So the internet, or at least the WoW portion of it, is exploding over RealID controversy. Many players and bloggers were expressing some concern over the system since it was first announced, but for the most part people were not bothered due to the totally optional nature of the system. This included myself, as whilst I have no desire to use RealID there was nobody making me, so why worry? Then of course yesterday the shit hit the fan when Blizzard announced that in future, using RealID and hence displaying your real full name, will become mandatory for all Blizzard forums. Note that word ‘mandatory’, because it’s a very quick shift from the word ‘optional’ which has henceforth been used to describe the RealID system.
Now I’m not going to get into the details of why people may not want to use the RealID system and what those very legitimate arguments are. You can find them all over the internet, twitter and on various respected WoW blogs such as here, here and here. However I do want to talk about why these changes are extremely worrying, and more importantly, where all this may be going.
Taking people’s anonymity on the forums is a problem in itself. Some people may not worry about this, as a lot of the forum is just general chat and, admittedly, a lot of trolling. However there are more important uses of the forums such as tech support, newbie guides and realm-specific forums which WoW players get a lot of genuine benefit out of. They have just been denied those benefits. Saying that forum use is optional and only trolls and people with something to hide are threatened is simply bollocks. People have all kinds of legitimate reasons for not using their real names, from female gamers worried about being harassed, to people in high-profile jobs who simply cannot afford online harassment. Beyond that, people should simply have the option to keep their identity private if they wish, it is not an unreasonable request by any stretch of the imagination.
Anyone who wishes to maintain their privacy has now just been taken complete out of the loop. They cannot give game feedback to Blizzard, communicate with the company or their fellow gamers on the forum at all, or use any of the beneficial services the forums provide, all over a perfectly reasonable desire not to be trolled or harassed. And some will be harassed, even if they are the minority. Firstly, online stalking is a very real problem, and the Real ID system is hardly helping with that issue. Secondly, Blizzard may be able to get rid of some trolling with Real ID, but the trolls and weirdos who remain will be the dedicated areseholes, who can still make accounts with fake names. Let’s face it, if they can’t stop goldsellers, scammers and hackers making fake accounts, they won’t be able to stop the trolls either! It’s as easy as using a free WoW trial to set up a new account.
However the really worrying part of this for me is not what happens to the forums, which whilst unfortunate, could potentially just be the tip of the iceberg. The thing that bugs me is the way we have gone from a totally optional system to a system which has some mandatory features, in the space of just a few weeks. Compare this to how Blizzard got us all to switch over to Battle.net. First it was an optional feature, then they offered an in-game vanity pet as an incentive, but then eventually it became compulsory for all. Now of course, Battle.net didn’t really have a downside to it, but it shows how ‘optional’ handy features can quickly become ‘mandatory’ requirements without which you won’t be able to play.
Now consider this quote from Blizzard concerning the complaints about the RealID system:
We put a lot of thought into this change and have a long-term vision for the Real ID service – Netheara, Blizzard Poster (source)
I find this troubling. They say they’ve put a lot of thought into this, and have a long-term vision, yet unsurprisingly there has been a massive outcry. Really this gives us one of two options regarding Blizzard’s understanding of the situation:
1. Blizzard are idiots. They put a lot of thought into the RealID system, but somehow didn’t see the predictable shitstorm coming.
2. Blizzard knew we would be unhappy and object to these changes, but went ahead and did it anyway.
If the second option is true then I am worried about what their ‘long-term vision’ entails. Are we going to see RealID added incrementally to all of Blizzard’s new features, to the point where you’re seriously gimping yourself by not using it? And once that is the case, will we suddenly find ourselves being given a final date after which we must switch to RealID, as happened with Battle.net?
Whilst you’re worrying about that, I’d also like to put these changes in a more global context, because Blizzard are not the only ones trying to pressure us into RealIDs. This article in the New York Times, from just a couple of days before Blizzard’s RealID announcement, discusses how the Obama administration is looking into systems where everyone would be required to have kind of online identity card in order to use key areas of the internet, all in the name of reducing the much-feared ‘cybercrime’. Such a move would be a monumental invasion of privacy. I find developments like this incredibly worrying. Call me a tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy-theorist if you like, but I find it interesting that social media networks like Facebook and online identities have become a massive phenomenon just as efforts to bring in centralised identity card systems have been resisted.
For years now governments, businesses and others have been putting on the pressure for us to adopt universal ID cards. In the US this system was called, guess what, – the RealID card. The reason given for introducing these ID cards is that it’s all for our own good and will help the fight against the faceless threat of terrorism, a threat which has been used to justify everything from war to rewriting constitutions and liberty laws. Of course, there was a massive backlash against centralised ID card systems because they would be a massive infringement upon personal privacy, civil liberties and our human rights. Facing such hostility, the tactics have shifted to the online world, where instead of the terrorism, the threat being used as justification for taking away our freedom is ‘cybercrime’. If these policies get through then people will be forced to choose between what seems like a small loss of freedom for the benefits of the internet, using their facebook, being able to communicate online, etc. It’s chilling, and may even be effective because people allow themselves to be scared into these things. As Benjamin Franklin said “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”
Now, as this is a WoW blog, I don’t want to rant too much about all those large concerns here, but I feel that Blizzard’s RealID is a microcosm of these larger global issues. An optional nicety has been turned into a mandatory requirement within just a couple of weeks of the system going live. The justification for this is to stop internet trolls, the terrorists and cybercriminals of the WoW forum. Now maybe I’m over-reacting, and the truth is the first option I gave earlier, that Blizzard are simply stupid and have messed up in an effort to create a kind of WoW-Facebook. But I don’t like the patterns I’m seeing here. Blizzard have always been a very cool, very smart company that I’ve had a lot of respect for. This whole RealID-forums issue has made me question my respect for them, because I really want to know what these long-terms plan of their are. How optional is RealID really planned to be, and more importantly, how long for?
The official Blizzard forum thread for discussing the RealID changes is here. There are also numerous threads on the realm-specific forums. I urge you to make your voice heard on this issue, whichever side of the debate you fall, because this is the kind of thing which will fundamentally change the nature of the game, and indeed how we play all games in the future. I also believe it’s a microcosm for larger forces in the world, so defeating a small change here may make people rethink implementing harsher changes on the world at large. Be heard!