Blizzard's real problem with Real ID and how to solve it

Things are quiet now, but the Internet is still seething

One week ago, Blizzard announced plans to change its forums, requiring users to post under their real names using as system called Real ID. Six solid days of backlash from its community and mass media attention later, Blizzard backed off on Real ID.

Real ID is a feature for use across all of its network of forums. It displays a user's real name and through optional settings, other identifying details about that person (their created characters in different Blizzard games, for example). The purpose of Real ID, Blizzard says, is to bring players closer together outside of the game and to cut back on negative and inappropriate posts in the forums by removing the "veil of anonymity" from would-be trolls. Even though Blizzard now says it won't require users to post on the forums under their real names "at this time," the Blizzard Real ID site is still live.

Things are quiet now, but the Internet is still seething. Many people from World of Warcraft players to Internet historians still express a sense of betrayal and confusion at Blizzard's decision to shake up the forums. Most aren't willing to accept the original explanation Blizzard provided for the Real ID move, that the forums were a hostile place filled with flame-baiting and trolls badly in need of a purge. Some even hypothesize that Blizzard wants to introduce Real ID as part of a Facebook Connect integration strategy and that this isn't the end of the anonymity argument.

Whatever the reason for Blizzard?s desire to change, it's obvious that there's a disconnect between Blizzard and its community. Join us for a closer look at the fracture point.

Howard Rheingold teaches a course on virtual communities at Stanford University which this reporter once had the privilege to take. Speaking to GamePro about Blizzard's Real ID misadventure, the university lecturer lays out the role of anonymity in online communities.

"Now if you're in a virtual community that's about substance abuse or maybe spousal abuse, there are reasons to be anonymous for reasons of safety," he explains. "[I]n some circumstances, it's fairly clear from observation that anonymity can be toxic -- like political forums or others where people simply slander each other all day long behind the shield of anonymity."

But a game, Rheingold says, is about being invested in an alternative life. Maintaining that in-game persona and suspension of disbelief is as important to gamers as it is for a recovering drug addict to hide his struggle from potential employers. You could (and perhaps somebody at Blizzard did) argue that the forums exist outside the game world, and therefore are governed by different rules -- but something of the gamer's persona follows them to the forums and that's where the identity lines blur.

"The identity thing has to do with the separating of oneself from the critical identifiers," F. Randall Farmer says.

As a social media strategy consultant, "co-inventor of the virtual world and the avatar," and architect of half dozen virtual world platforms and dozens of virtual worlds, he's had a long time to look at the intersection between a person, their online community, and their account information. While working as an online community strategic analyst at Yahoo for a period of five years, he watched many online communities form and disband and one of the things he followed very closely was the rise of the ratings system -- something else Blizzard wants to introduce into its forums.

"I found this interesting thing that tied in with identify that was really important," he says. "We'd ask people to fill out a review of a restaurant or a movie or whatever. And there was a lot of contention about when to ask the user to log in because you had to says this review was written by such-and-such, a Yahoo user. We found that even if we asked them to complete the review before they logged in -- now that they've invested all this time -- that there was a 90% abandon rate on the login screen. When we asked them why they consistently told us the same thing: 'I didn't want to be harassed by spammers.'"

If people were willing to throw away as much as an hour's worth of work in writing a review just because they were afraid of spam -- a fairly benign irritation compared to the scathing rant of a troll -- Farmer sees it as no small wonder WoW forum users lost their proverbial minds over the possibility of having their real names appear on the site.

"When I saw the Real ID proposal, I was in complete shock," Farmer says. "That's so much more information than people were refusing to [share] on Yahoo. It's like the [controversial immigration-related] law in Arizona. Like, 'show me your papers!' when you want to post. It's changing the standards of interaction."