World of Warcraft users blast Blizzard's 'Real ID' rule

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 9:55 AM

Would you steer away from this post if you had to use your real name to leave a comment here?

Santa Monica, Calif.-based Activision Blizzard just put that question to many of its customers. In a post earlier this week on its forums, the game developer informed players of its popular Starcraft and World of Warcraft games, among others, that they would soon have to use their legal monikers when chatting about their in-game exploits on its forums.

Blizzard defended the change as a necessary move to stop spamming and trash-talking:

"Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven't been connected before."

As of this morning, 74 pages of comments follow that post. The ones I've read don't seem too positive about Blizzard's move. Typical reply, from "Marine71": "What an awful idea. Who comes up with this trash? Seriously. What happened to you, Blizzard?"

Even think tanks have gotten into the debate: The Center for Democracy and Technology's Sean Brooks decried Blizzard's move in a post titled "Blizzard Looks To Chill Forum Speech with Real ID" on the Washington nonprofit's blog.

(Blizzard certainly erred in giving its new identity scheme the same name -- "Real ID" -- as an unpopular law for government-mandated driver's-license standards that the Feds now seem anxious to throw out at the next highway rest stop.)

I must admit here that I know next to nothing about the culture of Blizzard's games, aside from realizing that "WoW" is extremely unpopular among spouses who find themselves neglected.

But I have spent some time seeing online communities evolve, and this identity question comes up all the time.

In some forums, it seems natural and logical to use your legal name -- Facebook comes to mind, although many users disregard its prohibition against using pseudonyms. (For that matter, Blizzard, not being the government, can't prove that everybody registers under their real name.)

But in others, almost nobody signs on under their real-world moniker. Check out the comment threads on DCist or FlyerTalk, then try to spot friends or neighbors. Case in point: It took me two years to discover that one fellow FlyerTalker lived within a few blocks of my house.

In still other Internet communities, people haven't figured out what to do. The Post's comments threads, for instance, don't require using real names, but management is apparently considering imposing such a requirement.

Amazon takes a middle ground: You can post reviews under the username of your choice, but writing them under your own name brings extra benefits.

To me, Blizzard seems to be making two core mistakes. First, in most dysfunctional online forums (anybody remember Usenet?) the problem isn't anonymity but unaccountability: If anybody can easily look up everything you've written, and if a site's administrators limit duplicate "sock puppet" accounts, you can't hide from your past words, even if you didn't post them under your name. Second, if people joined a forum under certain ground rules it is, at best, extremely poor manners to change those basic principles years later.

So although I can't tell you anything about the mechanics of WoW and, indeed, would probably get killed instantly in the game, I think I know why its users are angry.

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