Uprising in Azeroth! When World of Warcraft developer Blizzard Entertainment announced this week that it would soon require its players to use Real ID log-ins to participate in its online community forum, the company probably wasn’t expecting the backlash that followed. Instead of buying Blizzard’s explanation that using real names to post forum comments would discourage “flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild”, the Activision-owned studio is now under siege from its own outraged players, with its forum ironically buried under thousands of infuriated posts from folks who don’t want their real identity linked to their WoW activity. (Typical sample: “Blizzard, your stupidity knows no bounds.”) In an act of juvenile judo, some players even resorted to finding and publishing the home address of a Blizzard employee. Given the collective fury, Blizzard may reverse its policy. But whatever happens, the reaction exposes a major cultural rift in the Facebook era:
Should all Internet activity be connected to real life identities, or is there still a place for online anonymity? While Mark Zuckerberg’s social network boasts 400 million+ users, virtual worlds and MMOs, where people are mainly known only by their avatar names, still have a massive audience. (In a report last year, I estimated 100 million+ worldwide players; according to one researcher, 1 in 8 American consumers are active virtual world users.) Many of them see these fantastic virtual places as a safe haven or vacation from their real life troubles. Post-FarmVille, however, game companies are pushing to implement Facebook Connect and other real name log-in systems. And gamers are pushing back.
“Blizzard is embracing the Facebook model of social networking,” Scott “Lum the Mad” Jennings, an influential MMO developer and analyst, seethed on his blog. “[I]n the long run,” Jennings told me later, “I think that separating the avatar from the human is an important part of fantasy gaming and Blizzard’s stepping backwards from that will do long-term damage to their retention.” As an alternative, he pointed me to an equally irked post by Randy Farmer, who co-created the very first virtual world, and who strongly suggests user-designated nicknames. “Allow users to reveal what they wish, ” Farmer begs Blizzard, “even provide incentives for them to do so, but don’t bind full disclosure on them.”
Despite all this rancor, Jennings believes most WoW players will accept the changes, since “people who post on official game forums are a very small subset of the people who play the game they are based on.” However, those people also tend to be the most passionate players, and this is why Blizzard should be worried.
There’s a deeper concern here too: MMOs like WoW are special because they enable people to transcend their real life limitations. Venture capitalist Joi Ito, an avid World of Warcraft player, once told me that when his own guild goes on epic raids, they’re usually led not by the fellow bigwig Silicon Valley execs in his guild, but by working class members, such as bartenders or EMT specialists. But will the millionaires keep following orders, when they discover their high level guild leader is actually the woman who pours their coffee?