The Secret Lives of Gamers Should Stay SecretS

Everyone is entitled to a secret identity, it seems.

That's the lesson that Blizzard learned last week when they unveiled a new set of rules that would have stripped anonymity away from those posting comments in the forums for the developer's popular games like World of Warcraft and the upcoming StarCraft II. Blizzard's Real ID would have forced those posting in the official forums to use their real first and last names.

Outcry from their community, from communities around the Internet, and the threat of massive boycotts forced Blizzard to kill the concept three days after they detailed it to gamers.

But it would have been an interesting experiment in the hunt for a solution to a growing problem: While the importance of online communities and the communities themselves continues to blossom, the nature of the conversations conducted in them are becoming increasingly hard to manage.

So hard that some developers have decided to forgo them completely. In 2008, Mark Jacobs, co-founder of developer Mythic, decried the nature of official forums for massively multiplayer games like Blizzard's World of Warcraft, saying that the problem was that while most of the people reading the forums are looking for information, a "reasonable number" are just there to "cause trouble, 'grief' the forums or simply get their jollies by saying and doing things that they wouldn't do in real life."

With millions of people to manage, Jacobs wrote, it becomes "soul sucking" for the developers to deal with the issue.

But Sean Brooks, program associate for the Center for Democracy & Technology, says that the importance of online communities outweighs the impact this small group of childish uses can have on them.

"Online communities are hugely influential and have already changed our society in ways many of us never would have expected," Brooks said."As services become more interconnected and more powerful, the future truly seems limitless."

And the importance of anonymity in these communities, Brooks argues, is a huge issue.

"Never before has online privacy, particularly in regards to social connections online, been such a prevalent issue," he said. "As the 'average user' has become more mature in their understanding of how this public-facing information affects their offline life, concern has grown substantially. A new Pew study shows that young adults care more about their privacy than older folks. I think this is just another vein in that trend."

Even Mythic's Jacobs eventually came around to the idea, launching official forums for one of their games, with a strict set of rules.

Brooks says the problem Blizzard faced with their "Real ID" solution was that it alienated a massive segment of their community who had spent years building an identity in those forums and expected anonymity. It also raised the specter of gamers being stalked or harassed once their real names became public.

The best solution, Brooks says, is for only Blizzard to know a person's real name, which would alleviate the identity concerns but still allow the developer to have a strong enforcement mechanism.

The issue at hand reaches far beyond gaming. At stake is the very nature of what has helped the Internet become such a powerful tool for education and debate. And the desire for anonymity isn't just limited to online video games. Sites like Wikipedia, Twitter and YouTube also all flourish with the help of anonymous posters.

"We must never forget the essential properties of online communities that have made them what they are today: freedom, openness and anonymity," Brooks said. "This is what has fostered the continual innovation that made the Web such a championed tool of free expression. Blizzard's online community is a great example of a service which has gone very far with the benefits of these ideals - it would be a mistake to leave them behind."

While Blizzard's approach to the problem was ill-conceived, it's a growing issue that does have to be dealt with.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.