For those that don't know, Blizzard, makers of MMORPG demi-God World of Warcraft (WoW), recently announced a new policy. Shortly, any individual posting on the official WoW or Starcraft forums will need to use their Real ID, which is basically the players first and last name.
There has already been uproar over this news, with the official announcement thread on the European WoW forums having generated over a thousand responses, the majority being negative.
Blizzard opine that doing so will reduce the issue of trolling and abusive posting on the forums, certainly a point worth considering in light of John Gabriel's Internet Fuckwad Rule. They believe that the forums will become a much friendlier, more welcoming place, a veritable land of digital milk and pixellated honey. Official Blizzard employees will also be identified by their real names.
Why all this outcry? In the main, people are concerned about the potential for invasions of privacy. In this age of social networking, it isn't hard for someone to ascertain the identity of a person using just their full name and a few other scant details. Heck, 4Chan do it all the time.
The potential for abuse of this new system is huge. As we all know, gamers can be a hot-headed bunch. There are plenty of news reports of gamers who have exacted physical revenge on an opponent in real life for some percieved slight. And with WoW being the most populous online game in the world, I believe there is potential for real harm here.
I have had the experience of being on Ventrilo (VoIP) when some members of my former guild decided to quit, and the threats and language directed at the guild master at the time was chilling, along the lines of stomping said GMs face in and cutting her throat. If the guild master in question had her name displayed as part of her account, it would only take an individual with a minimum of skills and determination to get more exact personal information about her.
I also would seriously question the wisdom of having Blizzards employees easily compromised by their playerbase.
So there is that point to consider, and it is a valuable point. I would hate to have employers being able to search my name and, finding my Facebook with maximum privacy settings on, perusing an old game forum post where I've dissed my boss or some such shit.
Another aspect that Blizzard haven't seemingly considered are the implications for minors. Globally, countries have very different, and often very strict laws regarding the privacy of minors online. In the UK, if a company is providing a service that is proven to attract minors as a major part of it's customer base, they legally have a duty of care towards those minors. I would love to see how this plays out in the case of some 14-year old who commits suicide after bullying resulting from WoW. That is entirely conjecture, I know, but it can't be denied that it is a stark possibility.
There is a further issue I would like to address and it goes to the heart of the issue for me personally:
Having a screen name is a neccessary step to separate the individual from the people he plays/talks with.
It might seem like a moot point in the Facebook era, but the people on my friends list are people I know and who, more or less, know me.
On the flip side of that, the forums I frequent will know me only by my screen name and that's the way I like it. Why? Because it allows me to discuss issues or put forward opinions that I can't normally express in real life. Whilst being anonymous online encourages lies and exaggerated emotions it also allows absolute honesty as there is no point in mincing your words if the opinion can be judged without the context of the individual.
WoW comes from a background of old school online gaming, where people were known exclusively by their screen names. Heck yes there was trolling, and flaming and abuse but, fuck, that was just part and parcel of the experience and most people are mature enough to ignore it. That is something I think most players have learnt to live with.
Blizzard need to realise that social networking (which seems to be the flavour they are aiming for) and online gaming are only related by degrees, and those degrees should be exclusively decided by the player, not the developer.
And aside from everything else, trolling and flaming might be a pain in the arse, but it also gives Blizzard an accurate insight into the love that some people have for their product and the emotions it can generate. I dread to think what a sanitized, polite place forums would become if everyone used their real name all the time.
I just hope that Blizzard will revert this misguided policy, but hey, what the fuck do I know?