[Now that Blizzard has retracted its controversial Real ID forum policy, Gamasutra speaks with experts to examine why gamers were so willing to vociferously defend anonymity -- and it wasn't just trolls doing the shouting.]
Anonymity can be a great form of protection. It's the reason why things like voice modulators, ski-masks and internet aliases exist (okay, maybe not the sole reason). All of these things can let you act with less inhibition. They allow you to do things that maybe you wouldn't do if people knew your real identity.
World of Warcraft and StarCraft 2 creator Blizzard Entertainment caused a bit of a gamer meltdown last Tuesday when it said it would be taking away some of that anonymity from its forum users with the implementation of Real ID, which would require posters to use their real-life names on Blizzard message boards -- no aliases allowed.
Responses from Blizzard forum posters ranged from "this is a HORRIBLE IDEA BLIZZARD!" and "We shouldn't have to fear that we will attract stalkers," to "I love it. I have no problem with people knowing who I am based on my posts."
And after tens of thousands of replies to the measure -- the vast majority of which were opposed to the decision -- Blizzard three days later jettisoned the policy almost as abruptly as it announced it, snuffing out the experiment before it even started.
Now we'll never know if "removing the veil of anonymity" -- as Blizzard put it -- would create a "more positive forum environment" on the company’s extensive forum network. But instead we can examine why there was such furor over the proposal in the first place. In many ways, even though Blizzard's experiment never got off the ground, it revealed certain core online gamer values.
"I think the U-turn is a fascinating development. It is a political event, really, the equivalent of a government policy being overturned because of public outcry," said Edward Castronova, associate professor in the department of telecommunications at Indiana University.
Castronova, who also authored the book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, said he was "surprised" by Blizzard’s retraction. "It is also surprising that anonymity has been so vociferously defended. Perhaps there is some strength to the view that fantasy lives are important for many people, even those who don't consider themselves roleplayers and fantasists."
Blizzard’s real name requirement was only going to apply to forum names -- in-game, players wouldn’t have to identify themselves if they didn’t want to. But to Castronova, who considers himself a "deeply immersed roleplayer," even being required to use his real name on an MMO's forums could shatter the overall role-playing experience.
"What I think [happened] here is when people go on forums, it's kind of a sub-game of World of Warcraft," he explained. "It's like a community that's somewhat tied to your in-game play; it's a place that's been part of the gameplay."
He added, "Any time you redefine boundaries after people are already invested in a certain way of doing things, that's going to be problematic."
"People Weird Out When They Find Out Who I Am"
A Real ID policy could put dedicated players MMORPG players on the outside of the role-playing community by their own choice. "I'm actually playing Lord of the Rings Online now, and if [real forum names were required] with LOTRO, I just wouldn't post on the forums. I'm a person who really likes to be in the game without people knowing who I am," he said.
In other words, such a policy might root out trolls and spammers, but also legitimate users, some of whom expressed that Blizzard was punishing good users along with the bad. The fact is, many of the complaints weren't rooted in some sense of entitlement, but valid concerns.
"People [online] weird out when they find out who I am, because there's this chance that they might know me from my writings and everything. Then I don't feel as free to goof around and to enjoy the game like a little kid," Castronova said.
Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University added, "I suspect this reaction [to Real ID] … reflects that the anonymity can make some timid people 'braver,' willing to act in their fantasy life in ways they never would choose to -- or have nerve to -- in real life, hiding behind their avatar, so to speak. They experience this as empowering and feel threatened if someone tries to take that power away.”
At the root of many of the complaints about Real ID’s forum implementation was the issue of privacy, in terms of personal preference and even from a legal standpoint.
I Came From Azeroth To Punch You In The Face
But what some users expressed concern about was that unsavory and exploitative webgoers could use Real ID names as a starting point to find out more information about Blizzard forum posters, such as their places of business or home addresses. This group wasn’t worried about losing the sense of role-playing and immersion, but about issues that could carry over from Azeroth to the real world.
It's not illegal to Google someone's name, or to look them up in an online phone directory or address book. What can be illegal is what people do with that information. If an angry player who got his ass handed to him in StarCraft II took revenge by showing up at an online rival's front door and punched him in the face, that's assault -- but that seems well out of Blizzard's jurisdiction.
Just prior to Blizzard’s retraction of the policy, the studio's public relations manager Bob Colayco said, "Real ID is a new and different concept for Blizzard gamers -- and for us as well -- and our goal is to create a social-gaming service that players want to use.”
The intentions were good -- to foster a more friendly forum environment. Maybe Blizzard looked at the millions of connected FarmVille players who don't seem to mind that the game is connected directly to their real-life names on Facebook -- transparency seems to work there, so why not try something similar with the world’s top MMORPG?
While he wasn't completely in support of the Real ID forum policy, Castronova thought that it could have made World of Warcraft "a bit more like Facebook and a bit less like LambdaMOO." He added, "People who are not anonymous behave better. I have known grownups who would joyfully grief a 12-year-old online but would never pick on a 12-year-old at the mall. Anonymity explains a lot of it."