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The Real ID Debacle: What We’ve Learned

This past week, the single most important story in geekdom has been the unfolding of Blizzard’s Real ID saga, which concluded this afternoon when Blizzard announced that players would not be required to use their real names on future Blizzard forums, which, if implemented, would have affected millions World of Warcraft and StarCraft II players. Blizzard is one of the 800-pound gorillas of the gaming world, and had they gone ahead with this, it would have changed the culture of gaming, and, arguably, the Internet. But ultimately, Blizzard backed down.

What happened

Blizzard’s argument that implementing Real ID in forums would cut down on trolling and hateful speech was drowned out by the protestations of gamers, who argued that the new policy would be an invasion of their privacy, and would open them up to discrimination from their employers and stalking, sexual harassment, or worse from other gamers.

It’s probably a good thing that Real ID was put down: This would have been a huge, sweeping change that would have made many people unhappy and would have blown a hole in a privacy they’ve long expected, and Blizzard’s contradictory statements and confused reaction to gamer complaints over the course of the week seemed to indicate that they hadn’t fully thought this through. The Real ID debate touched a nerve among many people who don’t even play WoW or StarCraft because this has been a discussion we’ve been long due to have. The Internet is at a crossroads right now, with the Facebook argument that all personal data is more or less public nowadays coaxing us towards one path and the mootean argument that anonymity is essential to online discourse coaxing us towards the other.

But the discussion has been an occasionally ugly one, with loud hyperbole and nastiness directed against Real ID hijacking the discussion from more reasoned voices for and against. Particularly shameful has been the witch hunt against Blizzard employees, ostensibly to prove a point about why anonymity is necessary: One employee, Micah Whipple, dared to give out his name in a show of confidence on Blizzard’s part. Almost immediately, someone posted reams of his personal information in the forum thread, including his phone number, the names of all of his relatives, and his address. As it turns out, some of the information may have been inaccurate, which prompted the unreasoned argument that if the wrong person was harrassed or threatened, it would somehow be Whipple’s fault.

One website took to creepily cataloguing tons of personal information about Blizzard employees. Their argument: “All information posted on this site is PUBLICLY AVAILABLE information found online starting with only knowing a first and last name. Which is actually less than you’ll have to go by if you try finding out about someone from World of Warcraft, since in-game you may have met them before any know information such as what state they live in, and the FULL NAMES of ALL of their realID friends.”

One could argue that these nasty scorched-earth tactics were necessary to get Blizzard to change its mind. Would a civil debate about the negatives associated with the mass Real ID implementation switchover on Battle.net have led to today’s result? We’ll never know. But as poorly thought out as Blizzard’s initial announcement might have been, they are a company that cares about their community; we’d like to think that the reasoned arguments — that the change would be bad for women and other minorities in the gaming community, and for many employees — and above all the fact that so many gamers were unhappy is what caused Blizzard to change their mind, not the attacks on their own employees.

But it got us thinking …

Mandating that your forumgoers reveal their true identities is a bad idea. Gamer minorities, whether of gender, race, or sexual orientation, can get harassed in game. The online gamer community is, more often than not, misogynist, homophobic, and racist. StarCraft and World of Warcraft are games, and minority players deserve to be able to immerse themselves and relax without having to deal with that sort of thing.

But… /wince

I feel like all of this talk about gaming minorities needing the protection of anonymity to be able to enjoy a game leaves out something important.

I mean, eventually, we’d like the community to become more accepting, right?

Well… how are we going to do that if everyone who isn’t in the majority isn’t proactive about reminding the majority that they play with us too?

For most of modern civil rights history, we have been fighting for the rights of the obviously “different.” Racial politics and prejudice are based on easily visible attributes that are used to identify the “other” person, so if we really want an example for how this sort of thing is necessary in the gaming community, we need to look at the Gay Rights movement.

The Gay Rights movement, unlike, say, the Women’s Rights movement or the African American Civil Rights movement, is a movement of people who could choose not to reveal their “other” status to anyone.

I don’t mean this to say that you can “choose” to be gay; quite the opposite. Just because you can choose to be accepted by the majority doesn’t mean that you have changed anything about yourself, or that you are not oppressed. In fact, you are choosing to be silenced. And the first thing a movement of people who could choose to be unnoticed needs to do is create awareness of and pride in its existence.

A clarification

Here’s what I am NOT saying: that every non-white, LGBT, or female gamer should never hide behind anonymity. It is your game. Sometimes you want to play and relax … and you should.

But personally, every time a stranger in WoW says something like “Thanks, man.” to me and I let it go because it’s easier than the alternatives, a little bit of me feels like I am part of the problem.

In conclusion

Real ID is not happening. But please don’t let this mean that you stay quiet when somebody says something racist or sexist or homophobic in chat. Or even when someone assumes, in a benign way, that you are something that you are not. Let them know that what they are saying is not falling on a sympathetic audience, or at least on the audience that they think they have.

Yes. There may be game!social repercussions. And yes, responding in a way that is diplomatic and/or non-confrontational can be hard. And you’re probably not going to change that individual’s mind in that moment.

But, if you’ll allow me to be frank, this isn’t just about you. And it’s not just about that moment. It’s about the community in general, and reminding people that we are a part of it.

Robert Quigley contributed reporting.

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