Sunday, July 11, 2010

Activision-Blizzard, Privacy and Me

If you've read the "about me" you will have learned that one of my interests is gaming.  In particular, for the last several years, I've devoted some of my anonymous time on the 'net to Blizzard's wildly popular World of Warcraft game.  This is an MMORPG -- massive multiplayer online role playing game, for those who don't know the acronym.

Gathering herbs in World of Warcraft, Burning Crusade
Activision merged with Blizzard some months ago. Since then, the powers that be at Activision-Blizzard have veered off onto a path they must think will increase their revenue.  It all started with, an entity established to register players who participate in the MMO aspect of Blizzard's games.  If you wanted to test your skills against someone else on the other side of town or the continent or even the ocean, you could play Starcraft or Diablo (which are single player games too) by logging in to and competing online.   World of Warcraft (WoW) players found, shortly after the entity was upgraded, that in order to continue their adventures in the world of Azeroth (WoW's fantasy world), they too had to have a ID.

Fine, but, the next step in the still-unrevealed plan was to institute something called Real ID in the WoW game.  What this new coding allowed: players could designate other people as real life friends and thus, see and communicate with all the characters their friends played on any Blizzard game, and be seen and contacted by them as well.  It went further -- friends of friends could also see the real name of anyone who made a neighbor or relative a Real ID friend.  A good friend that I know and trust in real life is one thing, but I do not know who he has friended!

Sentinel Hill at night
 The next step was announced a week ago.  Blizzard would, beginning with its release of a new 3-part Starcraft expansion require anyone who posted on the forums to reveal their real name attached to any forum post they made.  They intended to require this same privacy disclosure for anyone wanting to post on the official Blizzard WoW forums as of the release of the latest upcoming expansion named Cataclysm.  The excuse given was to force the forum trolls into the light… and what, shame them into not posting their garbage?

As a result of the announcement, several thousand players expressed their astonishment, dismay, and rejection of this idea in a huge thread -- nearly 2,500 pages and nearly 50,000 posts.  Most everyone said No - as did I. 

For background, I have respected Blizzard for a dozen years or more.  One reason is they have always made a Mac version of their games, and I refuse to buy a PC just so I can game.  Another reason is their products have been great!  Yet another reason is they have always been relatively responsive to their customer base.  I played the original Warcraft series, the Diablo series and the Starcraft series.  I own collector's editions of the original WoW game and the first two expansions.  I played in the original WoW beta back in 2004.  I have several characters at max level (currently 80), who are fully trained in their professions.  Want a jewelcrafter, blacksmith, alchemist, inscriber, tailor, enchanter, engineer, or leatherworker who can craft any item possible?  I've got one.  Most of my characters are also fully skilled in the lesser professions of cooking, fishing and first aid.

Giving up my legacy characters and the hundreds of hours I've put into their development would be a bitter pill to swallow.  Nevertheless, I cancelled my automatic account subscription as a result of intuiting where Activision-Blizzard was going with their new business plan.  They have deals with Facebook and even Microsoft.  You have to read the updated TOS, EULA, and the Terms of Use darn near daily to catch these significant changes.  Players are now subject to in-game advertising.  It was one thing to see vanity pets representative of other Blizzard games.  But who wants to see the Windows 7 logo (with the blue background) temporarily floating in the sky over Azeroth?  Who wants to have to write on someone's Facebook wall to earn an achievement in game?  I'm not saying this will happen, but I can't believe it's too far off the mark.

Fourth of July Fireworks outside Ironforge
According to Bobby Kotick, mover behind Activision and killer of Infinity Ward, WoW players and Facebook facers can be of mutual benefit to each other.  In other words, he would like to parlay Blizzard's 11 million subscribers into Facebook page holders and along the way get Facebook holders buying and playing WoW, and targeting advertising to both groups along the way.  What he doesn't get is that never the twain shall meet.  Social networking is not what an MMORPG is about, and vice versa. 

I can't speak for everyone who plays WoW, but I will assert, with as much might as I can muster, that I do NOT play wow to network socially.  I play WoW to enjoy a pastime that my non-gamer family and non-gamer friends and non-gamer co-workers don't know about and cannot begin to appreciate.  My sister and my fellow employees don't want to know the names of my characters across all the games and even if they did, I don't care to share that information with them.  I don't necessarily want my closest friends to know that I've started a brand new character on a different server just so I can immerse myself in the role-playing aspect of the game without interruption.

Death Knights can be beautiful, and they can walk on water too
The good news is Blizzard's co-founder Mike Morhaime has stated that they will not "at this time" proceed with insisting that we use a real name when posting on the forums.  I released a huge sigh of relief as a result, but am wounded by the thought that such a notion was ever considered.  I do not intend to renew my subscription or pre-order any new packages until I see where this is going.  Was it because of the huge outcry from current subscribers?  Was it because Blizzard's own employees would be put at risk with their real names visible?  Was it California's or Canada's privacy laws?  Was it the ESRB's threat to remove the friendly rating?

I post on numerous forums, and I blog under a pseudonym.  Nowhere (aside from logging in to my employer's online time sheet) is my real name a requirement.

I am Ennealogic.  I am Ennealogic here, and on Palingates, The Mudflats, Immoral Minority,  Washington Post, Huffington Post, NY Times and even on the Wall Street Journal.  I am Ennealogic on Think Progress and Gawker and Daily Kos, and countless other sites.  What I say becomes part of my cred as Ennealogic.  I do not need to be known as my real name for the same cred to apply.  A rose by any other name… I am Ennealogic when it comes to my political thoughts and opinions.  You can Google Ennealogic and find out what I think.  I do not need to reveal my real name in order to express my thoughts and opinions about anything.

I am reminded of the time when Mike Doogan outed AKM from The Mudflats.  We had this discussion then, and his excuse was that AKM had no right to express her opinion and also remain anonymous.  I will never forgive that oaf for crudely and gratuitously attempting to damage a real person who provided a real service to so many readers.  AKM's words and stories have not grown better (or worse) now that we know the name that goes with the acronym.  AKM is now and always has been a reliable, responsible, creative, investigative, and indomitable voice ringing out across the country (and the world!).  She neither lost nor gained any credibility with the outing, but she certainly lost the protection of her anonymity.  She does not speak to the question of whether her business ventures were adversely affected or her family threatened.

Flying over Northrend is an incredible experience
Those who troll forums, regardless of their variety, will still troll because it is their wont -- no matter if they post under the name Jack Fisher or Usuckmydingle.  Those who moderate forums can just as easily ban one name or IP address as another.  Those who suffer the trolls can't do anything anyway, except if a real name is provided, then look up that real name and deliver real world consequences.  Is that what Activision-Blizzard intended?  Did they really want their decent, mature, thoughtful posters to gather up torches and pitchforks and clamor outside the apartment (or basement or hovel) of a troll?  And do what, exactly?

Anyway -- my recent absence from all things politics and Sarah Palin in particular is a result of time spent opposing this recent scheme brought to us by yet one more corporatist who thinks selling customer identities is the path to even more financial rewards. 

I have one thing to say in closing:  measure carefully any request/demand to surrender privacy.  Make sure that you can trust those who ask or require it, and make sure that such disclosure is indeed warranted and needed.  In the case of Activision-Blizzard, nobody needs to know that my character name belongs to my real name.  Nobody but those who bill my credit card.  And if they insist on linking that real information with my avatar and character names, I will surely turn my back on their games.  It will pain me immensely to do so, but I will not abide by such a violation of trust.  They promised me they would keep my personal information inviolate.  I expect no less.
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