Blizzard recently implemented its own social network application called RealID, which launched as a totally optional adjunct to World of Warcraft. Two weeks later and the indication is that “totally optional” actually meant “compulsory with the launch of the Cataclysm expansion“. The reaction to this move hasn’t been positive, with a lot of the criticism coming from two main angles:
- It uses account-based information, which is often a person’s real name; and
- Blizzard has all the respect for personal privacy of a voyeur at a nude beach, given the state of their RealID privacy tools.
It should be noted that WoW is just the first step here – Blizzard is releasing StarCraft 2 and Diablo 3 at various points, with players of these games also falling under RealID. I also expect – given Blizzard’s importance to Activision Blizzard’s business – that it won’t take much for RealID to be rolled out across any online Activision title, of which Bobby Kotick would like to see plenty (provided they pay).
Sure, you don’t HAVE to use RealID, but sometimes you might want to post something on the forums or chat across games or something and RealID is going to be Blizzard’s mechanism for that.
How We Got To Here
Facebook has managed to take the lead in the social network market, taking over from MySpace in 2009. Since Facebook does its best to force people into using their real name, and Facebook has been popular, the ergo thinking here is that using real names in a social network site isn’t a big issue. Of course, Facebook keeps fighting off its own privacy issues, while Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg isn’t really known for his concerns about the privacy of others. Facebook cares about privacy in so far as it could hurt their member numbers, but it isn’t their pressing priority (that’s working out how to make money off of Facebook).
Privacy didn’t factor much into Blizzard’s thinking in developing RealID either. Of course, it also appears that Blizzard didn’t consider that people use Facebook very differently to something like RealID. Facebook is for keeping track of friends and people you think you’ve got a shot of getting into bed with. RealID is a supplement to a competitive gaming title where you beat things up and take their stuff. Although someone can crash your Facebook experience, in general Facebook isn’t about competing with someone else for items of value (although, sure, Facebook gaming is starting to change that).
Online gaming is all about that competition though – even PvE can end up as incredibly competitive as players fight for resources rather than simply fighting each other. This difference of mindset can have a huge impact on how people use RealID – no longer is the person who ninja looted a rare item just a character name, but a real person with a street address or phone number just a Google away.
And it doesn’t help that Blizzard and Facebook want to cross-pollinate each other, where the game serves the role of the bee and players find themselves in the role of the pollen.
The ID… Wearing A Different Ego
Of course, Blizzard didn’t need to use people’s real account information with RealID – another anonymous proxy would have worked just as well (and potentially better, given the familiarity of online players with using pseudonyms). Why this was thrown out in favour of using real account information is anyone’s guess – there is some concept that reducing anonymity will improve the community by connecting people with their actions. However, in an age where setting up a separate Blizzard account requires about 5 minutes and a copy of WoW (or any other Blizzard title) it won’t take long for faux RealID accounts to pop up (and I’m sure they already exist). The biggest RealID potential loser is the player who uses it correctly – they can be the target of cyber-griefing and real life harassment – while those who set up a false RealID are still able to hide behind public anonymity.
Mr Whipple’s Bad Privacy Day
The test case for this certainly didn’t end well: in order to help reassure players about RealID, Blizzard employee Bashiok revealed that his name was Micah Whipple. Players rewarded his openness by throwing his life out to the world – possible address, phone number, family, etc – to the extent that Whipple deleted his Facebook profile. Even if some of those details are wrong and there are two (or more) Micah Whipples in the US, the point is proved: privacy may be an illusion, but it is a protection that exists until you stand out in a crowd.
Whipple’s mistake is one that people who live online (or don’t think things through) often make with social networks – they spend a lot of time there, nothing bad happens, so therefore that rule applies across the board. Facebook’s Zuckerberg is dismissive of privacy precisely because his private and professional life is so tightly intertwined. It’s when you open the door a bit to the Internet at large – give it a real name, a target, forget that not everyone who has Friend status has your best interests at heart – then things can go horribly wrong. We are already in an age where people are starting to realise that what appears online has real consequences – people are fired for comments or photos on Facebook, realise that nude picture of them is now on the web forever, are murdered after changing their relationship status – so Blizzard’s RealID initiative ends up looking naive at best or uncaring and greedy at worst.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name, Including That Creepy Guy and Weird Girl
So, what does the future hold? RealID is a key part of Battle.net, which is already attracting attention for how it is going to gate players by region and remove the ability of LAN play in favour of always having to connect to Battle.net for multiplayer games. The future (pending changes due to general outrage) for Blizzard multiplayer titles is that either players use RealID or are cut out of an increasingly connected communications system. Blizzard is doing quite a bit to take control of things around their players – how they connect, how they communicate, how they appear online – with what seems to be a less than healthy regard for player choice. At the very least, this takes some of the shine off Blizzard, who have been a goodwill magnet among PC players.
WoW already has issues with its players meeting and doing things they shouldn’t and it is doubtful that having real names up front is going to stop these things from happening. Whether or not RealID 2.0 is going to have better privacy features isn’t clear to me. On one hand, player concern is loud and genuine. On the other, Activision Blizzard may be completely indifferent to it – it isn’t going to hurt their sales of Starcraft 2 or impact too deeply on the number of WoW players. Sadly, I expect that someone will have to end up dead as a result of their RealID exposure before Blizzard looks to release substantive privacy tools for RealID.