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.
UPDATE: Blizzard have now reversed their decision.