True names: identity, safety and Blizzard’s Real ID

Identity is a perennial sort of a topic, and Activision-Blizzard’s Real ID programme has brought it back into the limelight. Unless you’ve been hanging out under a rock (which would, you know, be fine – especially from a sun-protection perspective) you’ve probably heard about A-B’s programme which is the first phase of tagging your time in Blizzard games (like World of Warcraft and Starcraft II) and supporting services, with your first and last name.

It’s rolling out initially to the forums and to some in-game communications. Quite what Phase 2 is, is not yet clear. One can only speculate as to whether it might be named after the US 2005 REAL ID Act.

The main focus right now is on the Blizzard forums; a place frequented by only an infinitesimal fraction of the user-base, as is normal for most official game and virtual environment forums. After Real ID is implemented, while you will still be able to read them in complete anonymity, posting will display your name (first and last), and you will have the option of adding your character name to that information.

The apparent aim is to reduce the workload associated with moderating the forums (and certain matchmaking and communications services), while simultaneously making them a nicer place to be.

Of course, if you’re under 13, Blizzard cannot legally display your name without your parent or guardian’s consent. An option for that, I understand, is part of the parental controls.

The biggest problem I see right here is one of disambiguation.

While online services almost all insist on unique names, in practice names generally aren’t. This isn’t normally much of a problem in average-sized, geographically-bounded social groups, but does become an issue for large enterprises – and particularly online where geographical boundaries are not key factors in constraining social networks.

Just how do you disambiguate between two John Fitzpatricks or Catherine Joneses? How about ten? How about a hundred?

The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) gets around this by requiring all members to have a unique name, one that isn’t presently used by another member and hasn’t ever been used by a previous member of the guild. This eliminates ambiguity in crediting. The “J” in Michael J. Fox stands for “Andrew” – because, quite simply, his own name was already taken by another Michael Fox (1921-1996). An increasing number of actors need to select pseudonyms or change their names to register with the SAG.

Are you going to change your name to avoid being confused with that inflammatory arse on the World of Warcraft forums? No, I didn’t think so.

If someone with the same (or a confusingly similar) name to yours starts making an idiot of themselves – and people are people, it’ll happen – you’re more likely to distance yourself from the problem by distancing yourself from the forum and anywhere else associate with the game that your name might appear, right?

Anonymity is the default offline

We don’t normally think of anonymity as the default state, but it is. There’s 6.25 or so billion people on the planet. There are numerous occasions that we hand over our identification or give our names for one reason or another, but we generally do so only to people that we trust to handle them properly or that simply don’t really care who we are.

Do you know your barista’s full name? Do they know yours? Would you have any idea what their first name was if they didn’t wear a name tag?

We routinely caution our children not to give out their full names to strangers, or indeed to anyone that they don’t have a very good reason to trust (eg: a policeman).

If you ask the person serving you at the grocery checkout or your bank teller what their last name is, they’ll probably be reluctant to tell you. For many establishments it is against policy to reveal that information.

Large and heavily trafficked call-centres and customer-support services routinely assign pseudonyms to their staff to avoid issues of harassment. In smaller outfits, it’s rarer, but still sometimes done if a staff member has a particularly memorable, distinctive or unique first name – or if another front-line staffer has the same first name.

Why do we go through all of this?

Because we know it’s safer!

Or at least we think that’s what we know. It’s not something we feel comfortable taking a lot of chances with. Some of us are certainly practiced at having our names out in the public eye all the time, and dealing with all of the rubbish that inevitably seems to come with it. Not everyone is willing to put up with it.

Ask around among your friends. In any group of twenty or so, the statistical odds are that one of them has been threatened, harassed or stalked. And that’s not counting being online. With those sorts of odds, it isn’t a risk we’re necessarily willing to take.

Activision-Blizzard would like to think that the problem people will be shamed or peer-pressured into silence, while more reasonable heads will prevail and prosper. In my experience, though, the problem people usually have no issue with being associated with their names. They’re proud of their behaviour; or they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.

That sort of competitive/combative battlelust is thought to be common, but really it isn’t so much. It just stands out more. We’re told that the “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, but they won’t inherit online forums, that’s for sure. Not with Real ID.

And if that service really is going to be expanded to other areas, then perhaps the world really has found its WoW-killer.

Imagine if this sort of scheme was implemented on Digg, or Second Life, or Slashdot. What do you think would be the result?

UPDATE: Blizzard have now reversed their decision.

Opportunity cost: not to be underestimated

Here’s a true story: Like a lot of players, I have a Level 2 character in World of Warcraft that exists purely as a banking / auction house conduit (bank alt). I have another character that is leveling one of their professions and they needed a particular item sold for a measly one silver, 18 copper from one of the vendors right across from the auction house where my bank alt hangs out. 42 virtual steps in fact (yes I counted). It occurred to me to check the auction house to see if anyone was entrepreneurial enough to be selling that same item on the auction house for a mark-up. Sure enough, someone was, at 200 times its cost if bought from the vendor (around 2 gold). Not to be outdone, since that time I’ve sold a couple of the items each day for the same 20,000% markup. I’ve also started selling other items from the vendor at 1000-2000% markups.

For the regular MMO player, this is nothing new, and there’s screeds of research and opinion on MMO economies and player behaviour. I just hadn’t realised how endemic the issue of laziness is. Laziness is probably too negative a term in some respects, as for some people it’s probably just time efficient to buy everything from the auction house. If you’ve got 20,000 gold sitting in your bag and the item is 2 gold, then even at a huge markup it’s a no-brainer compared to trying to remember which vendor has it, let alone the time spent getting to them. It’s a simple example of the concept of opportunity cost (here’s one gamers perspective on it).

This issue has some obvious applicability to virtual worlds more broadly. In Second Life, I will quite often just go browsing at clothing stores that I’ve landmarked rather than try to find something new via the search function – few will argue that the Second Life viewer’s search function is a time sink. Social virtual worlds from Habbo to Frontierville have this concept down pat, making it as easy as possible to provide variety without excessive time expense. It’s a lesson that the more mature worlds are absorbing – it’s the speed of learning that will determine who succeeds and who doesn’t. At this stage, platforms like Second Life, Twinity and Blue Mars are walking the fine line between innovation and an opportunity cost too big for a critical mass of people to bear.

Over to you: what aspects of virtual worlds do you avoid because the time / expense isn’t worth it for you?

Linden Lab remove CEO: Rosedale returns

As mentioned briefly last night, the rumours were flying about a change in CEO at Linden Lab. The reality has eventuated with Mark Kingdon departing and Philip Rosedale returning as interim CEO.

Some obvious questions arise from this:

1. Was Kingdon aware he was soon to depart when overseeing the recent layoffs?

2. Was Kingdon even really in the loop when the restructuring was undertaken?

3. How does one claim things will improve when the now interim CEO stepped down to allow Mark Kingdon to bring a more commercial focus to the organisation? No-one is claiming such improvement at this stage, but it’s a fair assumption that the aim is for things to go up. Unless it’s part of a scale-down for buyout of course.

All that said – the change could be a good thing. At the very least it’s a temporary thing until the Lab or other future controlling influence determines what the next step is. What remains certain is uncertainty – which can’t help Linden Lab in the short-term but with luck it will assist in the all-important longer term.

Three reasons social gaming on Facebook is declining

Over the past couple of weeks there’s been some focus on the fact that Zynga, maker of social games such as Farmville, had a big decline in users during May. Back in January we predicted some fatigue with those games, albeit in the context of ongoing big growth. The decline for Zynga and its flagship Farmville tend to shine a light on a number of issues that need to be resolved, particularly within Facebook:

1. The Spam Driver

One of the key components of the Facebook-based games has been the promotion of achievements within the game on a user’s Wall. Anyone who’s used Facebook knows this only too well, and the backlash has been considerable, to the point that back in February support this was hobbled. Fast forward a couple of months and you have the widespread drop in numbers. A coincidence?

The old notification spam may have been as annoying as hell but it obviously drew in new players, like any spam-like activity will. It may not be missed, but it’s certainly one of the factors that’s hit social gaming fairly hard. The upside is it will force game creators to make games even more engaging – a better growth driver than spam. Of course, the spam isn’t totally gone either – it’s just simpler to suppress.

2. WoW Without The Wow

Usng Farmville as an example, I only needed to play it for a couple of hours to realise how closely it’s modelled on an MMO framework. Everything from the grinding ‘quests’ and achievements system, through to peer competitiveness and in-world currency. The trouble is, Farmville doesn’t quite have the thrill factor of a hard core MMO. It’s not a fair comparison, but the point is that it’s hard for Farmville to keep innovating so that the endless tasks don’t seem frustrating or even pointless.

I’ve spent many an hour doing pointless / frustrating things in World of Warcraft for example – but it didn’t seem that way as there was always an enticing goal at the end of it. Sure, Farmville offers bigger an better houses / sheds / farming equipment but it wears thin pretty quickly. The challenge for social virtual worlds, like gaming more broadly, is keeping it interesting, and it seems there’s still some work to do. There’s also the issue these social worlds aren’t truly socially interactive: when my avatar can chat and farm with my neighbour, then I’m starting to get interested again.

3. The Trade Embargo

Whether it’s Second Life, World of Warcraft or Entropia Universe, one of the keys to their success has been the ability to make money as well as spend it. In some cases that can translate to hard currency – in others its the ability to earn virtual currency from selling goods that are no longer useful or have been created by their original user (here’s a great post on the growing focus on content creation). Sure, in Farmville you can do some limited selling but it’s the finesse of the more mature platforms that provide a lot of the enjoyment. When I can make decent amounts of real or virtual money in a fair way in a social world, then I’ve got even more incentive to stay there. Money isn’t a driver for a lot of people, but it’s more the link between that money-making capability and a more intricate community that makes the difference.

A reversible decline

All the issues discussed above are evolutionary ones to some extent – as social gaming continues to improve then one can hope their interactivity, creativity and overall engagement will improve also. I’m pretty confident the decline is a short-term one and to some extent a desirable one. Sanity checks like that can lead to better platforms and applications and that’s the way things appear to be heading.

Over to you: what are the gaps in social gaming that need to be filled?

Going mainstream means letting in the weirdos

Second Life’s generally considered to be a bit of a weird place. A lot of virtual environments are. They go through two phases of weirdness.

The first phase covers the first few waves of users. They’re considered weird because they’re doing something that isn’t usual: using a virtual environment at all, or using one that isn’t particularly well-known.

The second phase is when mainstream users start to trickle or flood in (and depending on the press that the environment has had, that can take place pretty close to launch). That’s when people start really doing weird things with it. Because landing the much-vaunted mainstream audience means nothing less than letting in all the weirdos.

Prior to that, you generally have people experimenting with the platform and the technology, seeing how it fits, where the money is, evaluating it for business, leisure, training, education, or just creating to suit themselves.

There’s typically no organized cadres involved, these are folks who are checking out the ground floor and determining if it is worth getting in on it for a long haul.

Generally, they’re smart, sane, sober, sensible, foresighted and farsighted people. You know, not really what’s considered normal.

Even so, playing the percentages, you’ll find a very small number of griefers, louts, firebrands and locos among them. It’s hardly a large number. Prior to maturity many virtual environments require a good deal of work, and that keeps a lot of the bad elements away.

Later, though. Well, let me tell you a story.

So, there’s an event on, and one of the attendees (appearing as Captain America) sexually harasses one of the venue staff. An abuse report takes place, and governance comes to take care of it. Unfortunately, they’re faced with so many Captain Americas at the venue that there is a little bit of difficulty identifying the culprit.

Only in Second Life, right?

Well, wrong.

A fellow by the name of Adamcik was at a bit of a shindig dressed as Captain America, but it’s okay, pretty much everyone was dressed up as something – though apparently Captain America figured very prominently. He had a burrito and a joint stuffed into his crotch.

He pestered women at the event to touch his burrito. Whether he made comedic humping motions with his hips at the time is a bit unclear. Apparently tiring of these japes, he allegedly groped a barmaid. While his behavior wasn’t exceptionally out of place at the event, he’d crossed a line.

The police were called in, but were faced with so many Captain Americas … well, the police report said “there were so many cartoon characters in the bar at the time, all Captain America’s[sic] were asked to go outside for a possible identification.” Adamcik apparently tried to evade identification by removing the burrito from his tights and concealing it in his boot. Nevertheless, he was hauled off to the lockup.

There, he attempted to flush the joint that had been concealed in his tights, but it was recovered by a police officer.

Adamcik was laid with charges of battery, disorderly conduct, drug possession and trying to destroy evidence.

Some college hijinx was it? No. Adamcik is a 54 year old family physician and the whole event was an American Medical Association shindig out in the physical world.

Yep, that’s right. Adamcik is one of those “normal mainstream people”.

Hey, mainstream dudes? You’ve lost any moral high-ground to call us virtual-environment users ‘weird’. Seriously.

This sort of thing isn’t an isolated incident. This sort of human behavior (and quite a bit that makes this look unexceptional) happens in virtually every human community on earth, every day.

That’s the mainstream. Get a few hours of XBox Live voice communications some time, but have a suicide hotline on your speed-dial first.

Even if the percentage of weirdos in phase one and phase two users remains constant, essentially opening your doors to the mainstream means opening your doors to the weirdos, the locos, the louts, the griefers, conspiracy theorists and every other kind of oddball our modern society spawns.

Come one, come all.

Also, as Linden Lab has noted on a number of occasions and most corporate IT staff will tell you, the average mainstream computer user finds the download and installation of software to be an obstacle, and sometimes an insurmountable one (unless, inexplicably, it’s some 3D screen-saver that installs malware onto computer networks).

Are those really the sort of people who are going to get a major benefit from a virtual environment and a digital economy? Maybe, but per-user they’re going to be incredibly costly to support, and that cost multiplies as their numbers increase.

If you really want to try to court the mainstream markets, you need to be prepared, and you need to give up caring whether people think your virtual environments are weird or sad or filled with folks living in their parents’ basements. That’s the mainstream, and if you want that, you go big or go home.

Linden Lab announce Viewer 2.1: voice morphing now available

First – some cynicism on what is otherwise a noteworthy announcement. It’s hard to imagine that it’s spontaneity that led to a fairly significant viewer upgrade a day after laying off 30% of its staff. It’s a move that will be seen through by a lot of Second Life residents for what it is: a carefully planned PR exercise to take the focus off the cutbacks whilst emphasising it’s ‘business as usual’.

On to the detail: aside from a bunch of bug fixes, the flagship for 2.1 beta, is the availability of voice morphing. For an extra fee of L$750 per month you can buy a pack of five voice morphs, with five different packs available. It’s a feature that will go down a treat with a lot of Second Life users and a lot will pay for the privilege – though the Lab obviously forecasted the revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover their wages and salaries bill as it existed a week ago.

You can download the alpha version now. Of course, I’m not sure how you have a 2.1 betaalpha before a 2.01 release version is on the horizon, but maybe that’s just me. I did try checking out Voice Island but was just given an error – either because it’s full or because I tried accessing it from an older Viewer version.

Linden Lab announce plans for layoff-funded Second Life in-browser

Linden Lab have now formalised the announcement on staff cuts – not that there’s any detail and plenty of corporate-speak. The whole claim that layoffs improves company focus is tenuous at best, and borders on insulting to those departing. The press release states:

Today’s announcement about our reorganization will help us make Second Life® even simpler, more enjoyable, relevant and engaging.

So does this mean that those employees laid off were making SL complex, frustrating, irrelevant and non-engaging? A lot of those words can apply to the Second Life experience at times – but in the context of this announcement it’s pretty much fluff.

The real reason is cited as well: strengthening profitability to invest in a browser-based SL viewer. That’s a significant (and overdue) announcement on its own – and given the stasis in the userbase and the US financial situation it’s understandable cost cuts need to fund part of that. The issue for me is that tying the old user experience to the departure of any staff caught up in the restructure, looks plain tacky.

What say you? Are you surprised by the way this has been done or is it a business-as-usual approach by Linden Lab to issues like this?

Linden Lab staff reductions: the picture painted

As she is wont to do, Tateru Nino has come up with another great story, albeit a sad one for those involved. Linden Lab have laid off a significant number of staff. Putting aside the obvious human impact of decisions like these, it’s certainly not a great look for a company already struggling under the stereotype of being a passed fad in some sections of the mainstream media.

What does it mean? As Tateru says in her piece – it’s not a sign of Linden Lab’s demise, but it’s definitely a sign of a company about to do one or both of two things: batten down the hatches for a lean time or create a leaner beast that becomes attractive for sale or acquisition. Either way, Linden Lab continue to have some significant challenges. There’s not likely to be direct admissions on causes for the latest round of staff losses, but factors such as OpenSim uptake, static user levels and less media coverage all have to be biting.

As usual, expatriate Aussie and virtual worlds observer, Skribe Forti, sums it up nicely:

One potential issue that LL and SL may have is that in restructuring the world to move it away from the ‘Wild West’ – brothel and casino on every corner – to a ‘Your mother would approve’ business environment they may have created a solution to a problem that only a few have and thereby potentially killed the golden goose. Too early to tell however.

There’s certainly a stark picture being painted – I’m still pretty confident that picture isn’t done and that there’s plenty of colours still to be added. It’s just determining who the painters will be in the months to come that is difficult.

Government and virtual worlds: Australia on the catch-up

The issue of virtual worlds getting on a government’s policy agenda is something we’ve examined pretty closely, and like most of you reading this, it can get frustrating sometimes seeing the pace at which change is occurring.

In recent days I was again struck on the world leadership role the United States Government are taking in regards to virtual worlds. This report by Dawn Lim at Nextgov showcases beautifully both the depth and breadth of work going on across a range of US Government departments, including the cross-agency vGov portal which is currently under development.

The contrast with Australian government departments is fairly stark. Educators and artists are certainly leading the way, but things get pretty sparse beyond that. In the e-health sphere, there is only limited awareness of the potential of virtual worlds and there’s certainly no active strategy to incorporate them into developing standards.

That said, the Government 2.0 Taskforce report commissioned by the Australian Government does hold some promise. You can read the Government’s full response to the report here, but the standout recommendation for me is 4.4, which states:

Agencies should support employee-initiated, innovative Government 2.0- based proposals that create, or support, greater engagement and participation with their customers, citizens and/or communities of interest in different aspects of the agency’s work. They should create a culture that gives their staff an opportunity to experiment and develop new opportunities for engagement from their own initiative, rewarding those especially who create new engagement/participation tools or methods that can quickly be absorbed into the mainstream practice that lifts the performance of the department or agency.

That’s the open invitation for Australian Government Departments to start innovating, and the US Government example is certainly one worth exploring for its applicability here. In that example, it was the usual story of small groups or individuals advocating for change and driving that change with minimal budget support. Government Departments here obviously don’t have the critical mass that their US counterparts do, but the very nature of virtual worlds means that’s not a significant roadblock.

The main barriers still seem to be awareness and a reliance on stereotypes to inform decision-making. Only those handful of people working within the system will be able to change that, although fighting against short-term political prerogatives isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a heated debate over internet filtering.

Over to you: are you aware of governmental initiatives underway that may help in shaping policy agendas in the medium term?

Immersion and the Conceptual Hump

I’m obviously biased in my assessment of Tateru Nino: she is a contributing writer for this publication and I’m already convinced she’s one of the world’s best virtual worlds observers.

Articles like this one are why I believe that. It’s a superb piece on immersion and how that can be hard to achieve until those first few frustrating hours of getting to know a virtual environment are overcome: the Conceptual Hump. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing, and appreciate my frustration at not being able to command more of Tateru’s time ;)

Speaking of which – a book review from Tateru is incoming in the next few days. If there’s something you’d like her or I to review, do drop us a line.

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