On July 6, Blizzard Entertainment announced that the forums on its immensely popular World of Warcraft would begin to show players' legal names instead of their character names. Blizzard's explanation? "Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment."
The predominantly white, male, heterosexual player base reacted with variations of predictable approval in posts. The gist was: "Great, maybe this will get rid of trolls." And "I use my real name on Facebook and nothing bad has ever happened." And, of course, "If you don't like it, leave."
Female players — whom Blizzard believes to be five percent of the total player base, but whom independent gaming-research organization the Daedalus Project (nickyee.com) estimates at 16 percent — erupted with frustration. Other minority gamers also stepped up to share their experiences.
It's the double-edged sword of gamer (or for that matter, online) anonymity: you're free to play "in character," but you're also susceptible to slurs by other, equally protected anonymous players.
Quinnae, a self-described transgendered gamer, wrote at BorderHouseBlog.com that she's known "several women who played as men to avoid unwanted attention. This [Real ID] blows them out of the water. Such a scenario could also expose transgender men [and women]. The excuse of 'Well, don't use the forums!'. . . It reeks of the same 'Well, just don't go outside!' nonsense from people whose privileges render them incapable of understanding a life perspective different from their own."
Blizzard responded by making Real ID optional, but the original problem remains: WoW forum posts and in-game chats often involve sexist, homophobic, or racist slurs. Many gamers defend themselves by saying that's just trash talk or meant as a joke. Yet white, male, heterosexual players never seem to be the brunt of any of these "jokes." Many minority gamers respond to hostility by gaming undercover — that is, by refusing to reveal their true gender or race if asked.
So why don't they just leave? With about 11.5 million subscribers worldwide, WoW is one of the most popular computer games ever (and notoriously addictive), bested only by The Sims and The Sims 2. Why should anyone be driven from it by a few sickos? Different sites have their own ways of dealing with gaming etiquette. Xbox Live uses a five-star peer-rating system of player behavior. WoW could implement a similar system and offer an option to block conversations from low-rated players. But even a peer-rating system is of limited use. What if a player started following you, stealing your kills, or getting friends to gang up on you?
And what about the rare case of a player who's mentally unhinged and dangerous? In Metafilter.com's thread about Real ID, a user named Nattie describes a 14-year-old female friend who got stalked by another player: "If her real-life name (or her father's name) were next to her character's name in forum posts, she wouldn't be very safe right now, would she?" Commenter keli responds to say that the stalker in question "shunts around to different realms, but he's fairly notorious in each one he plays."
Almost every competitive online gaming environment is rife with slurs and harassment, but smaller MMOs like Ragnarok Online and Guild Wars manage to keep jerks in check with human moderators. WoW is huge by comparison, and the job of moderating is therefore more complicated, but does that mean Blizzard should get a free pass for what goes on in the community? MMOs owe their players anonymity and protection. Sure, Blizzard doesn't want to lose stalker guy's monthly subscription fee, but does that have to come at the cost of female players' comfort and safety?