View From the Road

View From the Road: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

John Funk | 12 Jul 2010 17:00
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The title for this week's column is, of course, a reference to the theme song for beloved 80s sitcom Cheers. In the context of the show, a place "where everybody [knew] your name" was a good thing - it was a place where you could go and feel at home; it was a place where people greeted your arrival with "Norm!" (assuming you were, in fact, Norm). Wouldn't you like to go where everybody knows your name?

Not if that place is the forums, judging by the massive backlash to Blizzard's plans to require users to post under their real names once StarCraft II and WoW: Cataclysm were on shelves.

For this column, I had planned to write a comprehensive, balanced look at the pros and cons of the issue in order to reflect my wholly mixed feelings on the matter, but then Blizzard pulled the rug out from under me and canceled its plans. Whoops. But even if this particular instance is (mostly) no longer an issue, it's still worth looking at the underlying causes of the change - and the outrage over it.

The anonymity of the internet has always been both its blessing and its curse. Parents are constantly bombarded with reminders that their daughter's 12-year-old new best-e-friend could be a 40-year-old sexual predator. Without meeting the people on the other side of this series of tubes face to face, we have no way of knowing if what they say about themselves is true. On the other hand, it's liberating in that we can present ourselves however we want. If we aren't confident in our day-to-day lives, we can be outspoken behind our internet veils. The internet itself is every bit as escapist as the games we play.

And for better or worse, it allows us to escape our responsibilities - and escape any repercussions for our actions. With great anonymity comes great potential to misuse that anonymity: When nobody knows who you are, you can say whatever you want or do whatever you want free of consequences.

This is what Blizzard was trying to address with its decision to require the use of its real-name RealID service in order to post on its forums. It was an idea borne from a good place; it's no secret that the WoW forums have a reputation as a bit of a cesspool, and if you've ever spent any time there you've found that the reputation isn't undeserved. Trolls, hostility, and a septic nastiness pervade the entire place, making it very unwelcoming for someone who is honestly just looking for a bit of help.

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