I write this with the assumption that if you already know who Blizzard is, you’ve probably heard the news a while ago. For those who aren’t as dorky as I am, here’s the situation:
Blizzard, a subsidiary of massive games publishing company Activision, is currently printing ten-million dollar bills with their hit game World of Warcraft. Don’t pretend you haven’t heard of it, there are something like 20 Million paying a monthly fee to pay the mortgage on their mounts. Even with the amount Blizzard needs to pay for servers, staff, upkeep, and the like, it’s still one of the most profitable games of all time.
Blizzard came up in the world with games like Starcraft and Diablo, classics in their own genres and around a decade old at the moment. Starcraft 2 and Diablo III (I’s are more gothic) are both coming out soon, Starcraft later this month and Diablo III by a year from now. Each of these will not only be bought by millions of people. They’ll steal some business from WoW, because there’s an overlapping customer base. So, how do you keep your customers connected during a period guaranteed to fragment them?
Well, someone clever at the office thought up a simple idea: make their multiplayer service, Battle.Net, more fully featured. For instance, they planned on adding the ability to chat with anyone in any of their games regardless of which one you were currently playing. That way, your players stay connected and might decide to play all three games in equal portion. But that was only the beginning. At some point, someone noticed that Facebook was successful in a way that made even WoW look pissant. How does a video-game producer get a piece of that? They make Battle.Net more than just a service for finding games, they partner it with Facebook.
“We believe that the powerful communications functionality enabled by Real ID, such as cross-game and cross-realm chat, make Battle.net a great place for players to stay connected to real-life friends and family while playing Blizzard games. And of course, you’ll still be able to keep your relationships at the anonymous, character level if you so choose when you communicate with other players in game. Over time, we will continue to evolve Real ID on Battle.net to add new and exciting functionality within our games for players who decide to use the feature.”
Notice the “connected to real-life friends and family” part. That’s not a feature that has anything to do with making your playing experience better. Your mom doesn’t care what your stats are in Starcraft 2. That’s an attempt to create an online hub that will draw advertising dollars and pull more people into the service. They also, briefly, planned on implementing RealID on their forums, by which they meant implementing a system that required forum members to use their actual names when posting on a forum. This was ostensibly designed to lessen abusive behavior on the forums by making it harder for troublemakers to remain anonymous. In all likelihood they’ll push it again in a few years when they feel people have calmed down enough or gotten used to opting-in to using their real names in exchange for some new online features.
The idea of using real names as a way to solve the problems Blizzard is claiming they want to solve is silly. If you want to solve problems like abuse or player fragmentation, there is a simple solution, which doesn’t come with the significant drawbacks (seriously read that, it’s informative and I’m not going to re-write the whole thing. It will be on the test) of a system that utilizes real names.
It’s simple: use persistent names. For instance, I am Durandal on this blog. I’m Durandal4532 on almost every service I’ve used to play a game or post something online since I was 12. Now, not everyone wants to be saddled with DethKill@45 in every context, but the important part is simply that I can’t change my identity from within networks in which I’m participating. On XBox-Live I will be Durandal4532. If Durandal4532 calls you a bag of shithammers online and you take offense with Durandal4532’s ingenious and biting new swear, you can send a report with my name on it and I can be tracked down and told to stop and should someone really get tired of me I can simply be banned from using the service altogether. This technique does require an active moderating service to police new accounts (making certain they aren’t simply a punished delinquent making a new account under a new name) and mete out punishments, but it can be remarkably effective.
The advantage to this system is that no one need fear their opinion leading to real-life consequences. What’s that? But you want to really beat that kid up for calling you an Ultraqueen of Superlamery? First of all, he’s obviously only around 11. Those are entry-level pre-vulgar insulting tactics. Second of all, if you’re a sane person knowing the name of the child who just insulted you doesn’t really help you out. You won’t actually attempt to respond to moderate annoyance by calling up and demanding the kid be grounded. It only really helps people who are massive creepers and willing to go much farther to punish online slights.
One of the great things about the internet is that it allows you to express yourself without worrying about self-censorship. Your employer isn’t checking the Blizzard forums to see if you’re manager material. At least, not until they’re a searchable subsidiary of Facebook that you post on with your real name. There are a host of potential negative consequences that anyone who has ever said anything online can quickly figure out for themselves. Does your boss agree with your political positions? All of them? You better hope he does! Have you said anything bad about Best Buy? Oooh, that position isn’t hiring right now. The benefits amount to “easier to stalk people”.
I know that to anyone who was unaware of Blizzard before this post, it seems a bit silly to rail on for this long about something this inconsequential. But I think anonymous communication is freeing and useful. It prevents substantial abuse by protecting real identities, it allows people to speak without fear of reproach about any topic they choose, and it allows people who might not otherwise be able to make their voices heard to compete on a level playing field. Yes, it occasionally allows people to be abusive because they don’t need to fear a reprimand, but an effective moderation community and a persistent naming system can eliminate that.
I’m happy that Blizzard has backpedaled on making it a requirement that you sacrifice your privacy to use their service, but the fact that they had to be pleaded not to hold features hostage until you divulged personal information is unsettling.
For the record, my real name is Hunter S. Thompson.