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?