Online community identity and choice: Blizzardgate

by Venessa Paech July 19, 2010

World of Warcraft Elfin

Whether we realise it or not, when we join an online community we make choices about our identity. When those choices are confused, or removed altogether, things can get messy.

This was a lesson learned by World of Warcraft owners Blizzard Entertainment earlier this month, when they announced to their users that they’d be introducing the Real ID system, which connects real world, real life names with online handles and in game characters across their enormously successful and populous platforms.

Warm and fuzzy language was rolled out. How could anyone refuse ‘rich presence’ and ‘new ways of staying connected’? But what Blizzard failed to grasp was that boundaries both exist and are necessary. Though they can alter, they rarely do so overnight (at least not without bloody revolution). Gamers and members weren’t opposed to those ‘new ways to connect’ with their network within Blizzard territories, but many were furious about being forced to use real name and identities to fire these connections.

It was a rude, uninvited shock that failed to take into account the backbone of community – context.

Firstly, this is a gaming community. Reflexive identity is hardcoded into the DNA of its history and culture. Anyone who thought the ‘open living’ of Facebook would integrate seamlessly was naive.

Users make choices about who they associate with, and where they conduct those associations. Organisations like Blizzard facilitate a range of imaginative game universes to bid for those users attention. They pitch contexts and users sign up, grafting their own reason for being (and being there) on top. Change the context and you change everything. If the change is delivered externally, from powers that be who aren’t on an equal playing field, it’s both harder to swallow and easier to suspect.

Real ID could create other, less obvious issues. I’m not familiar with Blizzard’s administrative mechanics or resources, but I can’t imagine that prosecuting or enforcing the new requirement would be smooth sailing.

Would it be retroactively applied? If not, how to manage the politics of disparity between new and former users (wars just waiting to happen)? And how to verify the verification? The options available to prove that someone is who they claim to be are more limited than you might presume. Almost all indicators of identity in the virtual world are spoofable. If someone wants to deceive they’ll find a way. Constructing ‘real’ identities isn’t far removed from constructing sophisticated virtualised identities. I’m John Smith, here’s my credit card and Facebook URL. I’m Ariana, blue and eight feet tall. Here’s my ident card from the league of resistance fighters.

There are plenty of compelling arguments that siphoning the pervasive anonymity of our online lives will nurture heightened civility of discourse and engagement. Another attempt to vet the quality of engagement and commentary is underway at small U.S. publication, The Sun Chronicle, who are charging people to comment on their content.

As someone who has managed an online asylum or two, count me among those who’d love to see the trolls, serial pests and other tossers finally get named and shamed into getting a life. Communities function better when they’re allowed to grow and experience social capital. The more you learn about people, the more you can trust them and the more you’re likely to share in return. Ties form and people develop a sense of shared responsibility. Real names can grease this process.

However, trust, respect and accountability reside in behavior as well as form fields. Knowing someone’s real name, date of birth, country or origin and marital status (for example) may have no bearing on their personality, their capacity for kindness, how funny they are or how they handle conflict. People make fast friends and fall in long, lasting love online without those details upfront. Why then are they necessary for an arguably more casual enterprise? Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

Some members of the online community I currently manage discussed the issue, even though gaming isn’t something they’re particularly interested in. The majority thought it was a terrible idea, for the reasons discussed here (privacy, against the purpose of the whole community, difficult to operationalise). Nearly all conceded that, should they be forced to reveal their real names within our community, the nature of conversation would change. They said they wouldn’t be comfortable talking about the same subjects, and they would aggressively self-censor. From where I sit, as their Community Manager, I know that much of the ‘life’ of the community would ebb away, and some very important, confronting subjects would never see the light of day.

If harmony and risk management was at the heart of the Blizzard announcement, I can understand it, and get behind the principal. But therein lies a big part of the problem. Blizzard staff and leaders are in fact members of their online community, by extension. It behoves them to demonstrate the same transparency they’re asking of their members. Few would dispute that, in the end, their judgment is final. Blizzard pays the bills and wears the risks; it can do what it likes with its technology and its ground rules. But if the company wants to preserve a happy, engaged user base over time (and enjoy the profits they help spin), they need to say what’s on their mind. Opening up is risky, but usually less risky than keeping your cards close to your chest and issuing waterfall decrees to your corporate machine and its players.

In a well established online environment (grown around the gaming culture of identity play) with tried and tested social norms, forcing users to start engaging under their real names is the equivalent of turning the sky yellow and banning the wearing of clothes. Though community is organic and implicit in Blizzard land, social networking is not. The two are discrete beasts and don’t necessarily mix.

Who is to say whether Blizzard has bought into the popular claim that privacy is dead, or whether they merely felt compelled to lateralise their users identities to compete in a Facebook dominated paradigm. As one user commented (on this CNET article reporting the change):

“I did not sign up to be on facebook. I signed up to play WOW. I understand 400 million (or however many people) already are on Facebook. Good for them. I choose not to join them. And if I CHOOSE to add my name to their ranks, it will be MY choice if I ever mention my Warcraft identity. Notice how I like the choices to be my own?”

Facebook knows this issue intimately. They have had to manage the delicate business of evolving their business and social proposition over the years, while honouring user expectations and needs. They have been accused (rightly, in my humble opinion) of consistently dishonouring that social contract; of getting it wrong on a fundamental level. An online community, where people connect along passionate fault lines, has a deeper social contract than a social networking website. Blizzard owes its users more than the Facebook treatment.

Scholars Danah Boyd and Angela Thomas are among those who have demonstrated the importance (and inevitability) of online identity experimentation and play, particularly for those who lack the freedom to express themselves offline (such as teenagers, minorities, dissidents or other vulnerable groups). As a community moderator I know put it: ‘some of our kids are gay, some are disabled. The empowerment of their online persona is a lifesaver.’ If they were outed, forced to align their real names with their avatars, what happens to that empowerment? And what happens when offline bullies connect the dots?

That’s a question thousands of young gay male subscribers to online magazine and community XY are asking at the moment. The business went under and now their details are hanging in an unnerving limbo. Real names are a bankable asset by parties looking to profit from XY’s collapse, with sense of safety and wellbeing at risk in the transaction.
Life happens. Companies go bust. The more enlightened ones take care to future proof member and user data, living up to their end of the social contract. Privacy laws are out of step, lagging behind the realities of online community and the social economy. So we rely on each other, hoping for an attentive ear when things go belly up.

After a prolific outcry, Blizzard recanted on the force feeding. Listening to their users is something any organisation who claims a respectful relationship with community must do. And it seems, for now at least, that the fallout is minimal. If the change is something they would still like to make, I hope they can more effectively and openly share their thinking – particularly with those participants who take the time to support other users. Whether you call them influencers, super users or staff members, these people are the engine room of Blizzard’s social economy and it’s not very smart to alienate them.

Perhaps when the world is ready to honour and subsidise the all time winningest WoW player as they do other superstar sporting heroes, real names might come out of the gamer closet.

The incident highlights the question faced by community custodians, community members and companies who monetise the social. Who owns identity? Is privacy a game? And what happens when the rules change?