An interesting experiment in online social forums

Blizzard, which makes a couple of extremely popular computer games like Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo, also maintains a gigantic set of forums with an overwhelming volume of posts appearing non-stop. I’ve never dug into them — way too much stuff, and it’s scary how ferocious the debates can get over a change in a magic spell in a game — but they’ve announced a major, radical change:

The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it. These changes will go into effect on all StarCraft II forums with the launch of the new community site prior to the July 27 release of the game, with the World of Warcraft site and forums following suit near the launch of Cataclysm. Certain classic forums, including the classic forums, will remain unchanged.

Whoa. No pseudonyms at all, all anonymity removed. They can actually do this because everything is linked to subscriptions to their games, so they can demand accurate billing information…and they have just announced that part of that billing information will be made public. There have been a lot of debates about privacy and anonymity on the internet, and here’s an actual exercise in testing the Penny Arcade theory by eliminating one of the parameters.

Have no fear, I’m not proposing to do the experiment here. It could get interesting if we have a major before and after dataset available on the internet, though…I predict that many casual trolls might get filtered out fast, but there will still be online meanies and contrarians and aggressive debaters, and there may not be a huge change in tone. After all, I’m not writing under a pseudonym, and you don’t see me wilting politely into courteous discourse.

Some sociologist should get ready to study this…

There’s a good discussion going on at Shakesville — this decision is an exercise in privilege by Blizzard. There are a fair number of female gamers who would rather not advertise the fact…because many male gamers are jerks.