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Broken Armour: Blizzard's Forum Folly

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I’ve spent a fair bit of today thinking about Blizzard’s decision to enforce the use of real names on its forums thing, as anyone watching me yammer away on Twitter will already know. My ultimate conclusion is that, well, it’s insane.

Utter, utter madness.

Never mind that it’s going to discourage discussion, roleplaying and playfulness. Never mind that people want an escape from reality sometimes.

Even discounting the StarCraft and Diablo communities, World of Warcraft has 12 million-odd players, though I’d guess only around a quarter of that are English-speaking. Of those, it’s perhaps just several hundred thousand who actively post on the forums.

“Just.”

That’s far too big to be a close-knit community that helps, supports and trusts each other implicitly. That’s millions of strangers whose only thing in common is a game about bashing things: that’s a pretty broad catchment, all-told. It’s also an existing community, not one that’s been built from scratch around public identities.

That means that, right off the bat, it’s not the same as iRacing, a thoroughly respectable but undeniably niche MMO for motorsports fans which also requires the use of real names.

It’s far, far too many people who could know your name, and as a result go on to find out anything/everything about you – most particularly, how to find you. Simply by law of averages, the more people there are, the higher the chance of there being a nutter who’ll post rotten vegetables to you, send you love letters, or turn up at your door with a replica samurai sword. Or just sending you an email insulting your ethnicity, your gender, your sexuality, your mother, your face… Or posting details of your ethnicity, your gender, your sexuality, your mother, your face in public.

“People can find you via Google.” “People can find you via the phonebook.”

Yes. But they can’t look for you if they don’t know your name, and they won’t even want to look for you if you haven’t said something about how rubbish their raiding is or made some inexpert pseudo-flirting. People’s pride doesn’t get hurt by reading the phonebook.

There are a slim handful precedents for real-life forum vengeance – very few, very rare and certainly a result of troubled individuals rather than because of any inherent link between forum-dwellers, aggressive behaviour and availability of information.

I’m really not saying “there will be hundreds of murders as a result of this.” I’m saying that even one instance, just one of someone having their private life invaded (and I’m not talking only about violence, but also in terms of simple hassle, anxiousness and upset – phone calls, emails, unpleasant pictures, letters to parents or employers…) because someone on a forum tracked them down as a result of seeing their name next to something they posted is one instance too much.

The risk for women, particularly, is high. The forum equivalent of wolf-whistling is scarcely a rare-occurrence, so to give people the tools to go further (and again, I’m not talking about violence, but rather harassment – mails and texts) seems abhorrent. Most people wouldn’t. Of course most people wouldn’t. But one might. And that’s too much.

Yes, the truly dedicated/insane could very likely track down someone they were obsessed with without knowing their real name in advance. But this doesn’t make that just slightly easier. It makes it as easy as typing someone’s name into Google. Just the slightest additional chance of upset or aggression or even hassle, no matter how minor, is just not worth it, and I simply cannot understand how this system was approved at the highest levels of Blizzard. Is it really just because they want calmer forums? It’s such a big and unusual decision that there surely must be more to it.

I’m sure they’re having a huge rethink as a result of what happened earlier today. One of their staff ended up his phone number, address, photographs and details of his family members blared all over the internet when he tried to prove the new system worked, and that Blizzard devs would also be adhering to it. The fool. The poor, poor fool.

I’m afraid I not going to provide the link to that, because I don’t want to give the unfortunate chap’s phone number to strangers. That said, he’s probably changed it already. He’s certainly deleted his Facebook page following the horde of hasslers that resulted from his naive declaration of just his first and last names.

Just the work of a couple of malicious time-wasters, you might say. It was bound to happen.

Exactly, I say. It only takes one malicious time-waster to potentially ruin someone’s day, week, month, life. You don’t have to be a representative of a company that’s pissed people off to risk the frighteningly rapid investigatory ire of someone on the internet. You just have to say the wrong thing in the wrong place. And “don’t say stupid or mean things on forums” doesn’t swing it. Neither does “don’t post on the forums you’ve been using for five years if you don’t want to take the risk.” That’s a little too “they had it coming.” That’s a little too “dressing like that, she was asking for it, judge.”

(“My name’s too common for people to find me” doesn’t swing it either. It’s not okay for three dozen Brian Smiths to be contacted as an attempt to hassle one particular Brian.)

It’s possible it’ll simply be a huge deterrent to posting, and maybe that’s what Blizzard want anyway – a quiet manageable place. I suspect they don’t want a homogenous place, though, devoid of the diversity that makes virtual worlds such fascinating places, where people are quiet and careful and nothing ever happens. And I’m absolutely sure they don’t want to be in the news were something like this to ever happen again.

I hope it won’t. In fact I’m almost sure it won’t. The vast majority of humans simply don’t think or behave like that. Rude emails to someone’s mum, though? Easy. All too easy. Is a prettier forum, and a more Facebook-like Battle.net, really worth increasing the opportunity for even that to happen?

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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