Like many die-hard World of Warcraft fans, I was surprised and dismayed by the news release that Blizzard would require real names when players post on the forums of their MMOGs (currently World of Warcraft and StarCraft II).  They argue that this move brings them more in line with social media sites like Facebook.  And in a way, I couldn’t agree more, but this is not a positive thing in my book.

Facebook continues to infuriate me … and nearly loses my business … every time they make a change to their terms of service or open up connections between services or users.  This often results in significant changes to privacy management settings and strategies, opening up my information by assuming that I will opt-in rather than leaving walls up and giving me the option to take them down.  Now my favorite online game wants to emulate them?!?!  I’m not very happy.

While I understand that opting in to display  my real name is optional for game play, making it necessary to opt-in in order to participate in the broader affinity space might be problematic.  If I do sign up to display the name the USA has decided is my “real name”, will that apply going forward (so that I can be careful about what I say from now on?), or will it be effective retroactively (and what dumb things did I say 2, 3, or more years ago??).

This gives a new wrinkle to those of us trying to educate children and teens in responsible use of social networking.  What would the take away of this lesson be?

  • You can’t trust these companies to stick to the original terms of service but have to assume that they will, with minimal notice, change the terms so that your identity can be shared in ways that will benefit them?
  • That you should actually never use any of these services because you don’t know where the information goes or to whom — or may go in unexpected and unimaginable situations in the future?  (I know a lot of parents who’d like this to be the message we give, but I don’t think Blizzard or Facebook should paint us moderates into this corner!)
  • You should develop a fake, online id that you can use for fun but then be able to plausibly deny when it is time to apply to college or get a job?
  • You should have your parents give you a boring Anglo-sounding name that thousands of other kids in the world will also have so that you can say “That’s not me … must be some other John Smith”?

I know that many researchers and writers are postulating what this move will do to communication both in world and on the forums – both official and unofficial.  I’m actually hoping that some of them have grant money lying around and will use this as an opportunity to get some evidence to support hypotheses.

Some interesting ideas surfacing are:

  • That there will be less trolling in the official forums because people will no longer be anonymous.  Interesting notion, but I am not so sure, and I suppose it depends upon how great an effect you count as significant.  People often know the identity of those who harass them, especially if there are no consequences that matter.  Even if I know who is calling me unacceptable names, who is going to stop them from doing so?  I can’t see Blizzard moderators becoming politeness police.  They may block obvious spammers, but I doubt that they want to waste MORE time on their forums than they do now.
  • That much of the forum traffic will move from the official to unofficial forums.  I’d probably agree that is is likely.  WoW is not Facebook.  There is a different dimension to my identity creation in WoW (or any role-playing game, even if I don’t really roleplay as such) than there is with Facebook.  My Facebook identity IS me.  My WoW characters, even my main character, are NOT me.  I don’t cross that boundary, and I do not want my game company to try to shove me across it.
  • There will be more harassment of women and non-Anglo people.  Possibly.  I have always been lucky because everyone assumes that female characters are not played by women.  I haven’t seen much harassment related to the person behind the character, even on the forums … because you really don’t know to whom you are speaking and can’t fine-tune the slur to hurt effectively.  Once they actually know characteristics, they might have new fuel for focused attacks when an argument falters on its own merits.

On the whole, Blizzard is unfortunately living down to my expectations and will cause me give more cynical advice to students in regard to using social networking tools.  I argued for caution before, but now, I really wonder how much sharing of “real” identity information can be considered safe. I once advised students to tell the truth to the companies that run these online sites and games, but to be very careful about sharing anything real with other users.  Now, it looks like I have to tell them not to share real information with anyone other than the government.