Friday, July 9, 2010

Blizzard's GIFT

For the last fifteen years, Blizzard Entertainment has been one of the most beloved companies of the video gaming industry. Their catalog since the release of Warcraft II is success after success - Diablo, Starcraft, Diablo II, Warcraft III, and the reigning king of the massively multiplayer online RPG field, World of Warcraft. I recall many good times in the late 1990s spent on, Blizzard's multiplayer gaming framework. Even their acquisition by Activision a few years ago didn't cramp their style, since their new bosses weren't stupid enough to think they knew how to run Blizzard better than Blizzard. At least, that's what it seemed like at first.

Now, Blizzard is dealing with one of the first large outbreaks of anger among its customer base that I can remember, thanks to its newly-announced Real ID forum identification system. Blizzard describes it as "a completely voluntary and optional level of identity that keeps players connected across all of" If you've never heard of it, it's simple - right now, posters on Blizzard's World of Warcraft forums can post under the name of any of their in-game characters; once Real ID is rolled out, there will be no option but to post under the name that appears on the credit card that is paying for the account that's making the post. For now, this applies only to World of Warcraft accounts - other games haven't been folded into this system of forced identification yet. Nevertheless, with this precedent set, it's only a matter of time.

When I first heard about this initiative a few days ago, my first thought was that Blizzard was that Blizzard was trying to beat John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, first elaborated by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of the webcomic Penny Arcade back in 2004 - a commentary on Internet culture that's genius in its simplicity. Blizzard's official comments seem to support this, as they claim to be changing the nature of the system in order to "contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven't been connected before."

Personally, thanks but no thanks. I like my veil of anonymity. It's one of the bedrock principles that makes the Internet what it is - and, I think, that's what might really be at the core of the issue. After thinking on this some more, this goes beyond forum names. What this looks like to me is one of the strongest signals yet that the great, freewheeling "frontier era" of Internet culture is under siege.

If I want you to know who I am, I'll bloody well tell you.

There have always been people who conducted business online under their own names. It was common in the days of Usenet, when the wired community was small and tight-knit, but when the World Wide Web exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1990s, millions of new Internetters flooded in and upended the original social mores. By the time I got my first home internet connection, back in 1998, many of the patterns that endure today had been set. Prime among those was the forum handle - a name you chose for yourself, another identity with which you could express yourself freely. Even then there were those people who chose to post under their true names, but at the core it was their choice.

While the "Wild West" nature of the Internet is, I think, one of its greatest strengths, it's not something that's idolized everywhere. Governments and corporations, for example, would love to parcel up the online wilderness into nice, neat, manicured lots - governments to control and monitor their populace, and corporations to sell, sell, sell! Unrestrained freedom is a threat to them, because the point-to-point communication that the Internet makes possible the diminution and degradation of their authority.

The saving grace is that in this particular situation, there's an easy way for people to register their discontent with it - vote with their feet. I've heard rumors that World of Warcraft account cancellations have been spiking in the few days since this was announced, and if I had one, I would be cancelling it too. For that matter I'm reconsidering my potential purchase of Starcraft II later this month, a game I've been waiting twelve years for.

I realize that this may be weird coming from someone who posts under his own name and face. The point is that to do so is my choice - and as James Alan Gardner wrote in Ascending: "Deliberate choices are the only sacred things in the universe. Everything else is just hydrogen."

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