How Video Game Maker Blizzard Took a Social-Networking Step Too Far

Last Updated Jul 9, 2010 9:42 AM EDT

Gaming giant Blizzard (ATVI) has made billions by creating an online universe where their users could become wizards and warriors. But yesterday Blizzard announced that its users would need to use their real names to participate in its online forums, igniting a firestorm of protest. Blizzard's mistake: assuming that the popularity of social networking will apply to a community built on fantasy.

One reason for this change to what Blizzard calls the Real ID system is to clean up the discussion that goes on in the forums and to prevent users from trolling -- annoying, abusive behavior -- by forcing them to use their real names.

But a quote from a company spokesman about the uproar keyed in to the deeper meaning. He called this change, "A new and different concept for Blizzard gamers â€"- and for us as well -â€" and our goal is to create a social-gaming service that players want to use."

Of course many of the more than 10 million people already playing games like World of Warcraft maintain intense social connections. Gamers in WoW often form groups, called clans, with extensive hierarchies, membership rituals and offline communications.

Blizzard is reacting to the growing popularity of services like Facebook and the casual gaming that goes on there. The most popular of these is Zynga's Farmville. As a study of social gaming by professor A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz put it,

The secret to Farmville's popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others' farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies.
But real life obligation is precisely the opposite of what WoW players are seeking."Epic Fail," wrote one commentator. "People play video games to get away from everyday life. I don't want them to mix. Therefore I don't use Real ID."

Others are afraid Real ID will make the online abuse worse, not better. "Speaking as a woman who's had lots of unwanted attention its actually of vital importance that I protect my real name," wrote one female gamer. "I would not be terribly pleased if my name were to suddenly appear everywhere I posted."

The angry response to Blizzard's Real ID has now grown to over 48,000 posts on a thread that's more than 2400 pages long. The company wisely announced these changes yesterday, but scheduled them to take place in a few months. Blizzard should take that time to come up with a system that lets them moderate offensive users without forcing everyone else to break character.

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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.