Is this the WoW killer? That's the provocative question asked by the popular MMO blog Massively.com in this recent post. Like everyone else, I have my opinions, but let's take a look at the facts, first.
1. Blizzard and Facebook are pals. Don't believe me? Here, read the press release. The plan, as I understand it, is to permit you to share your Battle.net identity through your Facebook friends list, AND to be able to import your Facebook friends into Battle.net. The net effect from either side is the same. Any of your Facebook friends who are also playing a Blizzard game will be revealed to you. You will be able to see what game and/or server they are playing on, and what their character's name is.
2. Blizzard added Real ID to Battle.net. Real ID is a system in which you send a friend request to someone in game using their email address (that's how you log in to Battle.net) instead of a character name. If they accept, you will then see them on your friends list under their real name, with the name of the character they are playing and what server they are playing on at the moment listed off to the right hand side. You have the ability to send a message to your friends even if they are logged in to a different server, or a different game altogether.
3. Blizzard announced that Real ID was coming to the official forums. Although it's not live yet, here's how it will work. To post a message on the official forums, you will need to sign in using your Battle.net account. Of course, you have to do that NOW. What will be different is that instead of selecting a character of yours to post with, your post will go up showing your real name, first and last. You can, if you wish, link a character name to the post, but you cannot post without giving readers your first and last name.
So those are the facts. The first question we must ask is why? Why is Blizzard doing this?
One reason is that Blizzard sees how much cash a game like Farmville generates through Facebook, and although none of the Blizzard games are casual social games like Farmville, Blizzard does not want to miss a money making opportunity. Don't believe for one minute that the sole reason Blizzard does something like this is to promote social networking among gamers. That might be the company line, but the TRUTH is that they are in business to make money. And if this helps them make more money, they will do it.
Another reason is that the official forums are, quite frankly, a cesspool. People create low level characters on a server other than the one they play on normally, and use that identity to post the sort of messages that you wouldn't take home to meet your mother. This has led to one of those phrases you only see on the Internet: "Post on your main or get out." Meaning, don't hide behind your anonymous character, post from your level 80 main character, the one we all will see in game, the one you have time invested in, and the one whose reputation you theoretically don't want to tarnish.
The flip side of that is sometimes you get more honesty when the threat of reprisal is removed. I have seen, on many occasions, messages posted by one of these anonymous level one characters that are brutally honest, saying the things that need to be said but aren't because of potential conflict with your friends. In a perfect world, you should be able to say anything to anyone, as long as it's the truth. But you and I both know that we don't live in a perfect world. People hold grudges, and the threat of that will stifle honesty at times.
Blizzard wants to change this culture. Forcing you to post under a single identity that is forever branded with your real name will pierce the veil of anonymity and bring accountability to the forums in the blink of an eye. There are some who applaud this and declare that it was long overdue. I am not among them.
The Internet is full of smart people. Even if I'm not one, and you're not one, they ARE out there. Time and time again, clever searchers have uncovered home addresses, telephone numbers, the names and addresses of relatives and employers, all from someone leaving their real name. It can be done and it IS done. If you have a disagreement with someone in game, it is not at all outside the realm of probability that this fight could spill over into real life. With everyone having access to the real first and last names of people who post on the forums, connecting the dots to enable such cyber-stalking is child's play.
Here is my opinion: This is a terrible idea and Blizzard does not have to do it simply to make people accountable for their forum rants. It would be a simple matter for Blizzard to link a "Forum ID" to your Battle.net account. All your forum posts would be made under that single identity, thus ensuring that you will not be able to hide when you insult someone, but without exposing people's real first and last name.
Whether this is a violation of privacy or not, legally, is murky. When you buy software or sign up for online accounts, you nearly always are presented with a Terms of Service that you must assent to in order to go forward. I don't read them, you don't read them, and they probably say we pledge our fortunes and our firstborn child along with our immortal soul, for the company to do with as it pleases. I'm quite certain that Blizzard has covered themselves for this somewhere, in one of the many Terms of Service screens we've seen and agreed to.
So I think Blizzard can do it. The question of whether they will do it still remains to be answered. My guess is that the backlash is so intense that Blizzard will back down and re-think this. But I wouldn't consider myself surprised if they pressed forward, either. Blizzard Entertainment, like my favorite fruity computer company, believes that they are Incredibly Smart and thus they know what's better for you than you do.
Oh, one final note. If you choose to exchange Real ID friend requests with someone, you should know that you can then see the Real IDs for all the OTHER people with whom your friend has done the same thing. And vice versa. Any Real ID friend of yours can see the real names of anyone else you've friended in this manner. You can't see any status on these friends of friends unless they send, and you accept, a Real ID friend request. But just having your real first and last name exposed in an online game makes my skin crawl.
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