another good example. I'm not trying to be anonymous. Playing an MMO there are lots of good reasons why I might wish to play under a different identity, from gender disguise through to multi-character play and of course avoiding association between game identity and my real persona.

    The argument that real names would equalize by exposing everyone's id is obviously false; some will fake accounts, moreover many folks have common names that are not usefully googleable, or perhaps they're too young for FB accounts etc. (I guess Blizzard's ToS requires 13+, but you can be sure that many kids are playing).

    A significant part of MMORPG players enjoy the anonymous aspect of a new persona. Isn't this supposed to be fantasy?

    Given that it was just restricted to the Blizzard forums one could say 'Their forum, their rules, just play the game and don't use the forums' and that would be fair enough, I suppose, if annoying your customers and driving a substantial part of what is at least notionally game community communications onto other channels is a good business plan. It doesn't sound like it, to me.

    I don't play WoW and I don't fully understand the friend network implications of Real Names in friending, but this sounds pretty dodgy to me, too. I have no interest in knowing that 'Galadriel's real name is Boris, especially if we're very friendly in-game.