Blizzard to share your name with angry video game nerds

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[Update: Blizzard has reversed this decision, putting an end to the panic in the streets of Azeroth for now.] In the gaming world, Blizzard Entertainment is one of the 800 lb gorillas, so when it does something unusual people sit up and take notice. And that's just what happened yesterday when Blizzard announced that its Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm forums would all start showing users' real names (or at least, the names they used when they signed up for an account). Since Blizzard specializes in the kinds of multiplayer games that often have people heading to forums for advice from other players, this is a bigger deal than it'd be with many other game developers.

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Response to the announcement has been mixed. Some users agree with Blizzard when they say:

...the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

Other users see it as an invasion of privacy or even as vaguely threatening. They fear that altercations in the Blizzard forums could lead to altercations out in the real world once the person you're arguing with knows your real name. (In some sense I think Blizzard is counting on that fear as a way to make things more civil in their forums.) Then there are the practical questions: what if you change your name? There's apparently no way to change your "real name" in your Blizzard profile. And while long-time, loyal Blizzard customers are 'stuck' with whatever they entered for their real name months or years ago, new players come into the system knowing full well that whatever they list as their real name will be displayed, and can adjust accordingly. Lastly, people anticipate Blizzard using name changes as yet another cash cow; that is, that Blizzard will offer a real name change as a paid service. So since this is a blog, after all, I'll tell you what I think. Back when I was a Blizzard customer their forums were vile. Maybe they've gotten better since then, but based on Blizzard's explanation of this new move I'm going to guess that isn't the case. Adding some kind of accountability seems like a step in the right direction, but I don't see how they'll enforce it, unless they tie the real name to the name on a credit card. But even that won't work, since a lot of people pay with pre-paid time cards, or with their parent's credit card. So while I like the way Blizzard is thinking, I don't see how they can enforce the policy, except on existing accounts where people probably did use their real names. In the name of fairness, I think Blizzard needs to give all existing accounts a 1-time opportunity to update their name before these changes go live. It's hard not to draw a parallel to Facebook, which also encourages the use of real names (and which also can't really enforce the policy). While there is certainly vile behavior happening on Facebook, my anecdotal experience is that it is much less frequent than it is on Blizzard's forums. So maybe the use of real names will help. I often hear people bemoaning the fact that there is so much hate and rudeness on the web due to anonymity. Here's one company trying to change that in some small way, and I can't help but salute them for it. Of course, talk is cheap for me. I'm not currently playing any of Blizzard's games, and I stopped visiting their forums ages before I quit playing their games. I'm also used to having my real name on the web. So what do you think? Is this a bold step forward or a horrible invasion of privacy?

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