Blizzard’s RealID: The good, the bad and the stupid

When a juggernaut like World of Warcraft makes a major technological move, the entire industry holds its breath.  Do they prepare to follow in its footsteps, or learn from its mistakes?

Blizzard is no newbie to social integration in their games.  They paved the way for many modern matchmaking services via their innovative Battle.Net infrastructure many years ago, and almost single-handedly brought LAN gaming to the masses.  And obviously, their unparalleled success in the MMORPG market is well-known.  So when they recently announced an integration of WoW‘s login servers with Battle.Net‘s authentication services, the vast majority of players didn’t even bat an eyelash.  In fact, Blizzard even gave out free in-game minipets as a reward for registering.  How can you not trust them, when they hand you a penguin?

Fast forward to earlier this month, when the cross-integration of Battle.Net with World of Warcraft just got personal.  Literally.  With the launch of RealID, players are now being asked to enter their real-life first & last names, in order to experience the next evolution of social integration.  It’s an optional service, but it’s being pounded down everyone’s throats so heavily that you’d feel like an outcast for NOT using it.  Furthermore, posting on Blizzard’s official forums will now require the use of RealID for verification purposes.

On the surface, RealID looks like a great tool for social gaming.  It’s taken the best parts of a global name system like integrated by Cryptic Studios in their titles, and enhanced it, allowing for a level of trust and real-world socializing that didn’t previously exist in the anonymous world of Azeroth, or almost any other MMO on the market.  It promises to be a boon to the official forums as well, since trolls and flamers can no longer hide behind anonymous level 1 alt characters while lambasting their fellow players in public.

But that’s where the sunshine and happy times end.  Just beneath that thin and precariously-seated layer of awesome, lies a bottomless pit of potential scamming, hacking, bullying, cyberstalking and  privacy violations.

The most heinous violation of privacy included with this feature, is the one-degree autosharing of your private information.  This means that friends of your RealID buddies, can see the information that you’ve entered into the RealID system.  Even if you’ve never heard of them.  It’s true that social sites like MySpace and FaceBook have had this level of autosharing integrated into their systems from the start, so we, as internet users, shouldn’t feel violated or surprised by having our information plastered all over the web.  But do we want it associated with a game?

Even the proudest of gamers is likely to have at least one situation in their life, where they would NOT want someone to know that they are in possession of a Level 80 Tauren Druid on the Doomhammer server.

Prospective employer? A background check will now bring your RealID to the surface.

Potential romantic interest? All she has to do is Google you to find your RealID and more.

And what if you’re a public figure?  A government official, pro athlete, or famous celebrity? Every last fan and stalker can now locate you in the game world, with relative ease.

And the knife cuts the other way, too.  Not just in unmasking our secret identities to those that know us in the Real World, but also in allowing the psuedo-anonymous acquaintances from within our fantasy realm, to step into the light of reality.  This concern is especially prevalent among the female gamers of the world, who are already the primary target of online sexual harassment and cyberstalking.  This service just makes the stalkers’ pervy appetites easier to appease.

And what about those under the age of 18?  Well, Blizzard‘s policy requires that the account be registered under their parent or guardian.  Which means that if your 13-year-old son wants to post on Blizzard‘s forums, or add a RealID friend, YOUR NAME will be the one displayed for the world to see.  Unless they’ve faked their age verification and registered under their own name, therefore opening themselves to the same level of cyberstalking that news sources around the globe claim happens on a daily basis on services like FaceBook.

As if that weren’t enough to make you feel leery about the system, here’s another doozy: Blizzard’s own employees don’t like it! Numerous reports have now surfaced of employees having their say against the system being implemented by their upper management.  Many Blizzard employees will no longer be seen posting on their own official forums, either as their Blizzard or private accounts, because their names will be easily visible.  It only takes a quick Google search to find their LinkedIn or FaceBook profiles, leading to the revelation of even more private information.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this article — it’s well worth the read, and is an honest-to-god real life scenario on the perils of RealID.

But I don’t want to be too alarmist and sensationalist in this article.  Blizzard has implemented a few safeguards to attempt to address these concerns.

Firstly, RealID is optional.  But remember – it will still be required if you wish to post on Blizzard’s official forums.  Maybe you can live without that.

Secondly, Blizzard clearly states in the RealID FAQ that they intend for this service to be used only among people you “know and trust in real life.”  But let’s be honest – most gamers feel like they “know and trust” their fellow guild members pretty well.  They might seem like perfectly normal dudes until they learn that your Real Name is ‘Jennifer’ and then their inner perv starts shouting “TITS or GTFO!” in guildchat.  Furthermore, even if you do limit yourself to real life contacts, you then have to run the risk that THEY will do the same.

And lastly – and this hasn’t been officially stated by Blizzard but it does seem to be one of their ulterior motives – this will make their official forums a ‘safer’ place on the internet.  Without posters having the option to hide behind pseudonyms and outright anonymity, people will theoretically start being a bit more civil with one another.

But do these pros outweigh the cons?  Most believe that they do not, including myself.  One notable news source goes so far as to speculate that this could be the “WoW-Killer we’ve been waiting for.”

And does Blizzard care?  All signs point to ‘no.’  In fact, Blizzard is intending to take this privacy-shattering feature even further with the launch of StarCraft II, which will feature full FaceBook integration.  I guess from their point of view, what have they got to lose?  When you can shed 50% of your player base, and still have the largest ‘western’ subscription base by a factor of 5x-10x, why pull your punches?

My fervent hope is that no other MMO publisher out there attempts to copycat this move.  Furthermore, I’m honestly hoping that Blizzard comes to its senses and at LEAST abolishes the one-degree auto-sharing feature, if not outright reducing this feature to being optional across the board.

This is not an evolution that I hope to see take root in the MMO industry.  And I want the record to show that I blame FarmVille for all of it.

Here is a list of links for more information and opinions regarding RealID…

The big sites:

The WoW blogs:

Also, if you wish to file a complaint with the ESRB over this, you can use this form.

Update, 7/9/10:

In a move we had hoped for, but not truly thought would come to pass, Blizzard announced this morning that they are backing down from their RealID requirements.

We’ve been constantly monitoring the feedback you’ve given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums. — Mike Morhaime, CEO & Cofounder

Read the full announcement here:

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