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Privacy & Data

Blizzard Looks To Chill Forum Speech with Real ID

I’ve always been a fan of Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft games, but some of their recent moves have caught my attention (and others’) – and not in a good way. A couple of months ago, Blizzard introduced a system called Real ID, which links a player’s account information (i.e. their real names) with their in-game profiles. Since its inception, use of RealID has been totally optional and it has been a great move for game management, cross-game chat and even a way (for those who want it) connecting with your Facebook friends.

Yesterday Blizzard announced that in they will introduce some changes in the soon-to-be opened forums for their upcoming Starcraft II game and will follow up with  changes in the popular World of Warcraft forums in the coming months. While Real ID will remain an opt-in only program, to post in the new forums users will have to have, and post with, Real ID accounts, using their real names. In other words, while you once were known as Arwenia, the blood elf priestess of Kel-Thuzad, and had the option to disclose your real identity at your own discretion, now everyone in the world will know you’re actually Tom Peterson from Scranton, PA. This is problematic for many reasons – but let’s explore some of the most troublesome:

  • Real-name use brings real-world consequences: At the end of 2009, there were over 11 million active WoW players, many of whom play over 30 hours a week. In-game competitions can get heated, and relationships between players sometimes go sour – does Blizzard really want players’ in-game names to be associated with their users’ real names in a public and searchable fashion and make it that much easier to take in-game drama into the real world?
  • Forum posts with real names attached will also make players’ gaming habits readily accessible to the non-gaming public. These names can be searched by current and potential employers and other people with whom users’ may not want to share their gaming habits. Allowing players to use pseudonyms with Real ID accounts could solve this problem easily.
  • While the Starcraft II forums will be new, and all users will have to opt-in to use Real ID to participate, what about the older and more popular World of Warcraft forum? The WoW “General Discussion” forum (only one of many sections) already has over 1,100 pages of threads, with the most popular items having been viewed over 1.4 million times. Will users’ real names be applied to posts retroactively? Will there be an option for current users to post under their old pseudonyms? Currently, users are required to log in using their WoW accounts, which are linked to their billing information – from a moderator’s perspective, why will Real ID promote accountability better than this current system?

Blizzard states in their post that in the forums “flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild,” and that by removing the ability to post anonymously, forum participants will likely be better behaved. But why not allow users to post under a pseudonym that is connected to their Real ID login? If you’re behaving badly, the Blizzard moderators could still enforce discipline to your Real ID account. The burden of site moderation is on Blizzard, not the users.

Beyond the specific issues cited above is a concern that this practice goes against the very spirit of immersive gaming environments companies like Blizzard work so hard to create. Many users desire to play games as a departure from their real lives, spending countless hours creating distinct identities for their characters, and may not want to participate in a community where these identities are forcibly linked to their real names.

A quick look at the over 1,000 pages of comments on Blizzard’s post shows concerns ranging from female players who fear being stalked, users with unique names fearing their accounts might be stolen, and even one poster who claims to be in the witness protection program.  Players signed on to the forums with the expectation that their legal identities would be kept anonymous.

As Blizzard carries out its changeover to Real ID, they may gain a fresh look into the habits of their customers – both in-game and out.  A quick review of Blizzard’s privacy policy shows Blizzard has reserved the right to “enhance or merge the personal information collected at a Blizzard site with data from third parties. Blizzard may also provide your personal information to other companies or organizations that offer products or services that may be of interest to you.” While the policy explicitly states users will be granted an opt-out opportunity, it is important to note that the market for user data is a large one, and the uses of Real ID may not be restricted to forum participation and chatting.

Blizzard is a company held in the highest regard by its loyal fans, and it will be very interesting to see what the future of Real ID will be, both on their forums and in-game. We’d love to hear from Blizzard about their plans, and we hope that we have the opportunity to do so before the launch of the new forums on July 22.