Through The Looking Glass

<<EDIT: As of this afternoon Blizzard has officially backed down and will no longer move forward with their scheme to force players to use their real life names on the forums. This is, of course, a tremendous victory. One suspects that major media outlets talking about the “row” or “huge outcry” opposed to this idea finally moved their executives to give way. However, significant as this is, Real ID remains and some of the architectural issues I allude to below remain.>>

Yesterday I wrote at some length about my strident opposition to Blizzard’s absurd RealID scheme, something I’ve called the single worst idea I have ever seen implemented in the history of online gaming. I am rarely one to speak without qualifiers, but this surely merits it. The threat posed to women is very real. I myself was stalked in WoW, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been because it didn’t bleed into real life; he didn’t know my name, nor where to begin with finding out personal info about me. Others I’ve known have not been so lucky. Curiously I’ve actually heard people use that as an argument for RealID. It is often phrased as “well, if it happens already, then what’s the big deal?”

I am personally quite flabbergasted at this line of reasoning. It’s happening already so let’s just make it easier?

I have a few more ideas for Blizzard to consider.

  • Has a female player had an abortion? If so, why not note it in their RealID friends’ list? Never know who might be interested! Who wouldn’t want a tank that could endure that kind of real life drama and ponderous decisionmaking? Just send the clinic records to Blizzard’s billing department and remember, it has to include your full name and Social Security number if possible.
  • Had to declare bankruptcy in the last ten years? Probably, considering the economy! Well, don’t you think it’d be fair to let everyone know? After all, if you’re bad with money, people selling to you in the Trade District of Stormwind really ought to know this before setting you up on an instalment plan for that uber enchantment or Blacksmithing item. Just mail the court documents to Blizzard billing so no one can accuse you of being a dirty dirty liar.
  • Photographic avatars containing pictures of genitalia. You know, just to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting yourself! Send two colour photos of your naughty bits and your birth certificate.
  • Posting peoples’ addresses is a surefire way to really get them to network with others. Their guildies will absolutely love knowing where to send flowers and cards to their favourite DPSer or healer. It saves you the trouble of opening up a private chat window to someone you trust and having to type it out every single time! Just send Blizz Billing a copy of your bank statement and a utility bill.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if something vaguely along these lines wasn’t already in the offing. I could go on with the snark, really. Many more links could serve as elucidating examples of why this is unequivocally bad. Even the demographic of young white cis men have something to fear. Men can get stalked too. And more than one has already been killed over in-game disputes that have spilled over into real life. Men and women in professional positions want to very much keep work and play separate. Trans men and women, non-binary identified people, all manner of LGBTQ people, might not want their online personae associated with a real name. Countless people have exes they’d rather not hear from again.

The list of grievances goes on. But the ultimate question is why is this happening at all?

The answer appears to be: Facebook.

But it isn’t just the deal outlined there that’s troubling, it’s the fundamental philosophy behind it. Yesterday I expressed my extreme scepticism at Blizzard’s troll-beating rationale for this forum change and I have not been dissuaded from this view. They know as well as anyone that the WoW forum’s are 4chan’s rectum but they’ve had six years to do something about it, over which time not even the most incremental of changes have occurred, other than cosmetic ones. Threats made against the lives of their own employees did not move them to engage in stricter moderation. This latest, sweeping change of the forums has much more to do with the upper echelons of Blizzard-Activision wanting to cash in on the new social networking boom.

Some have said that because it’s optional and not fully integrated, it’s the quintessential “not a big deal.” I disagree and here’s why:

“6. Real ID is optional.

Only the illusion is optional. Your real name is linked to your toons and already exposed via addons even if you never opt-in or use the Real ID feature. You can test this by running the following:

/run for i=1,100 do if BNIsSelf(i)then BNSendWhisper(i,”RealID whisper from yourself..”);break end end

While this only displays your own real name, it does demonstrate the the connection has already been made, without your approval. And that it could be accessible to a third-party addon developer. When Blizzard merges accounts with Facebook (their next move), will the connections to Facebook friends already be pre-established, even if you don’t opt in? If so, how will Blizzard/Facebook use that information?”

Thus it’s quite clear that Blizzard “has plans,” as they say. The architecture is already there for an expansion of this service and it is indeed ‘fully integrated’ at this point.  To be quite honest I do indeed wonder if Bobby Kotick dreams of players running around with their real names over their characters’ heads rather than an in-game handle. It no longer seems so far-fetched to think so.

This is not why I and many other gamers play online games. If we want Facebook we will go to Facebook. If we want Twitter, or Beebo, or MySpace, we will use those sites. It’s ironic, really. It’s the same criticism I’ve often levelled at newer MMOs that aped World of Warcraft rather than forged their own original direction. Of them I often said “if I wanted to play WoW, I’d go to WoW.” Well, it seems WoW is no longer content with just being WoW.

The gaming experience is about separation from real life, letting your dreams and fantasies take flight, however simple or elaborate they might be. It’s about relaxing in an engaged way and losing yourself in the mystery of another world. I still remember the first time I ran my characters through Shadowglen, how vivid and inviting the misty forests of this world were and how far away the cares of the real one was. That separation is a prerequisite of whatever sort of fun you wish to have in these games, be it roleplaying- as I often did, raiding, PVP combat, or simple grinding and trading. You leave the real world behind for a few hours and immerse yourself in a bath of fantasy.

Now the executives at Blizzard-Activision want to destroy one of the crucial pillars of what makes an online game what it is. There is, of course, a philosophy behind this and it is expressed very neatly here:

“[Zuckerberg] disagrees with the notion that people have different identities. To him, the idea that someone is different at work than at home, than at a rock concert, is dishonest. Says Kirkpatrick, “He believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief.” ”

Mr. Zuckerberg can kindly stick a goose up his arse and I’ll explain why using my usual flawless logic.

My own personal history. I had to be a different person in World of Warcraft than who I was expected to be in the physical world. For the sake of my own sanity and to prevent me from self harm; the ability to free myself of the pervasive and all consuming lie that my life once was can not be overvalued in how precious it was. Were these two sides of my being fundamentally part of who I was? Two spheres of the same whole? Yes, absolutely. But the difference in their prevalence at that point in my life was stark. Each side of me had a context that I could not shake. I could not let the woman I was burst forth back in 2006, I wasn’t ready and the consequences would’ve been disastrous. But in a controlled way, I could begin building a prototypical new me through my roleplaying and writing online, including in places like WoW.

There was no “dishonesty” there. There was a lot I hadn’t figured out at that time. Did you know everything about yourself when you were 19? I didn’t think so. Part of the long and winding road to self-understanding went through World of Warcraft for me.

Secondly, it is very much true a person can present different sides or shards of themselves in different social environments. It’s not necessarily dishonesty that compels this. It could be a person’s taste, or desire, to let different parts of themselves show at different times. When I speak in class or to gatherings of professors, I am magisterial, professional and my voice is leaden with argent verbiage. When I’m speaking to my friends I… sometimes do exactly the same thing. But other times I curse and laugh mellifluously and make dirty jokes and talk about geese and peoples’ butts as well as poop jokes!

Mr. Zuckerberg, no one has the right to make those worlds overlap except yours truly.

You do not get to arrogantly decide in your creepily paternalistic manner that we’d all be simply better off if we just accepted that our “real names” and photos define who we are and that we only have one dimension to our beings. I’m sure that’s an attractive bit of ideological pabulum for a lazy business philosopher but from where I’m sitting and from the perspective of the many people I’ve known and loved, it is more than a little bit of self-entitled bullshit.

No one decides what to do with the multiple sides of our personalities or phases of our lives but us. If we want to create a completely different persona for ourselves in an online game, we should be able to as long as we’re somehow helping pay the bills for the maintenance of said game.

Trans women I’ve spoken to and heard from already have been frantically calling Blizzard and being compelled to, of all things, mail in court orders and birth certificates. An online game goes from being fun fantasy to feeling like the Department of Motor Vehicles. We move from a game where your identity is entirely self determined, and the numbers and names of your ‘real’ self are kept under lock and key beneath an impenetrable veil of secrecy… to a game where your juridical, state-sanctioned identity is shackled to you like a ball and chain, even when you’re trying to escape.

Mr. Zuckerberg does not seem to have reckoned with the fact that the name and photo associated with one’s legal ‘identity’ is not the identity a person may most identify with.

We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Already we live in a world where your state-sanctioned identity stalks you at every turn, where a social insurance number is the only thing standing between you and a powerful individual knowing who you are, where you live, what you buy, what you eat, how many haemorrhoids  you have, when you went to school, the names of your loved ones, friends, and children, the value of your house, how much money is in your bank account… we are part of one big happy digital family now in an information civilisation. And now, at long last, a state identity is being forced on us in the one place we could escape from all that and possibly enjoy the unique pleasure of being known as someone else entirely, for reasons entirely innocent rather than “dishonest,” related to joy and peace rather than a desire to deceive. A desire to relax and forget the stresses of the ID number world.

This is what I meant yesterday when I said the implications went far beyond WoW.

I use Facebook primarily to stay in touch with a particular set of people and because my campus organisation needs me there. But I am not for one moment enamoured of its ideology, nor the fact that it is infecting what should rightly have been the polar opposite of that ideology. Perhaps most important of all, however, for Mr. Zuckerberg to understand: Facebook represents one aspect of peoples’ social lives, not their totality. Facebook is not the ultimate truth of who we are, it is not the Ur chat text of our lives, it’s one dimension that serves a variety of purposes for different people.

When I first played Neverwinter Nights multiplayer, the closest I came to an online game before I played WoW, what stunned me was the fact that I could choose my name. In a time when I was so loathing my given name, and the life I lead, the freedom to determine all of this information on a whim and not have to show this ID or that stamped form or this application signed and stamped in triplicate was amazing beyond words. “I can do that?” was my first thought. It planted the seed in my heart that would enable to me to change myself in the real world. But each time I made a new character and started afresh in a world where no one knew me by that horrid old name I was once cursed with, I flew.

I don’t want others to be denied the opportunity to experience that. If this all sounds dire it’s simply because events move forward. Things look bad now and they could very well get worse over time. More online game spaces may think this is just the bee’s knees and get on the social network bandwagon.

The good news is that these broad implications appear to have been intuited by the wider media. (BBC, MSNBC, CBC, ABC News, and more). We might be through the looking glass but we don’t have to stay there.

Comments

  1. When I first played Neverwinter Nights multiplayer, the closest I came to an online game before I played WoW, what stunned me was the fact that I could choose my name. In a time when I was so loathing my given name, and the life I lead, the freedom to determine all of this information on a whim and not have to show this ID or that stamped form or this application signed and stamped in triplicate was amazing beyond words. “I can do that?” was my first thought. It planted the seed in my heart that would enable to me to change myself in the real world. But each time I made a new character and started afresh in a world where no one knew me by that horrid old name I was once cursed with, I flew.

    Even after having transitioned two decades ago? I still feel this way. It’s a big part of why I love CRPGs so much. I love picking a new name and a fresh start. :)

  2. I transitioned two years ago but before then I explored my identity through City of Heroes. I was the Green Mistress teamed up with Super Momma, the only other female in our roleplaying supergroup. I can’t really describe how liberating it was to allow myself to play a female and be accepted as such by my friends. Even if those friends only knew me by my character. It was a chance to discover myself without sacrificing my life in the process until I was ready.

    Nowadays I have a few different handles I use for gaming depending on my personality. Gyfu is my nice girl, Pertho is my sneak thief and so on. These are all different aspects of my personality, but sometimes I feel like exploring one side more than the other. Sometimes I a good girl and sometimes I feel like being a bitch. It doesn’t mean I’m being dishonest, just the opposite. By acknowledging different sides of my personality I explore my whole being and learn more about who I am. To be reduced to one name, one personality, one facebook page is just ridiculous. No one, not even Mr. Zuckerberg, is the same person in all situations.

    I don’t even play WoW and I still enjoyed the article! It does show a trend that is creeping into our cyberspace. I love your blog. Keep up the good work!

    GeboGirl

    • Thank you very much for the kind words. I smiled as I read your comment because it is so similar to my own feelings on this subject; I saw a lot of my own gaming history in your brief words! I only ever played CoH on a 10 day trial, but I had exactly the same feeling back in WoW. It was liberating to be seen as a woman and accepted as such socially. I also empathised with what you said about your RP characters reflecting different dimensions of your personality. I’ve done the same with my own PCs!

      We go through different phases of being, in the course of a day, a year, and certainly over a lifetime. It’s part of who we are. Online games just make the trading of masques very easy, and indeed part of the fun.

      Thanks so much for your comment. :)

  3. Thanks for the great article. What ever the reason that was behind the Real ID concept it was obviously not though out too well before it was implemented. Forum trolls aside it could have had some seriously detrimental affects on the lives of many individuals.

    Great blog. We will add you to our links.

    Julie

  4. Very good post.

    “Mr. Zuckerberg does not seem to have reckoned with the fact that the name and photo associated with one’s legal ‘identity’ is not the identity a person may most identify with.”

    Amen to that. While I wouldn’t say that I’m completely anonymous in any of my areas of interest online, I’ve got a lot of different facets to my life both online and off that don’t necessarily intersect with each other. I certainly couldn’t do some of the support work that do online if it were a given that it would also make my children vulnerable. And even aside from the safety issues, and even if it isn’t a matter of necessity, there is something to be said for being able to participate online that is in some way divorced from your real life. It’s very nice at times to not talk about children, advocacy work, or mental health issues.

    I dread the increasing homogenization of the online world. I generally use Facebook as a contact point with people who either already know my real identity, or who aren’t a threat. Other than that, I don’t want it, or any other ‘service’ to insist that they’re making my life ‘easier’ by centralizing all of my information. I’d venture to say that most people who have multiple online persons are identities are not using them to troll- people will always find ways to troll, be obnoxious, or be dangerous, but for a good number of us there is no need at all to connect all of our online life with our real one.

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