This is making a great many people very, very agitated, and with good reason. Sam Seaborn said far better than I ever could:
“Twenties and Thirties it was the role of government, Fifties and Sixties it was civil rights. The next two decades it’s gonna be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the right to be free, what could be more fundamental than that?” (The Short List)
I can completely see what Blizzard are doing here, and it shows a willingness to integrate game content beyond the pixels, in a way which (I’d argue) has the potential to become the norm in the years to come. However, there is a fundamental clash at play here: gaming is escapism. People often come to get away from what they are to become something else. Without a real name there is a certain freedom to be had that has nothing to do with protecting your identity or allowing people to know where you live. This will deter a great many people from posting to the Official Forums I suspect, the question then has to be whether that will have a positive or negative effect on the Forums generally. I suspect far fewer people will be prepared to make things personal when they have to do so behind their gaming identity, but will this mean the gaming experience overall will be compromised?
The problem comes of course with the issue of whether you actually want your friends to know what you are doing on certain days. If you give your Real ID to someone in game they know where you are 24/7: no secret alts, not sneaking off to play and opposing faction on the side. The problem is going to come if this were to happen with two people (let’s say for the sake of argument they were in a relationship and now they’re not, and maybe it didn’t end in glowing terms) and one is perhaps not as nice as everyone else thought they were, and becomes vindictive. How does the other party ‘maintain privacy’ to avoid the attentions of their ex-partner? They can’t. There is no way to do so. If your gaming details are linked to your address and your real name there really is nowhere to hide. Time to think twice about that in-game relationship? Possibly, but more likely it’s time to grasp that in the 21st Century that privacy online is a relative term. More importantly, it’s time to accept responsibility for your own online actions. If you don’t want people to hassle you, you don’t play, or you are careful who knows your e-mail address in the first place.
Blizzard does have a responsibility to respect your privacy, and they continue to do so. What they are doing here is forcing people to take responsibility as well. I suspect a great many gaming companies are watching events with interest: what happens with Real ID in the coming months is going to have a major bearing on the way online gaming deals with it’s subscribers in the future. Will this be the model for the future or is this the beginning of the end for ‘identity’ in gaming? Watch this space.