7 Jul 2010

RealID – What The Forums?

You’ve probably already heard the big announcement about how RealID is going to be introduced to the forums. As we approach Cataclysm, the official Blizzard-run Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo forums will be upgraded to use a player’s real name whenever they post. There’s already a huge amount of discussion on the merits of the idea which are well worth reading.

But why implement the change in the first place? What benefits is it trying to bring and what problems is it trying to solve? To quote some design terminology, what are the requirements and use cases here?

The stated goal behind the switch is to reduce the amount of trolling, flaming and general nuisance that occurs on the official forums. There’s a popular idea based on Gabriel’s Theorem that once you remove the veil of anonymity you remove their desire to behave abusively on forums.

I don’t buy this myself for two reasons. In the main, I think that people will be disruptive on forums regardless of their real name being displayed. Why? I’ve seen it happen before. I’ve served time as an admin on Wikipedia, arguably one of the largest sites on the Internet. I’ve seen shocking behaviour from users who registered with their real name, just as I’ve seen it from those using a pseudonym.

There was also a struggle to convince academics, scholars and professionals that using their real name was a good idea. There were several occasions where I saw people get harassed by those they disagreed with. And I’m not talking about a few angry emails here – I’m talking being stalked at work, being forced out of their job and so on.

But this is just my own experience. The second reason I don’t buy the argument is that it’s all based on perceptions – “we think that if x then y”. But where are the hard facts to go along with this? Where are the studies from psychologists, sociologists and behavioural scientists that point to this being valid?

There’s also the slight flaw in the data quality that assumes the name a player registered their Battle.net account with is in fact their real name. There’s no backend verification of the name against a credit card or identity service, meaning that there’s nothing to stop a troll from registering with whatever RealID they like.

So what other use cases are there for this kind of integration? What else can be inferred from this primary change? It all comes down to Facebook and how it has become a hub for social gaming. Firms like Zynga and Popcap have done incredibly well by generating lightweight and straightforward games that allow players to game with or against eachother. And there’s a stupidly large amount of money involved in it. Blizzard has made no secret about their desire for closer integration between Facebook and Battle.net. They also have things in the pipeline to take advantage of this. But first, the datasets must align.

I know RealID on the forums won’t affect me much. It’s relatively straightforward for someone to find out my details anyway. But like any designer, I don’t just take into account my own situation. I try to understand the circumstances and drivers of everyone impacted by a proposed change. It’s this crucial step which seems to have been missed here.

In the end, as consumers we’ll vote with our feet. We’ll either take advantage of the changes or we’ll shun and avoid them. But let’s be clear – this is only the start. My guess is there’s still much more to come.

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