Blizzard vs. Online Anonymity
Yesterday on the Battle.net forums for Starcraft II, Blizzard dropped the cliched bombshell on their gaming community:
All posts on their Starcraft II forums will use a player’s Real ID (ie: their real first and last name), with the World of Warcraft forums following suit as they near the launch of Cataclysm.
A lot of you are probably reading this and going “Wow, sucks for them. Glad I don’t play those games.”
Sadly, it probably doesn’t matter if you play those games or not. More than anything, Blizzard is known for setting precedents that other studios like to follow, especially when they appear to work well.
The key word there is “appear”. Game studios at times seem to use rather whimsical measuring tools to determine if something is successful/desirable, including Blizzard.
Let’s take a look at the Pros and Cons of this change as well as why they would choose to do something like this.
Before we weigh the Pros and Cons of the forum changes, let’s take a look at what the Real ID system itself is.
According to Blizzard, the Real ID system is a voluntary, optional level of identity for players in the Battle.net community and its associated games. By friending someone via the Real ID system, you aren’t just accessing their real-life name, you’re also gaining access to cross-game chat, a broadcast feature, and once you friend them via Real ID, you see all their characters in all their Battle.net games. Additionally, there is no way to hide certain characters you have in-game from Real ID friends.
Of course, that’s not all. Once you and another person agree to become Real ID friends, you both have access to each others friends list via a “friend of friends” feature akin to how Facebook works. Which means, once you friend one Real ID person, you have access to the Real IDs of all their friends and they yours.
On its own, Real ID isn’t that bad. It is completely voluntary after all. Personally, there are lots of people I play with whom I know in real life as well as online. A lot I already have as friends on Facebook, so having an in-game way to contact them, even across multiple games/realms, opens up a lot of possibilities and could potentially make my gaming experience with them a lot more enjoyable. Heck, just being able to see if they’re online on any of their characters without having to have all of them on my friends list is a huge benefit, especially when it’s across factions, realms and games.
Effectively, it’s a social communication tool that is highly effective in its focus and functionality. It’s something I would love to have had in many games I’ve played in the past and all that I play currently.
Its glaring flaw doesn’t lie in what it does, but what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t let you choose whether you wish to use your real name or your online persona for your communication. There, as they say, is the rub.
With the announcement that all forum communication on their primary forums for Blizzard games will be done only by using your Real Id, they are effectively saying to their community “If you’re not willing to tell everyone your real name, we don’t want you posting on our forums.”
They don’t come out and say that of course. They say they’re doing it to improve the quality of conversations on the forums and make them a more enjoyable place for players to visit.
I seem to recall the same type of argument used historically to support segregation, but let’s not get off on a tangent.
Blizzard admits that their forums have become a place known for “flame wars, trolling and other unpleasantness run wild.” It is their hypothesis that this little social experiment of theirs will correct this and make their forums a better place.
But how do they plan on measuring their success? By looking at the decrease in said flames, trolls and other unpleasantness? We all know there will be tons less, that’s not even up for debate. However, that decrease comes at a price. Far fewer people will be posting on the forums period. Not many people are willing to put their real identities out in the public eye of the interwebz. Especially if their views on things have historically been seen as controversial or if they’ve stepped on people’s toes with their comments.
So sure, a lot of the trolls will sneak off into the dark nooks and crannies of anonymous fan forums and blogs and leave the official forums behind. However, so will everyone that wasn’t a troll but doesn’t want to give out their personal information. With the size of the population in Blizzard’s games, there is a very, very good chance that quite a few of the people seen as assets to their online community will disappear as well. The people that are always the first in the help threads answering people’s questions. The people giving well-though-out feedback and constructive criticism on the forums that most Devs enjoy having around. The people promoting in-game events, the ones that always have a word of support for people having a bad day, etc. Do you see where this is going yet?
People like that are what make online communities great places to be and it doesn’t matter at all who they are in real life. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, young or old, where they live, what they do for a living, their education level, etc. All that matters is how they treat others. Period.
These changes aren’t targeted at that though, so they miss their publicly-stated mark without ever having been put into place. So why are they doing it?
If you’re a gamer, you’re familiar with the term “path of least resistance”. Regardless of the intent of a game system, gamers will always look for and find the path of least resistance and flow toward it en masse like water running down a hill. It doesn’t matter if said path has negative effects on the game or its community. If it’s available, people will take it so as to maximize their time/effort in terms of rewards. Blizzard is doing the same thing here.
Creating and maintaining a community built around respect and communication is not easy, whether you’re creating it online or in real life. It takes creating well-defined rules for behavior on forums and in-game and then fairly and unequivocally holding people accountable for their actions in regards to those rules. It requires vigilance, steadfastness, thick skins and a constant focus on the long-term benefits over short-term gain. There is no cutting corners here and the phrase “well, it’s ok just this one time…” does not exist. The end result is an incredible community, but it comes at a price. Lots of hard work, long hours and, of course, paychecks. It is most definitely not the path of least resistance.
Forcing people to use their real names on their forums both to communicate with other players as well as voice their opinions on changes to the game will reduce the volume of posts on the forums and results in less negative posts their Community Team has to handle and their Developers have to read. It effectively self-polices the bulk of the trolls and thus the amount of reported posts moderators have to deal with. Basically, it reduces their overall workload. That means there’s less work to do which means they need fewer people, and paychecks, to do it with.
So hey, if they measure success by the general overall reduction in trolls, flames, etc on their forums then this is a huge win for them.
As is true with many game studios lately, Blizzard just doesn’t get it. They think they do, as is evident in this quote from their official post on the subject:
“With the launch of the new Battle.net, it’s important for us to create a new and different kind of online gaming environment — one that’s highly social, and which provides an ideal place for gamers to form long-lasting, meaningful relationships. All of our design decisions surrounding Real ID — including these forum changes — have been made with this goal in mind.
We’ve given a great deal of consideration to the design of Real ID as a company, as gamers, and as enthusiastic users of the various online-gaming, communication, and social-networking services that have become available in recent years. As these services have become more and more popular, gamers have become part of an increasingly connected and intimate global community — friendships are much more easily forged across long distance, and at conventions like PAX or our own BlizzCon, we’ve seen first-hand how gamers who may have never actually met in person have formed meaningful real-life relationships across borders and oceans.”
Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a very social gamer. Hell, I even drove across the country last year and met a lot of people that I game with in-person just because I thought it would be cool. And it was. Gaming is, for me, most definitely a way to meet like-minded people and build long-lasting friendships. I get it. I understand what it is that Blizzard is trying to encourage. Hell, I’d probably make a good poster-child considering I have never shied away from putting my real self out there alongside my online identity. To me, there is no difference between the two outside the name.
But, there are far, FAR more gamers out there whose online identity is separate from their real one. For whatever reason, they choose to separate the two and not let them mix. Whether that means not letting people know if they’re male or female, what language they speak natively, what country/state/town they live in or even their name, they have made a conscious decision not to mix the two and have taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
Yet now Blizzard will be punishing them for their choice. No longer will they be allowed a voice on Blizzard forums. No longer are they given a choice. Either they share their private information or they keep their opinions to themselves.
That’s about as far as you can get from being a company that is looking to build a “highly social” gaming environment. Although, they’re definitely creating a “new and different kind” of environment, so at least they got that part right.
I have to say though, the saddest thing about all this is that they almost got it right. They have created a highly-effective social gaming tool in Real ID. If they made the inclusion of your real information optional and your online persona required (ie: forum name, main character name, etc) they’d have hit social gaming pay-dirt.
Give me the ability to use one name across all servers. To have it show my online identity when chatting to others, regardless of what character I’m on. To be able to see when my friends are online and on what character, and them see me, via one identity. And most importantly, let it not have a limit to how many people are on it. Let me choose how much of my personal information I share via this tool. Give me choice.
The company that does that will be on their way to creating an amazing online gaming community. Back it up with some vigilance on the forums and you’ll be amazed at the results.