The End of the Masquerade

July 7, 2010 3:29 PM

This morning, Blizzard (publishers of the popular Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo game franchises) announced plans to require contributors to their online forums to post under their real names. Predictably, this caused the forums to go nuclear.

This is phase two in a deliberate campaign. Phase one was the deployment of Real ID, a feature that allowed players of their games to exchange messages and online status, but only if they also shared their real names and email addresses. There was no technical reason why this had to be the case—no other popular Instant Messaging service requires such disclosure—the messaging and presence features were bait on the “Real Names, Please” hook.

Responding to user feedback, a Blizzard poster on the forums added (emphasis mine):

We put a lot of thought into this change and have a long-term vision for the Real ID service and wanted to make sure that we communicated ahead of time and very clearly as to what will be changing and how.

Neither of the imminent releases of Starcraft II or World of Warcraft: Cataclysm are “long-term” by any stretch of the word. This isn’t the end of the plan to expand the reach of Real ID in Blizzard's online services. It is a grand ongoing experiment, and a big gamble at that. The evils of anonymity in gaming communities are well-documented. Blizzard are aiming, as far as I can tell, to use a series of small but ever-encroaching incentives to make their service the first such community where anonymity is the exception instead of the rule.

A few years ago I'd have said this was impossible. A person’s right to keep their online existence separate to their “real life” was not questioned, and in many cases considered a necessary defence against real-life enemies like draconian hiring managers who don't understand that weird Internet thing. Nowadays the overwhelming success of Facebook suggests that the bulk of Internet denizens don't care if their their real names are splashed across The Googles, and don't care that their on– and offline lives are hopelessly intertwingled.

It's a generational change, and while I don’t doubt Blizzard have called it right, perhaps they might have called it a little too early.

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