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Is World of Warcraft Headed Into Privacy Troubles? | Updated: Blizzard Balks

By 8 July 2010 One Comment

A little while back Blizzard announced a new feature called Real ID that would allow individuals playing World of Warcraft and the forthcoming Star Craft II to see the real names of players they had added to their friends list.  The move has been protested vehemently, specifically the fact that this new “feature” will be added into the official WoW forums as well.

Upon implementation, any forum goer on the official WoW forums will be forced to display their real name, and will also have the choice to display their character name.  The reaction to this within the WoW community has been seismic to say the least.  In two and a half days the official thread on the issue at the WoW forums is about to crest 2,000 pages, and almost 40,000 posts.

In Blizzard’s official announcement they gave reason for the coming changes, stating,

The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players — however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before. With this change, you’ll see blue posters (i.e. Blizzard employees) posting by their real first and last names on our forums as well.

So really, what’s in a name?  There are going to be some that balk at the concerns of privacy.  The first of which was a Blizzard employee attempting to stand as a paladin against the angry hoard of WoW subscribers.  In the following thread (post #16), he states,

Micah Whipple, at your service. Like all employees I’ve also been in every game manual and credit reel since I’ve been here.

Mr. Whipple makes a great point.  He’s been listed publicly in every game manual and every credit reel.  So realistically, his personal information could have been compromised years ago.

However, the point was quickly retorted by individual WoW players/forum posters publishing Micah Whipple’s age, home address, phone number, parents and siblings names, facebook page, and possibly pictures of his house.

In theory, Blizzard’s idea works for most people that are not motivated.  Knowing my fellow posters name and knowing that he knows mine is sort of like a Wild West standoff.  It could potentially decrease trolling, harassment, and flame wars on the forums because even though one poster knows that he has a gun (the other persons Real ID), he also knows that the other person has a gun too.

The problem with this though is anonymity.  Someone doesn’t have to post to track another person down.  And in game “friendships” can easily go sour.  And then suddenly a friend is now and enemy and that enemy has your real name.  As Whipple has now become the poster child for what can happen when someone has your real info and is motivated to expose certain aspects of your personal information that a player may wish to keep anonymous.  And we certainly know what a motivated mob can do as we watched 4Chan organize to send pop singer Justin Bieber to North Korea last week.

So why would Blizzard even put their foot in the door of this volatile policy change?  South Korea.  South Korea holds one of the biggest Star Craft fan bases on the planet, to the point of having professional SC leagues and television shows.  The popular game also made by Blizzard, has a sequel launching this month.  And Blizzard more than likely desperately needs to continue to sell the Star Craft product in that country.

Coincidentally, South Korea instituted the Real Name System in 2009 to attempt to crack down on online disparagement.  Blogger Zeroday at the Harvard Law Blog points out that the South Korean law states that, “all users who comment on sites with greater than 100,000 users per day must use their real name.”  He also makes the interesting point that Google got around the issue with YouTube by blocking South Korean posters until the government eventually exempted YouTube from the rule.  But he goes on to say that Blizzard will not have this kind of power, and will need South Koreans coin because they do not have other means of revenue like Google had.

Today, Blizzard released a statement that they were listening to feedback.  But comments clearly indicate that they are moving forward with Real ID plans, and their only consolation was that they would be “watching out for bad stuff”. (My paraphrase of course.)

However, maybe our concerns will all be relieved and Real ID will finally be the cure to “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet &$*#wad Theory.” (Language warning on link.)
UPDATE (7/9/2010 3pm EST): CEO & Co-founder of Blizzard, Mike Morhaime has announced that Blizzard will no longer be requiring the use of real names on the Blizzard forums for WoW or Star Craft II.  The option to display your real name will still be there, but it will not be required.  It also appears that the displaying of your real name to your in game friends list will also be optional, but the wording is a little funny. So I’m waiting on verification on the use of real names in game.

This now begs the question of what Blizzard will do in reguards to the South Korean Real Name law. So we will keep our eye on how that shakes out.

You can read the response from Morhaime on the WoW forums here.

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