A few years back, I decided that I wanted to try one of these Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs). After some poking around, and research, I settled on World of Warcraft. My reasons at the time were simple; Blizzard had a stellar track record of doing their best to make every game solid, well-considered, well-planned, and so on.
It was a great game. I had a blast playing it. The continual improvements and design tweaks kept making the game better and more fun. They really did a great job.
A while back, they announced a new feature, in conjunction with a Facebook marketing deal of some sort. The new feature was “Real ID”, and the idea was that you would be able to identify yourself to some other players using your real name (meaning the name associated with your account). That name pretty much has to be the name on your government ID — that’s what would be used to recover the account if it got compromised, for instance. Well, this was pretty unpopular as a concept in many ways, because a lot of people have real names that they don’t like to go by, or which identify their ethnicity or gender. In some cases, their “real names” would misidentify their gender.
But hey, the feature’s optional. Blizzard reps said that you should use the feature only with people you know and trust in real life. Now, they didn’t do this quite right — there’s a friends-of-friends feature, which is not optional and cannot be disabled or avoided, so that if you have two friends, they see each others’ real names. You’d think that just seeing the name wouldn’t matter much, but it does; someone who sees a name he doesn’t know can, for instance, decide to harass that person. This really does happen; a kid friended his sister and his guild leader (WoW players tend to form groups called “guilds”), and the guild leader turned out to think it was really funny to post the sister’s name so that other players could look her up, post her phone number in the game, and so on.
It doesn’t end there. Yesterday, Blizzard announced a great new idea. They’re going to make it so that their official game discussion forums use Real ID. As in, if you want to post, you will post under your “real name”. No exceptions. No way out. Their explanation is that their forums are a cesspit (they are), and that this will create “accountability” for the trolls.
One of the Blizzard reps pointed out that real names don’t matter too much; his name was Micah Whipple and he didn’t see the big deal. Within about half an hour, someone named Micah Whipple who lived sort of near one of Blizzard’s main operating centers was getting harassed pretty badly, to the point where he had to shut down his Facebook page and so on. Was he the same guy? We actually don’t know. Since then, rumor has it, the company has decided that staff will not participate in the Real ID forum thing “for security reasons”.
Customers, of course, still participate in that, because customers don’t need security.
The problem is this. As noted, Blizzard’s forums are a cesspit. They are full of trolls. They are full of people who think it is their mission in life to mock the weak, by which they mean anyone who can be hurt by being mocked. Now, Blizzard feels that making trolls post under their real names creates “accountability”.
Does it? Most of the trolls probably don’t care — indeed, most of them are posting on their parents’ accounts anyway (minors can’t have WoW accounts, they can only play on accounts associated with their legal guardians). But insofar as it does, it creates that accountability because, posting under their real names, they’re subject to consequences. So what do you think they’ll do? I think they’ll stop posting, true. I think they’ll keep reading the forums and harassing the other posters, though. In the past, the trolls harassed people in the forums and in the game because that was the only avenue they had for harassing people. Now, they’ll be able to harass people in real life. Especially people with unusual names. Especially women.
I normally don’t like to use the phrase, but this is a brilliant example of the much-talked-about “white male privilege”. If I were to post on those forums, I’d show up as “Peter Seebach”. Okay, sure, people could find me easily enough, but what of it? I’m a pretty public person to begin with. My name doesn’t stand out too much.
The racists who populate the forums will be pretty happy to be able to quickly identify people who are probably Chinese, or Mexican, or of some sort of Arabic descent, or at least named as though they are. The potential stalkers will be given a free guide to which posters are male or female, with a full name they can search on to determine whether a given poster is in their area.
Meanwhile, people whose jobs or fields of work frown on MMO gamers won’t be able to post to the forums at all. People whose jobs require them not to post on the internet under their own names (there are many such jobs) won’t be able to post to the forums at all. The official response from Blizzard is that they’re aware that many people won’t be willing to post, and they are fine with this because they think it will make the forums better. Only… The people who aren’t posting are all the best and the brightest. The people who got identified as Most Valuable Posters (MVPs) are by and large planning to stop posting. The developers who wrote addon software to improve the game are more likely than other people to have real professional jobs which would compel them to stop posting. In short, the more serious and thoughtful you are, the more likely it is that you have too much to lose to risk posting under your real name on a forum dominated by trolls.
So I’m out. I cancelled my subscriptions, and so have, so far as I know, all the other people I know in real life who played WoW. Whether the forums will be improved by the loss, I don’t know, but I know that I’ll miss what was a truly awesome game, and I’m pretty bummed about not getting to see the work they’re doing on the next expansion pack, which looked like a great deal of fun.
Fundamentally, though, I just don’t trust them anymore.