Are Real Names the magic bullet for cleaning up gaming?

In the wake of last week, this is the one question that sticks in my mind.

Blizzard felt that requiring all forum posters to use their real names would improve forum behaviour. It was based, presumably, on psychology/ sociology studies which showed that people were more polite online when identified with their legal names. I’ve also heard several people comment that using a real name makes a poster more accountable. But more accountable to who exactly, and in what way?

I’m going to quote from some comments I wrote on a Buzz thread yesterday, about real names and accountability.:

Accountable doesn’t actually mean that you go round to their house or harass them in real life because they said something you don’t like on an internet forum in this case. But it also means something other than ‘your account could be banned’ — which actually is the only accountability which will effectively stop someone repeating the behaviour.

It’s psychological magical thinking (I include this with placebos as things that have been shown to sometimes work but with no deep understanding as to why) that says people FEEL more accountable when they post under their legal RL name. It’s the reputation that’s accountable and the fact that people who know you iRL and can connect you with the forum poster will recognise it.

Now the way I see it, on an established online community, people will have built up those sorts of social ties and recognitions on a virtual name. Or else they’ll be trying to build respect for a virtual name, which will keep them trying to impress the rest of the board. (sort of, in theory). In fact, joining a new community (eg. starting a blog) and building up a reputation is one of the harmless and fun parts of community type games anyway, I think. For example, a lot of well known WoW bloggers and writers built up their reputations on the official boards. (People like Ming, Ciderhelm, etc.) This why people talk about pseudonymity rather than anonymity.

I actually suspect on a gaming board, a high proportion of the community would be impressed by really good flames. (This is the same portion of the community that spout sexist, racist, flamey comments on facebook where their real name is available, but they know that their mates find it amusing.) But at the same time, a lot of good posters will be dissuaded because they simply don’t want their RL friends/ employer/etc to know that they’re involved with gaming. And this is quite aside from actual real life risks to people from being stalked or enlisted to fulfill the RL wishes of needy or manipulative posters. And I haven’t even started talking about people with young kids they’d like to protect.

So it’s not so much the legal name itself, it’s the notion of being accountable to the community of people who know you outside that bboard. And – yes — using that to skip the tedious process of having to actually win respect via what you say and do on the forums. And as I say, I don’t think just using real names would fix the broken parts of gaming culture, whereas it definitely would make a lot of non-troll people more reluctant to comment and put some of them at genuine risk.

The problem of a toxic gaming culture

Gaming culture can be horrible. Really nasty. You don’t have to go far in a game like WoW to find racist, sexist, stupid, nasty, abusive, personal comments. I would never use xbox live, for example. I can handle nasty comments in text far better that people being arsey via voicechat. So I am sympathetic to anyone who shuns MMOs because of that concern.

And that’s a big problem for online gaming. In fact, it may be the biggest problem of all. It puts a shedload of people off, and with good reason. The Blizzard forums are honestly the tip of the iceberg, and also contain a lot of redeeming sides and genuinely helpful guides and posters.

We need to tackle this. Devs need to tackle this. But as players, we clearly haven’t been able to do it. And I don’t believe that Real Names are the magic bullet; they may help, some people who act like arses online may genuinely not want to do so when their real name is attached to it. But many others have legitimate reasons not to want to expose their real names to the selfsame trolls that they’re trying to fight. And for some, building a reputation of a virtual name is a big part of the fun, at least as much as earning xp on the same character in game. (If I was a game designer, this would be the angle I would be looking at.)

The problem of forum manners is soluble. Blizzard is going to try some new ideas such as letting people moderate forum posts up and down (shown to work by sites like slashdot). I personally think they could also look harder at rewarding posters who have earned the respect of the forum (maybe by posting popular guides, or helping to organise the forums or just giving good advice). And at more active moderating.

But the problem of people spouting shit in real time on in-game channels (ie. text or chat) is more difficult. Not totally impossible – we could allow people to ‘moderate’ other players in game. We could even look at designing in-game channels to be far more twitter-like (ie. much more control over who you follow) than basic IRC-alikes.

What do you think? Is using real names the magic bullet?

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32 thoughts on “Are Real Names the magic bullet for cleaning up gaming?

  1. In short, no.

    Let me quote Ysharros from Pasmith’s buzz about a similar topic:

    “Aside from that the RealID move is just a way to integrate into social media and make a ton of money. Calling it “a huge step forward in forum accountability!” is bald-faced spin that wouldn’t have worked anyway. Honest people don’t go around bullying others on forums just because their names are concealed; that works in reverse too.”

    I especially would like to emphasize this is not about the forums, it is a fake argument put forward and it does not even make the forums better. It is a pretty silly argument that clouds the real issue: The money grab by Blizzard that gives a damn about our privacy.

  2. It’s definitely not a magic bullet, but it can be a part of a larger solution. Problem is, much like mercury can be medicine when you treat the right problem with the right dose, it’s usually just toxic.

    Mostly, whether you have real names or not, you still have to put a lot of work into moderation and community building to have a healthy forum community. If the forums are unclean wastelands, then they obviously aren’t safe enough for something like real names yet. Going back to the medical analogy, it’s more dangerous to perform major surgery than not if you haven’t bothered to clean the tools and operating room first.

  3. Real Names on the Internet actually defies the way in which people socialize and manage themselves. You have work friends, and drinking friends, and old college buddies, and family, and gaming friends, and your book club and so on. The Internet is often the great equalizer because, unless religiously protected, it puts all of your stuff on the same level, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Facebook is a mess because it is tedious and difficult to maintain separate groups if you tell each group how to find you online.

    http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2 is worth the time if you haven’t seen it already.

  4. Er, I’d like to start off by saying that I’m certainly not that famous Ming, and in fact wasn’t even aware of his existence before now.

    I do think that real names would have helped to make people on the forums behave, per the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory we’ve all seen. And recall that the real names bit was only part of the planned forum revision, most of which is still happening.

    I think more active moderation right now is financially unviable, i.e. they wouldn’t get enough out of more active moderation to make the money they would have to spend worth it. I imagine that forum moderator must be one of the crappiest jobs at Blizzard, and Wryxian, I believe, has stated that the amount of moderation that went on this week is untenable. So I think is also part of the reason for the planned forum revision: to make it easier to actually moderate as well.

  5. Up/down rating could be used to focus Blizzard’s moderators on habitual offenders.

    It might also be useful to have forum rep tied to some in-game rep (or, at least, the rate you can accumulate the in-game rep).

  6. The issue has always been that the idea of anonmynity on the internet has never been ‘On the Internet there is no class, there is no race, there is no gender’, with online anonmynity helping to preserve that, as you said before.

    Rather it’s been more sort of a hegemonic ‘On the internet everyone is white, male and middle class’ which we takes the place of the above by pretending it is the above, with online anonmynity helping to preserve that. Though if we were to be a bit more glib about it, we’d take take the position that the internet is white, male, middle class and in it’s second year of university’. This is what creates the core culture of the internet. Because there is no ‘other’ you are perpetually free to attack the ‘other’.

    On some level, I think removing anonmynity would help to dispel this idea because names make us aware of the other person as people. On one level, it does remove the idea that everyone is white, male and middle class and you should probably stop acting like it’s true. An awareness of diversity inevitably creates behaviours to compensate and adapat for that diversity. If you’re never forced to confront the fact there are brown people and women on your internet, you will perpetually treat the presence of brown people and women as corner cases, where you can step outside the realm of accepted behaviour.

    There’s also the concept that since usernames do serve to mask the idea of the individual as ‘person’, creating a caricture rather than an individual. People do tend to be more pleasent to People. A person may be an anti-semite in regards to the abstract Jew but they’re going to be a good deal more pleasent to Mrs Goldberg next door.

    Of course, as you said, the internet is kind of a dick and I suspect the actual results would be rocky at best, along with myriad other issues. But there are things there we need to confront.

    The other thing that really does need to be addressed, as Jason touched on, is people need to be aware that the internet is not a secret magic box where everything you say is plunged into the depths of mystery. People really should be careful what they put on there, no matter how man secret names you use.

    • “On the internet everyone is white, male and middle class”

      I would bet good money that only white middle-class male posters think that :)

      But do you not think that allowing (for example) women and brown-skinned posters to choose when they want to reveal that to online friends — something that you just can’t do offline — is empowering?

      • Not really. It’s more that on the internet, normalcy is, even more so in mainstream western culture, is defined as White, Middle Class and Male. Hence the whole Hegemony thing. Even in the arguing the idea of the desire and need to conceal, you’re still defining women and non-white people as something different from the ‘norm’ as it were.

        As to the latter question. Yes and no. It’s problematic. The issue becomes is the ability to control identity more empowering than the fact that identity needs to be concealed is disempowering. It can be argued as empowering on an individual basis, though the same can be said of anyone controlling their identity but taken in a vacum it’s a bit…enh. It serves to reinforce existing notions.

      • I’d argue that since people have all day every day in real life to be in a situation where they don’t have the option to hide their identity, maybe it’s a little harsh to want to take away the one refuge where they can just to make middle class white guys confront their own prejudices.

      • I’ve definitely found in my own life that I’ve tended to “assign” what I think people look like in my head and have some expectations if I’ve not seen a picture of someone. I wouldn’t say that I automatically assume everyone is white and male like me, but I do have some concept of what I think they should look like, even if I’ve not consciously tried to construct a portrait.

        Ultimately, I think the internet is still good for allowing people to make connections when they might not form quite as easily offline. People might be surprised to find that another person doesn’t look like the image in his or her head, but they are probably more likely to interact with a person they might avoid in the offline world. And, perhaps they can learn that a group they have negative feelings towards can still be good people to interact with and start to break down those negative stereotypes.

  7. If WoW was free, made no money from integrating all their platforms into Battle.NET and was not owned by Activision then yes i would’ve thought that this is what Blizzard was going for.

    In reality? You can pull out physchological theories out of your arse all day long, there’s only ONE reason why Blizzard wanted to do this : Money …

    I do not believe for one second that BLizzard actually feels there’s ANY money to be made by “cleaning up gaming” . The porn industry feels the same i’m sure :)

    • Well, so, who would benefit most from a cleaned-up forum? Blizzard itself could have simply continued to leave the forums alone, which wouldn’t have incurred the costs to create the forum revisions they’re currently still planning. And WoW veterans already either are used to the cesspool that the forums are and already know where to get valuable WoW knowledge. So, really, cleaning up the forums would most impact the new WoW players, those players who’ve just started and don’t know where to go for WoW information except for Blizzard’s own website.

      Now, recall the statistics on the number of people who apparently never get past level 10 and the extent of the revisions for Cataclysm. Hmm…

  8. To answer the question: No.

    Peer pressure and prejudice are nasty, but they have no teeth to really stop trolls. Only the admins can really offer repercussions with teeth.

  9. One of the odd things is how far Blizzard have reversed their stance on this. There were many things they could have done to increase (or maintain) levels of social accountability. Back in 2005 WoW players generally behaved and posted better because it took a long time to level and most people had one clear main. Since then
    – faster leveling
    – server transfers
    – name change
    – race change
    – faction change
    – cross- server pugs and bgs
    – easier raid access
    – less hardcore pvp progression (after its peak in 2006)
    These have all broken up server communities and increased players’ abilities to be a jerk then blend with the crowd. There was a point where if you pissed off someone in a top raid guild you might never get to raid again since only 3 or 4 guilds were raiding and we all got on and shared information.

    I organised a lot of pugs and used /ignore to filter people I didn’t want to invite again. There was a limit of 25. When I asked about this Vaneras told the forum that it was intended that players shouldn’t be too accountable.

    Changing direction so radically, and so obviously as a cash grab destroys a lot of the confidence players have built up in Blizzard.

    MUD pioneer Randy Farmer explains in some detail why exactly the strategy tried by Blizzard was flawed:
    http://habitatchronicles.com/2010/07/realid-and-wow-forums-classic-identity-design-mistake/
    It’s perhaps best summed up as:
    “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” (RealID is effectively censorship since it suppresses the views of players uncomfortable with releasing their names).

    • Lol, Stabs…I doubt more hardcore raiding will stop strolling. Since I know back in TBC where raiding was highly exclusive, most of the trolling was done by hardcore nutters belittling everyone else (least in North American Forums). It’s more likely there’s more players now then was in 2005….thus more asshats in the mix to stir up trouble.

      To answere Spink’s question; I doubt it…since trolling will shift away from the Forums into more dangerous and destructive paths. For potential example, that dude I told he’s full of it last week is now sitting in my kitchen eating my icecream uninvited. And that’s only a tip of the iceburge what one can do with one’s real name if they didn’t like what you said.

      Probably using a master name/handle on an account would bring more accountability to the player since it’s easier to link his/her lv 1 alt to his/her main. Though I would caution even that how that’s implemented.

      • I think what people may miss is that it’s possible for forums to be quite unfriendly even without trolling. Elitists can still find non-bannable ways to be mean to casuals, for example unless you have EJ levels of moderation. (Can you imagine official forums with a ‘no whining’ rule, though? :) )

      • Yes.

        Yes, I can.

        I imagine it’d be a lot like one of those ‘After the Humans’ documentaries.

      • A “no whining rule” is certainly much better than forcing us to use our real name to post. :)

      • @ Utakata I think it varied from server to server. On my server someone who was notorious as a ninja or a really horrible person would get blacklisted from every decent raid guild.

  10. Spinks, in response to your query, inasmuch as I would like it be so, there is no magic pill to clean up gaming. Just as there is no magic pill to clean up crime, politics, , etc. I think what really needs to be asked is who is responsible for maintaining the “public peace” as it were. Unfortunately, there is always going to be people that are “bad” (in this context I’ll assume that we can all generally agree to who these people are and stay away from the causes of that behavior). For whatever reason, some people just lack the ability to civily interact with others – whether anonymously or not. Ultimately, how are those”bad” people stopped? Well, in real life we have public policy and police to try to nip that behavior in the bud. Yes, “bad” people still run around doing their “bad” things, but for the most part we all tend to co-exist with one another. In the case of internet forums/gaming, specifically Blizzard’s in this case, they allowed the inmates to take over the asylum. And, unfortunately, in my opinion nothing short of recreating a “safer” place by strict enforcement of Blizz policies by moderators/gms will ever change that around. It is they that must decide what they will tolerate and what is not acceptable and enforce the rules to the harshest degree possible.

    • “I think what really needs to be asked is who is responsible for maintaining the “public peace” as it were”

      Now that is a very good question.

      • Along with the corollary that whomever ultimately *is* placed in charge needs to have some level of enforcement power… beyond countertrolling and shunning.

  11. The reduced anonymity -> better behavior is pretty well understood in psychology. Most people will act better with their names attached. Most people acting better is not all people acting like perfect angels, though. It’s pretty much how you called it in your post: a help, but not a silver bullet.

    Whether that better behavior is worth the privacy cost is another discussion entirely, and I think the internet (me included) pretty much all agree that it isn’t.

  12. I think you answered it yourself.

    Why would real names matter when it’s been shown that actually hearing another’s voice doesn’t stop abusive behavior? Isn’t it much less distance when you can hear a person instead of just see text? Yet Live is horrid.

    I don’t think any solution exists.

  13. Forcing people to post under an account-wide pseudonym rather than a character-specific name would achieve exactly the same accountability as having real names displayed, but without any of the potential real life backlash.

    Why has no one suggested this to Blizzard? Why has no one on the blogosphere actually mentioned this yet? Its staggeringly simple.

    It may not achieve the goal of calming down the forums, but it wouldn’t do any worse than Real ID would have done.

    • I’m pretty sure that nearly everyone suggested this to Blizzard, practically every blogger has mentioned it, and is ultimately what Blizzard decided to do when they backed off the real names.

  14. Fascinating thread. This is starting to make some more sense now.

    I had never realised, but I do instinctively personify everyone I meet online as a young, white, male, gamer.

    I don’t think it’s even psychologically possible for me to interact with a blank slate, I must personify the pseudonym. This happens every single time. Female avatars have no effect on this but occasionally the typing style or tone may lead me to assume maybe a older, younger or occasionally a female player.

    It only ever changes as details emerge, when this happens the dynamic shifts instantly, but until then it’s all ‘lol, gief epix plx’.

    Only I have probably confirmed the gender, age, status of about 10% of the folks I met online. So I’m really treating a huge community of people as young male gamers for lack information. And there is no failure-feedback as they just assume I’m talking like this because I’m a young male gamer and usually reciprocate the style so it self-perpetuates.

    Comment is long so I’ll skip any conclusions at this stage but the epiphany is interesting anyway.

  15. It’s a frustrating position to be in. On the one hand, forcing people to post using their real names gives them a level of accountablity and removed the anonymity that breeds trolling.

    On the other hand, most people just don’t like hearing opinions that differ from their own. Regardless of the validity of that opinion, some people would still see that as trolling. If there’s a real name associated with that “troll”, well that’s when people start getting stalked or harassed.

    Now that the Real ID change isn’t going through on the official forum, we’ll see how serious Blizzard is about cleaning the place up. Unless there’s a very tight leash put on, by way of heavy moderation (which Blizz is apparently unwilling to do), their forums are never going to live up to their potential.

  16. I understand your opinion in the last paragraph in bold, but I actually think it’s more to deter the people from within that uses the boards.

    With a RealId, we can tell who is the person putting up both bad or good posts. We can tell who likes to flame, complain and are very vocal. RealId would prevent users from having multiple accounts who comment on their own post to sound like they have a compelling argument, when it’s actually a very small minority (not that the small minority ought to be ignored). Its unfortunate in some ways that the internet is so powerful that with an actual name, we can get untold amounts of personal information on that person (as we may have seen on other people’s entries).

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