Some are calling this the biggest PR disaster to hit the MMO industry. The amount of public outcry on this subject is unprecedented. The forum post discussing the issue has over 34,000 posts - that's over 1,800 pages of people, for the most part, decrying the new feature.
For those who have been hiding under a rock the last few weeks, here is a FAQ about RealID provided by Blizzard: http://us.battle.net/realid/faq.html - note that this FAQ does not yet seem to cover the forum change. Additionally WoW.com has continuing coverage of the issue and Blizzard's responses to it: http://www.wow.com/2010/07/06/official-f
If you don't want to read the articles, here is a brief overview of what's been happening:
Initial In-Game Implementation
First, Blizzard implemented a new stage of their Battle.net integration (this effects both WoW and Starcraft). In this new feature, you can add a friend as a "RealID" friend. This means the person can see your first and last name. Blizzard cautioned us that this feature is intended for people who know themselves in real life, but that it is ultimately up to the users how they use it.
This original implementation created a minor stink because your friends' friends (who are not necessarily people you know) are able to see your real name. They are not informed of what character belongs to that name, but the inability to block this feature resulted in many players not using the RealID system. But, at this point the system was completely optional and had very little effect on gameplay.
Addon Security Vulnerability
However, after the system had been around for a few weeks, it was soon discovered that addons were able to exploit a security vulnerability in the system and display your real name to anyone and everyone (Reference: http://www.wow.com/2010/07/06/security-flaw-allows-addons-to-expose-full-real-life-names-witho/).
The Big One - Forums Use RealID
Shortly after that fiasco, Blizzard dropped what some are calling the biggest PR disaster ever to hit the MMO world - The WoW official forums will, in the future, display your RealID name. There is no way to opt out of this service: if you want to post in the forums, your real first and last name will be shown.
Let me do my best to make this abundantly clear. By "Official Forums" Blizzard includes not the normal QQ my class is broken lol Blizz noob posts. It includes (but is not limited to):
- Suggestion Forums, where players have an outlet to suggest ideas for the game
- Guild Recruitment Forums, without which a guild would be at a significant disadvantage in recruitment
- Tech Support Forums, where users can report problems and request technical help.
Before I discuss the consequences of this change, I want to put to rest some arguments about whether this all even matters. The first is the belief that no one will be able to find you just given your name. I'd like to share a story with you folks that puts that belief resoundingly in it's place - as a naive fantasy.
First of all, you can hear the story from those involved here: http://seewhatyoudidthere.
In the huge forum thread I sited at the beginning of the article, one user decided he would support his argument that no one can find someone based only on their name by actually posting his name. Within 20 minutes the blogger in the above article found him and called him at work. He talked to the exposed user and confirmed that he knew not only his home address and home phone, but also:
- What the user did for the 4th of July
- The color of his bedroom walls
- The name of his dog
- The names of his parents
You may believe that most of this information must be from Twitter or Facebook. But you can just as easily find phone numbers and addresses from public phone books and census data. Think also about employer websites which may list your work information. And keep in mind that this user did not have a particularly unique name in any way. Just because your name is common, do not believe you are somehow protected.
Relevance - Safety
The above story is a cautionary tale but has a relatively happy ending. However, that's not always the case. In the following article, we see the other side of that coin: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/101031-Counter-Strike-Knife-Fight-Leads-to-Real-Life-Stabbing
In this story, a user upset over losing a knife fight in Counter-Strike planned and plotted for seven months. He then drove to the knife fight winner's house, rang the doorbell, and stabbed the winner in the chest with a real, honest to goodness knife. The second gamer was extremely lucky - the knife barely missed his heart and he survived.
This occurred in a game where death is a momentary inconvenience. In WoW, our characters represent hundreds of hours of invested time. Ninja'd loot, for one example, is a far more serious event than killing someone in Counter-Strike. Would you like to make it one step easier for angry psychopaths to find you via your guild recruitment post using your real name? I know I would not.
Relevance - Reputation
Safety isn't the only reason that a user might wish to remain anonymous. Though it may seem foreign to many of us, some people could be harmed via WoW in a completely different manner - through their reputation. Sadly, not all successful businesses, law firms, hospitals, universities, or other "prestigious" organizations view gaming with a tolerant eye. Being a gamer openly can hurt your chances of receiving a job and can make it harder for you to be taken seriously in your chosen field. I'm not going to go into this too much, but even if this doesn't effect you please consider the people that it does effect.
The Issues - Tech Support is Optional?
Now that we've determined that revealing first and last names is indeed a relevant concern, lets talk about what that means in this situation.
The most glaring and obvious issue, to me, is the tech support forums. If a user wants to report a tech support problem, he or she has no choice but to reveal their first and last name for anyone and everyone on the internet to see. Now, you might say, you can just call Blizzard or leave an in game ticket if you want to contact them. I beg to differ. I have had three friends hacked in the last month and another two had their accounts locked out (it turns out completely unjustly). In order to talk to someone on the phone they had to wait at least 45 minutes, often much longer. In game ticket queues can take days. And even when one of those methods result in an actual conversation with a Blizzard employee, things are seldom immediately resolved (a good friend still has not received his hundreds of emblems of triumph lost to the hacker). In this situation it's important that every tech support avenue be used and fully open to users.
I maintain, therefore, that it is completely unacceptable to require this blatant disregard for user privacy if a user wishes to post in the tech support forums.
The Issues - The Morality of Intimidating the Trolls
One of Blizzard's officially stated motives is that they hope to use this new feature to reduce trolling on the forums. Now, I don't like forum trolls and I would love to see less of them around. But I think the real logic behind this "encouragement" for us to act more appropriately needs to be examined.
Clearly, the way they hope to accomplish this is that, with the knowledge that their real name will be posted with their comments, users will think twice about making rude posts. But what will cause them to think twice? Will they reflect whether or not this will be a suitable way to treat other human beings? Not likely. The fact is Blizzard is hoping that user will be motivated by fear: Fear that any negativity generated by the post will cross over to the "real world" to haunt them. If all they were going for is accountability, a simple unchangeable gamer handle would suffice - the fact that it must be your real name means they want this to cross over to your life outside WoW. As I've shown in the two examples above, this is not an unreasonable fear. The fact that Blizzard is utilizing this fear to accomplish it's goals, however noble those goals may be, is disturbing.
And the sad thing is, this is very unlikely to actually stop trolling. People who troll will still find ways to troll, whether they do so with disregard to their in game or real life reputation, or whether they use false names, trial accounts, or other ways. In addition, the possibility of character assassination (there is nothing to stop you from purposely listing the name of an enemy as your account name) has been introduced as well.
I maintain that Blizzard's use of fear to attempt to intimidate users into good behavior is both ineffective and reprehensible.
The Issues - Discrimination
Possibly the most important (and most easily overlooked) issue present in this brouhaha is the unequal effect the change will have on minorities, particularly women and gay gamers. It is pretty unarguable that a very significant portion of WoW's player base is extremely homo-phobic. Women gamers, while becoming more and more common, are still often treated with disrespect or with inappropriate stalker-like behavior. It will be pretty easy to determine whether a user is male or female based on name alone. Additionally, users with names from other nationalities could also be threatened. We can agree, then, that revealing the first and last names to these threatened groups would be highly undesirable and could cause emotional distress, stalking, or even violence.
Many people are simply saying, as a response to those uncomfortable with this feature, "Just don't post!". Even without the tech support issues discussed above, we need to examine how this threat, both emotional and physical, is unequally effecting the player base. Consider, for example, a cis ("normal" sexuality), white male when compared with a female, a male with "alternative" sexuality, or another minority group. Do you honestly believe this new "feature" will be affecting them equally? Is it fair to say to the more threatened, less comfortable group, "just don't use this feature"? Is it fair to deny them this privilege?
Here is an artical from another woman gamer discussing this issue: http://www.spiderfarmer.com/2010/07/07/blizzards-burqa/
I maintain that by revealing real names for all forum posts, Blizzard is driving away minority groups and allowing those in the majority more access to privileges, in this case the forums.
How can I help?
If you are as angry as I am about this, send complaints to Blizzard's privacy email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And to the ESRB: email@example.com
The more outraged voices they hear, the more likely they are to make a change!
I'd like to include a few succinct comments from WoW.com's threads to close. One user said:
They told us it was by invite only, then they displayed our friends of friends.
They told us it was secure, but addons have already found vulnerabilities in their security.
They told us it was optional, but now if we want to post on the official forums, it's required.
Finally, another user summed up the whole mess: "RealID: So optional, it's mandatory!"
I'm very happy to discuss any of the points in the article with you. However, please be civil in any comments you make, or they will be deleted.