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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.”