My real name was first published in gaming-related print and online media in the summer of 2000, when the team I was on finished second in the tournament organised by a gaming magazine. It was published after an explicit request for my consent and my written expression of that consent. And it was, in fact, still way ahead of the timeline.
You see, gaming-wise, I come from a slightly different background than most of you, my valued readers. From 2000 to 2007 I have been a highly competitive and quite successful FPS gamer. Why does it matter? Well, we’ve come to see our gaming slightly differently – more as a sport and a competition. To be recognised as sport and competition, an activity needs a certain level of acceptance, an external appearance. Some time in the second quarter of the decade the communities at large began to realise that we’re never going to be seen as anything other than “killer-game players” by the wider audience if we continue to appear with names like “xKilleRx” (no, not an alias of mine or anyone I knew, just an example). And thus, slowly, gradually, a trend towards revealing the person behind the nickname began to grow.
We put our real names on team websites and league profiles. We uploaded pictures of our faces to be seen next to it – which is, you know, already kind of better than having your real name next to the image of an elf with a sword (sensational revelation: I am not actually an elf with a sword!). We added our age (often 20+ at that point) and profession/occupation, which also looked better than “level 80 Assassination Rogue”. Leagues required to add a UID to your profile that uniquely identified your copy of the game and could be queried in-game to make sure that player and account actually match. Later, the ESL (Electronic Sports League) introduced Trust Levels – essentially you could fill out some paperwork and send in a copy of your ID (which after the process was completed would be burnt and the ashes scattered over the Gulf of Mexico to control oil spills) and thereby verify that the person behind the account is, in fact, who you claim you are. And when you intended to attend LAN Parties, you’d register with your real name anyway, because LAN Parties take place in the real world, where you have to show your real ID (no pun intended) to prove that you are really over 18 years old and are really the one who paid the entry fee to be let in. When you go to a festival you can’t register as “SuperGothChick” either, regardless of whether you like your potential employer ever finding out about your music taste or not.
So, in essence the notion of revealing my real name on the internet doesn’t send me into immediate panic attacks and visions of doom. So, am I pro RealID and the jaw-dropping changes announced yesterday? No. Not at all. Why not? Because of a key difference.
There is this one big difference. When we were fighting back anonymity in the FPS community, it was us, the players (leagues and tournaments were effectively player-run as well), making decisions in what we perceived to be our own interest. Very important. Our decisions. Our interests. We had this visions of Electronic Sports, of social acceptance, of transparent and fair competition, and we did what we thought would help us get there. We did. And those who were not interested? They just didn’t need to. They didn’t need to opt out, or even actively decide against opting in. They just did nothing and were not in any way bothered. Yes, they may be denied entry to high-ranked tournaments, particularly with actual prizes, but that’s kind of fair game – without the push for a more competitive and representative environment those tournaments (and especially the prizes) would not have been there in the first place. You can’t have your cake and eat it too – but you can have the choice between having and eating your cake, and it should be your decision, not the baker’s. Bakers get to set the prices, they don’t get to regulate how much of which cake people have to buy.
Again, because it’s crucial – we were doing what we were doing in what we perceived as our interest. Blizzard’s new forced-RealID plans are in no way in the interest of players. I don’t even need to explain why it won’t have any of the proposed positive effects, as the blogosphere has already taken care of detailing why it’s outlandish, counter-productive, completely wrong and even outright dangerous (late addition: misleading in the very intent). I’m only adding my voice to the storm.
It is not the trolls who will be scared away, but those who do not want to be trolled under/for their real name and identity. The sky is not falling, but activity on the forums will feel much more uncomfortable exactly for the paced, measured, reasonable individuals. There is a natural barrier everyone has inside against being involved into a forum discussion – into any public discussion. Having to put up your real name there in the open adds to the barrier, most effectively holding away, again, the paced, measured, reasonable individuals. Comparisons to the real world fail as well. When you enter a bar your full name doesn’t pop up over your head. When you try to chat up that cute girl your personal details are not revealed to her even before she gets to tell you to get lost.
The official forums may not actually become a more hostile place, but they will feel more like “dangerous ground”, which will, once again, first and foremost, keep away those with mild personalities and a thing for politeness over shouting. By keeping those people out, the forums will become useless to anyone but trolls. We have been so far relatively successfully recruiting via the official forums. That will most certainly end with the introduction of the new forum system. The risk of exposing our real identities (and yes, there is always a risk, even though maybe not as overwhelmingly huge as some may believe) will not be justified by the realistic outlook of actually finding someone who is not a dick, because the forums will be officially Dickland. The alternative of community forums (e.g. MMO-Champion) is there, but inferior in that it simply is not a “central and natural” starting point for the vast majority of players. Recruitment will be handicapped. And this is just one pragmatic example – one that is relevant to us and our guild – of how this development is not only not in, but actually counter to player interest. Important.
Now, let’s concede that Blizzard is and always was a for-profit organization, and even all the “from players, for players” thing really is just a beautiful slogan. They have to act in their interest, not mine. But this is where the curious customer-business relationship comes into play. You see, I’m under no illusion that just because I pay them 10 Euro or so a month they are suddenly slaves bound to my will. That’s not how that relationship works. Here is how it works: a customer gives a business money when the way the business pursues its interest benefits the customer’s interest. In other words, like so many others, I pay to play World of Warcraft, an MMORPG. I registered an account with the company running said MMORPG, and as any serious person being asked by a serious company, I filled in my real details. At that point it was confidential information between me, the customer, and Blizzard, the business. Now Blizzard decided that they will use that information as they see fit.
Have they really? No, they have not. But with the announcements of the forced-real-forum-names all bets are off and no theory can be dismissed as ridiculous anymore. When RealID was announced, we were told it would be optional. In the corner of our mind we all asked ourselves then already whether it would slowly slide to mandatory. You know, like when a piece of software you are using brings out a new version with a totally revamped interface and a “legacy” setting to get the old look-and-feel; you better get used to the new interface, because the next version will not have a legacy setting. Then RealID arrived, we looked at it and realised with a slight unease that there is no way to disable it – the way to “opt out” is not to accept any friend-requests, and that’s it. It’s like saying “okay, from now on Skype will be permanently running on your PC, just don’t take any calls if you don’t like, we’re fine with that”. But my name, my email, my details are in there, in the game, and I have not been given any (official) means to remove them. That can’t possibly lead to problems, right?
Most of all, ideologically, it means that Blizzard is now doing with my personal information whatever they damn please, without giving me an actual say in the matter. We all know that Blizzard signed a contract, some sort of contract, with Facebook. We don’t know the content (at least I don’t), but at this point, today, after that announcement, after that treatment and that approach, can you really stand up and say without a doubt that your Battle.net account will not be forcibly merged or transformed into a Facebook account .. next month? Next Year? Because everyone, including myself, who has ever used the phrase “Blizzard would never do that” in any context looks pretty sheepish right now.
Which leads us to the question. What product is the company Blizzard selling at this point in time, and what product does it intend to sell in the future? Does it still intend to earn its money through making exciting and involving games (or at least the exciting and involving game called “World of Warcraft”), or has its vision changed to viral marketing and dealing with personal information? This is not about my name being on the internet – it already is. This is about the game I’m playing. This is about the game I love. Will the creator of that game try to earn money by catering to my love, or by exploiting it?
A little more than one year ago we abandoned Lord of the Rings Online, the game we previously played and loved. We abandoned it because it changed from creating entertainment to creating time sinks. We were searching for a new game to play together, to call our hobby. The choice basically came down to Age of Conan and World of Warcraft. More than anything, we choose WoW because we believed and trusted in Blizzard’s vision and commitment to the game and the service. Because of what we perceived as professionalism. We wanted to pay professionals money and to receive a professional service in return. Another strong reason was WoW’s developed and strong community and reliable long-term outlook.
The most recent developments undermine the vision, the community and the long-term outlook, furthermore they abuse the trust and the rights of the customers in a borderline unprofessional way. So, Blizzard, here, for you, is the RealQ, the Real Question: have we made the wrong decision? Should we have chosen against you? Is your business plan and strategy still that of making a fantastic game and creating a place for gamers to want to stay in? Are you intending to deliver us the product we want to pay for, or are you going to be the baker who tries to dictate us what cake we’re supposed to eat?
This is not a threat of “do what I want or I will unsubscribe”. No, this is a very realistic proposition: I decided to pay for your product for specific reasons. If you cancel out those reasons, or no longer offer the product, do not rely on me continuing to pay for what you’ll try to sell me instead. It’s realistic because I did it before. I won’t “leave the game because Blizzard is evil”. In all honesty, I don’t care whether Blizzard is evil. But I will leave the game if the changes Blizzard does to the game make it unenjoyable for me. And I won’t be the only one.
You are on notice, Blizzard. And you should ask yourself some very Real Questions.