A week has passed since Blizzard Entertainment (maker of World of Warcraft and the upcoming StarCraft II) publicly retreated from its plans to implement a requirement that all posts on its Battle.net discussion boards be signed with the author’s real name. It was a notable victory by players against a monolithic entity such as Vivendi Universal, Blizzard’s parent company. The Real ID system, the company claimed, would be a way to reduce harassment and spam by trolls (people who ‘troll’ through discussions and post defamatory, inflammatory or otherwise disruptive comments, using anonymity as cover). I’m certainly not the first to cover the story, not by a long shot, but I wanted to take an opportunity to examine why Blizzard felt that this move was prudent and why the movement toward a unified identity online probably won’t die out, no matter how much protest this round generated.
First, it’s very important for people who are not regular, dedicated gamers or Internet users to understand how significant a person’s cultivation of their online persona can be, especially when they are attempting to create distance between their real identity and the one that exists in a virtual world. As the article by Aj Glasser at NetworkWorld.com pointed out, people also have a major concern about privacy and being harassed by spammers, griefers and trolls. The last thing that most people want is for the barriers that help keep these malefactors to be eroded against their will. Most of the time it falls under the vague term “privacy” because we don’t yet have an adequate vocabulary to describe our online associations and behaviors. Most of the time we just try to shoehorn in some words or concepts from the real world and then seem surprised when 20 different interpretations of the term arise. We have certainly seen this for the concept of “privacy.”
What privacy means in the context of Blizzard and Real ID isn’t the same as what it means in, say, the context of criminal suspects and 4th Amendment search and seizure by the government. Online privacy can be as simple as separating one’s online identity from one’s real identity for the purpose of avoiding spam and unwanted commercial solicitations–hardly anything to get worked up about. Control over our personal data is what privacy is all about. I share information on Twitter and my location on Foursquare, but only what I don’t mind the world knowing. It’s when we lose control over how our information is shared that people get angry. We live in a world where everything we do is increasingly recorded and available online to almost anyone. Most of the time, this is done at our own choosing, but when it isn’t, it can be a cause for alarm. We are often judged by our behavior, even when our behavior is legal and harms no one. If you have ever, even for a moment, made a negative assumption about someone who plays online games (admit it, you have–I have, and I’ve logged a fair number of hours raiding) you can understand why a person might not want that information to get out.
Blizzard’s claimed that its motivation behind Real ID idea was that people behave differently when they act anonymously, often for the worse. It’s harder to be a troll when people know who you really are and can block you. The counter-point, players were quick to point out, is that anonymity isn’t sought only for malicious purposes. But unifying online and offline identities can bring about so many business advantages that it hardly matters why players want anonymity. Facebook is the clear example—they have always required that users create an account that is tied to their real name and information. Mining this information is how the company makes money. Better information about people and their behavior also leads to “better,” more targeted advertising and marketing. People writing about Real ID suspected that the move was also part of a goal to link Battle.net accounts to Facebook and thus tie even more information about players together. Just as Facebook frequently pushes its users buttons by drastically restructuring privacy rights and then stepping back part-way so that users feel as though they “won,” there are undoubtedly going to be efforts to re-introduce Real ID as a less-than-optional service on Blizzard sites.
The double-edged sword that is privacy and identity cuts deeply. We want to define who we are and build a network and community of like-minded people, but we want to control who exactly gets to be in that community. It’s not as if the technology doesn’t exist to allow people to control their information, it’s just that it all comes at a cost. Information is the de facto currency of the modern internet–you trade privacy for access to content and services. Perhaps that’s why Blizzard’s players were so incensed, they actually pay for their service, so they weren’t expecting to have to make this trade-off. I’m of the opinion that we need to have companies come clean and put a price on what our information is worth to them. It would be just like the Israeli daycare that put a price on how late parents could be in picking up their child. Once the daycare had commodified an otherwise intangible concept, “lateness,” people had no problem making the choice. I hypothesize that the same should go for privacy. Once someone actually lets you make a monetary choice people will know where they stand. The big question is, what price would you pay for control over your information?