Gaming giant Blizzard announced yesterday that it would be making some major changes to its official discussion forums, including the forums for World of Warcraft, Diablo, and the upcoming Starcraft II. In the upcoming weeks and months, players who want to post to these boards will have to log in using Blizzard's Real ID system, which will display their real full names next to every post they make. These changes will not be retroactive, meaning that the thousands of existing posts on the online discussion forums will not be affected. Parental controls will allow parents to prevent minors who have signed up for Real ID on the game from posting to the forums, if they so choose.
Why is Blizzard taking such an unprecedented step? Unpleasantness. "The forums have...earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild," writes Naethera, a Blizzard employee who will soon be posting under her own full name. "Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment [and] promote constructive conversations."
Blizzard appears to have subscribed to the colorful Greater Internet F***wad Theory, which posits that perfectly normal people, when faced with an audience and total anonymity, can become flaming jerks. Internet forums from BoingBoing, Slashdot, Reddit, to newspaper websites, and Yahoo! Finance Message boards have used various techniques — from active moderation by humans to community rating tools and algorithms — to cope with the low signal-to-noise ratio that can result when large numbers of people communicate anonymously on the internet. Some methods have been more successful than others, but innovation in this realm continues to develop. None of these sites has gone so far as to try eliminating anonymity entirely.
Many forum posters do not share Blizzard's certainty that the forums will be improved by the mandatory use of real names. They cite concerns about privacy and safety as compelling reasons not to link their real names to posts on a forum. Some forum posters feel betrayed, as if their community has been yanked out from under them.
To assume — as Blizzard seems to have assumed — that anonymity enables only "ugly speech" is the product of a failed imagination. Anonymous speech has always been an integral part of free speech because it enables individuals to speak up and speak out when they otherwise may find reason to hide or self-censor. Behind the veil of anonymity, individuals are more free to surface honest observations, unheard complaints, unpopular opinions — incidentally, all healthy contributions to an evolving gaming community.
Blizzard is completely within its legal rights to set rules, standards, and regulations for its forum, but only time will determine whether or not they are making the right choice. Will flame wars substantially decrease as a result of enforced de-anonymization of posters? If Blizzard claims success, will other forums follow suit? Will the use of real names lead to the harassment of posters elsewhere online or in the real world? Will it chill speech? Will Blizzard's forums become a ghost town as players migrate elsewhere to discuss their games? For now, the only way to find is out is keep watching as this experiment unfolds.
Update, Friday July 9: As it turns out, the experiment is not going to unfold at all. Blizzard has backed down from its decision to require posters to use their real names on the official forums.