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Summary:

Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the massively multiplayer — and massively popular — online game World of Warcraft, has touched off a firestorm of controversy in the gaming community by requiring that users divulge their real-world identities when they post comments in the company’s WoW forums.

Updated: Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the massively multiplayer — and massively popular — online game World of Warcraft, has touched off a firestorm in the gaming community by requiring that users divulge their real identities when posting in its game-related forums. The company says that what it calls the “Real ID” program is necessary to combat incivility, trolling and other behavior in its forums, but many gamers are outraged that they will be forced to merge their real-life selves with their gaming personas. The controversy is only the latest example of the ongoing conflict between the anonymity and privacy of the Internet and the pressure to disclose a real-world identity.

In many ways, Blizzard’s move seems antithetical to the nature of the online gaming world: multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft are called “role-playing” games because users take on different personas in order to play them. Some players maintain multiple identities, and even have characters that are different sexes, all of whom may have nothing to do with each other inside the game. Those characters will now be associated with the real-life identity of that user. One player, a 23-year-old marketing manager who goes by the name Ashelia, wrote on the Hellmode blog:

This is a horrible idea. Forcing people to sign real life name to a forum post is problematic on a basic level. The internet is largely what it is because of its anonymity–for better and for worse. Many great discussions have been had solely because someone could submit their words without worry of being judged.

Other users in the Blizzard forums have called the idea “terrible,” and “possibly the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.” One user summed up what appeared to be the views of many, saying: “People play video games to get away from everyday life. I don’t want them to mix.” A single thread on the topic has already gotten almost 2,000 comments in less than 24 hours, and the majority appear to be negative.

The World of Warcraft fracas is only the latest eruption of this tension between real-life identities and online personas. Facebook triggered a wave of criticism with its recent changes to the way it handles profile information on the social network, changes that had the effect of disclosing details about users that many people were uncomfortable with sharing. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire from many privacy advocates when a new book about the social network quoted him as saying that “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” and that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Many newspapers and media sites have also struggled with this tension between real-world identity and anonymity, with many deciding to require real identities in order to cut down on malicious comments (although verifying identity on a large scale can be very difficult). Other media observers, however, argue that anonymity is a red herring, and that the real determining factors when it comes to a healthy online community are engagement and management.

Update: Blizzard Entertainment says that after the outcry from game fans over the Real ID decision, the company has decided not to implement the feature and will not require real identities for posting in game forums.

Meanwhile, just for kicks, here’s a short video in which a (fictional) role-playing game afficionado describes how his Dark Elf Army is “the greatest power for evil in the lower British Columbia mainland.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Menage a Mois

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  1. As I posted in response to a similar post on the Hellmode blog, this is getting out of hand. Here’s why I think so:

    Everyone understands that who you are in a video game, on a forum, or in a chatroom, is a kind of identity you develop for yourself. It is its own society, of sorts, where you can say or act in a way you may not have. Some people are more sophisticated online than in real life, others are more harsh or brutal with their behavior.

    Who you are in real life may not mesh. I wake up and go to work as a systems administrator. I make a modest living and live in a modest house. Do the people I play WoW with need to know that information? Not unless I want to tell them, no. I post it here to make a point, and because my real name isn’t associated with this post. If it were, I’d think twice about saying much of anything.

    The whole thing seems surreal to me. There was a time when you simply knew that there were certain aspects of your privacy that wouldn’t be given out by the company and most of ‘em told you that in their EULA / Terms of Service. Now, it seems like that line is being blurred, or has been blurred for some time.

    My biggest concern here is for people who have technical jobs that don’t want them to merge. Sure, I’m a WoW player, but do my affiliate in WoW also need to know that I’m a systems analyst, that I have kids and what their names are, or that I updated my facebook status 21 minutes ago? If I wanted them to know, then that would be my decision to tell them, not Blizzard’s. That’s where I draw the line, and where many others do as well.

    1. Those are good points, Caero — thanks for the comment.

  2. Given the population in question, this will be a very big deal for the future of internet anonymity/privacy culture. We’ve had a couple of generations give the anonymous internet a quite thorough shot. I think now is as good of a time as any to try something new. At best, this experiment will be revolutionary and at worst it should still be a fascinating learning opportunity.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jack — I agree it will be interesting to watch, but I think this battle has been going on for quite awhile and will probably continue. There are equally strong opinions on both sides.

      1. Just as an edit, within 24 hours of original post telling us about the change, it was roughly 1500 pages and 20,000 responses.

    2. Wow — thanks for that info, Hevins.

  3. What We’re Reading: iPad Magic – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com Thursday, July 8, 2010

    [...] Should You Be Forced to Admit That You Have a Dark Elf Army? — gigaom.com Damon Darlin says: The World of Warcraft players are going berserk. That’s not a good thing. [...]

  4. Well, overall I’d say that, because of some (many) people having made WOW abundantly unpleasant to join, the owners have reached a point where they say, enough is enough. They would like to grow, and the many, many people who won’t pay them good money to be harassed, hosed, and generally shat upon won’t come back as long as the forums are such a pit.

    Hey, it’s their place, and a lot of people treat it like it is not. I have read endless postings to the effect of, “if you don’t like it, go away”, and now the tables are turned. How does THAT feel, Jimmy?

    I’d love to play. I won’t as long as I have to deal with the trash.

  5. Wizard Gynoid Friday, July 9, 2010

    As you may know, there are pressures within the Second Life community for the residents to reveal their Real Life identities as well. In fact, the official SL viewer (SL2) has two windows side by side on the profile page. One window has the avatar’s photo, the other window has the Real Life photo. There is much speculation that such moves are preparation for some kind of link-up between Second Life and Facebook. Perhaps the same kind of motive is behind this move by Blizzard. BTW, some of us can’t wait for inter-world teleporting to be perfected so we can come visit WOW.

  6. I remember reading a great article years ago (early 90s) on the emergence of digital payments and increased credit card use. The author made a very cogent argument for the benefits of cash (i.e., paper money) and the need for an online equivalent.

    The gist of his argument was that cash promotes a more free society because it allows you to be anonymous, when you choose, and it also allows you to sin.

    I thought that careful choice of the words “allows you to sin” captured such an important part of a free society. We should be allowed to commit our minor peccadillos. We should be allowed our private fantasies and indescretions. Yes, we should be allowed to have a Dark Elf Army without our boss knowing. I mean, WTF?

    I think Amazon, frankly, did a brilliant job of threading this needle when they created the Real Name option for their public profiles. It’s a completely voluntary and optional level of identity. If you choose to use it, it gives your public activity more credibility.

    WoW is taking a similar approach with Real ID. If you want to remain anonymous, they let you. But it’s optional. I think this is a great solution.

    Matt

  7. Hopefully people won’t just expend their energy bitching, but simply vote with their feet and use any number of alternate forums until Blizzard decides to change their tune. Unlike the games themselves Blizzard in no way has a monopoly on forums about it’s games. Like the mythical Phoenix a new community will quickly rise from the abandoned storefronts of the old with the donations and/or ad revenue that go with it. All users have to do is simply bother to act like an informed consumer and dump a product that ceases to preform.

    The best example of consumers winning this sort of game was when the owners of the Preakness Stakes banned attendees of the infield party from bringing their own beer. Magna Entertainment had been shamed by a series of YouTube videos of drunk, rowdy fans behaving badly and wanted to give their event a more “family friendly” atmosphere. Well the public voted with its feet and the 2009 Preakness had about 3/5th the attendance of the 2008, which was bad news for the already bankrupt owners. Suddenly this year the alcohol policy was relaxed with some BYOB allowed as well as a $20 “all you can drink policy”. Attendance shot back up and the “family friendly” concept was defeated.

    Blizzard is perfectly free to assume that people will prefer its new vitriol free forums. They are also perfectly free to see the users who actually prefer the nasty unbridled internet pull up shop and go to another site that will serve their needs.

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    [...] how the web is changing our behaviour and even perhaps motivations. A few of us have yet to decide whether we want to sync our multiple online identities. And that means that though Facebook is probably the most accepted [...]

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