When Blizzard said earlier this year that it would disallow the use of aliases on its forums, many users were quick to show their disapproval -- so much so that the World of Warcraft and StarCraft developer retracted its requirement to use "Real ID" on Blizzard forums.
What the developer confirmed from that experience is that -- even in a game's forums -- anonymity is not just about protecting one's privacy, but it's key to suspending disbelief. Being "someone else" is actually part of the gameplay, and just because people are okay with being open about their identities on Facebook, that openness doesn't necessarily translate to games.
Blizzard's Battle.net project director Greg Canessa told Gamasutra in a recent interview that the role and importance of anonymity in online games is still something the company is trying to figure out.
"Facebook has had a lot of influence, a lot of influence on me personally, in both positive and negative ways," Canessa said. "I love and respect aspects of what [social networking] is trying to do."
He continued, "... There are some very interesting social dynamics that are going on around the perception of anonymity, and what social networks like Facebook and MySpace have done to interfere with that veil of anonymity in the online space."
"I think it's an interesting sociological phenomenon that you have, in which people are completely comfortable putting their name, face, kids, wife and personal information out there for the world to see in Facebook, yet they're not willing to do, in some cases, similar things in the game space."
He attributes gamers' preference towards anonymity to their desire suspend reality. "That's been a very interesting thing for us to wrap our heads around at Blizzard."
The trick for Blizzard has been to try to promote the adoption of Real ID while not turning off players who choose not to use it. Blizzard has done this on Battle.net by opening up community features to those who use their real names.
"We were a little surprised by the controversy [about requiring real names on forums], mostly because it was kind of wag the dog. It was not where our focus was [for Real ID]," said Canessa. Real ID is more than a policy or option to use one's real name -- it's actually Blizzard's branding for community features that use real names as a basis for an in-game social suite that includes cross-game chat and Real ID friend discovery.
"That part was really, really positive, and that's where the Battle.net team has been focused," said Canessa. "The forum stuff was kind of a side thing. The forums aren't that big of a deal relative to Blizzard's overall business. And so we were a little surprised. ... [But] we listen to our community. They didn't like it, and we quickly moved off of it."
Canessa's comments to Gamasutra came as part of a larger interview with the Blizzard executive, and more sections from it will be posted in the near future.