Anonymity and Blizzard Forums

Earlier this week Blizzard dropped a big AoE by announcing that it was greatly reducing user anonymity on its Starcraft II and World of Warcraft forums. Everybody who posts on those boards will soon have their real first and last names displayed. So Trolly McTrollpants will no longer be able to post under that name …unless that’s what it says on his credit card. Which seems doubtful.

(Update: A few days after making the announcement, Blizzard recanted due to rather loud and displeased reactions from players. They have noted, though, that they still have other plans for changing the behavior of their forum posters.)

Aside from wanting to make Battlenet (the system that handles matchmaking and other socially oriented tasks for players of Blizzard games) more of a social networking tool, the intent of this change seems to be to bail out some pretty nasty bathwater from the forums, even if that means a few smiling babies get tossed, too. Trolls, flames, and vitriol in 48 flavors seem to be a big problem in the official forums. Given WoW’s stupefyingly large player base, the company has too big a community, which is a weird but apparently real problem. I imagine its forum moderators and community managers are overwhelmed and this nuclear option of sharing real names is meant to do two things: 1) reduce the number of people using the forums, and 2) make people be nicer to each other by robbing them of their anonymity. I think it will succeed at both, though it’ll be a bumpy ride.

As I’ve written about before, anonymity has some well known psychological effects. People who feel like less of an individual because they’re an anonymous part of a group may be more likely to look to social cues and the behavior of other group members to determine their own behavior, and this often results in their being antisocial jerks. Reducing anonymity can in turn reduce this kind of behavior and make people a little more likely to be courteous and hold their tongue if that’s how they’d behave in face to face interactions. So I think Blizzard is likely to see results from this. It’ll also be magnified by the number of thoroughly anti-social jerks who withdraw from the forums entirely because they don’t want to risk reprisal for their actions.

(Personally I think they’re making the right move, though it’ll cost them. Also among those leaving will be those who value their anonymity for other reasons –because they’re women who don’t want to deal with other players’ knowing it, because they don’t want others to know about their hobby from a Google search, or because of any other plausible reasons. But I guess that Blizzard has done the social arithmetic and decided that those are acceptable losses in the face of making their forums usable.)

What’s fascinating to me, though, it to wonder how Blizzard might be trying to measure the impact of this decision internally. I mean, technically Blizzard isn’t really doing anything to increase accountability for your posts; they’re just changing the social and psychological context. If I were working there and put in charge of this task, I’d first identify some metrics that would be of interest. Some of them are no brainers, like the number of new posts/replies and new account registrations. But you could get creative, too. You could look at random posts and get measures of how frequently certain words are used, ranging from rude phrases (“stupid” “shut up” “noob” and the like) to curse words and euphemisms for curse words. Maybe you’d want to look at average word count per post, too, since derogatory and pithy one-line replies might be less frequent than more thoughtful replies. There are probably already lots of existing models of verbal aggression out there in the psychology literature that you could draw from to make your predictions.

Once I had those metrics figured out, I’d ideally do a phased rollout of different forums or different regions that would allow me to have a control group under the status quo and an experimental group that gets the Real ID treatment. You could then collect data for a week or a month, then compare the two groups on those metrics. Or, if you just had to do a simultaneous rollout of the changes across the board (pardon the pun) then you could use archival data to do before/after comparisons.

So there you go, Blizzard, if you’re not already doing something along those lines, you should and you should even look to publish it in one of the new academic journals addressing video games and electronic media. People have been hypothesizing about this stuff before, but nobody has ever had a chance to actually test it on this scale. My consulting fee can be paid in purples and epic mounts.

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20 thoughts on “Anonymity and Blizzard Forums

  1. I’m really curious to see where this experiment of theirs goes. I’ve always found online communities (and the civilising of them) to be a fascinating subject

  2. As a rule of thumb, you’ll only get about 10% of your users who even read your official forums. Less who are active posters. That means that a single-digit percent of people are active on the Blizzard forums. Admittedly, WoW has a lot of active users, so they have a lot of people on their site.

    However, the people who post on the forum also tend to be your most passionate players; in the case of an MMO, passion for a game can make people say crazy things. So, by scaring off their board posters, Blizzard is potentially scaring off some of their best customers.

    Others have pointed out that this is likely in pursuit of profit on the part of Activision Blizzard. Social networks make a lot of money mining data for advertisers. A partnership between Activision and Facebook has been announced, so the pushing of RealID is likely an attempt to give context to game playing behavior so it can be properly datamined.

    Some insight from other professionals:

    http://eatingbees.brokentoys.org/2010/07/07/real-names/ – An experienced community manager weighs in on the issue. She fears legal issues.

    http://habitatchronicles.com/2010/07/realid-and-wow-forums-classic-identity-design-mistake/ – An experienced online developer with 35 years of experience in identity and reputation systems. He says it won’t have the results Blizzard wants, and will scare off the few quality posters.

    Me? Let’s just say I’m glad I haven’t played WoW in a while.

  3. Ah but it’s not really about the forums at all. This is part of a long term plan to monetise their player base’s privacy. Games like Farmville make most of their money through lead generation, targeted advertising that allows advertisers to identify, say, thrash metal fans then send adverts to them.

    Google already does it, adverts you see on Google are influenced by your previous search behaviour. Someone who had searched a lot of Christian themes would see a different set of adverts if they typed the word “Eve” than a gamer would.

    It will be a fundamental part of Blizzard’s future business model now that they’ve agreed a deal with Facebook. In addition to selling you games, collecting subs, having one-off cash items like the sparkle pony and server transfers they will now also collect money from marketing people wanting to target their players.

    The current advocacy of being open about your name by Blizzard staff is corporate think. The top management are enthused about it and trying to justify it on broader grounds than “we want extra money” and so it’s become a moral issue, an anti-troll issue. It really isn’t, it’s just a cash grab.

  4. Hmmm… I think you may be missing the forest for the trees on this one. Yes, anonymity has some strong effects on behavior – de-individuation is a powerful tool.

    On the other hand, you ignore the benefits of anonymity completely. Anonymity has allowed a number of people to express themselves without fear of reprisal. Millions of responsible users will leave World of Warcraft under this policy because the exposure of personal information in an online forum is an invasion of privacy.

    Consider Facebook’s decline in its core demographic this quarter. This decline is not the result of market saturation, but because of the real ID program that people felt violated their right to privacy.

    I feel that this entry makes a bogeyman out of anonymity online, without properly considering the flip side of the situation. Anonymity online does not turn WoW into the Stanford Prison Experiment. Lack of privacy, on the other hand, might have severe implications for the legitimate users of that service.

  5. @ Stabs
    Oh yean, part of their reason for donig this is totally the social networking business. But I’m still fascinated by the potential to study what it does to forum behavior.

    @Paul Jenkins
    Great post, though I think the “millions of people will leave” estimate is a bit high unless they extend the policy to the game itself. There are definitely upsides to anonymity, but people will still enjoy them as long as they don’t post on the forums.

    As far as being able to express yourself without fears of reprisal, I can’t help wondering if that’s overblown. Are people going to be randomly attacked or attacked for engaging in normal conversation?

  6. I have been a loyal player for years, and I never post on the forums except to send Blizzard bug reports and the occasional suggestion. I’m seriously considering canceling my account and never playing again if this change goes live.

    What happens when something’s wrong with my game and I need technical support? I’m not allowed to have it unless I pay with my privacy? Sure, the chances of some irrational maniac focusing on you due to normal conversation is low, but all you need is one person and you’ve got a stalker who wants to ruin your life forever. I’m not willing to risk my life and those of my family members to get video game tech support.

    I will still be able to send them bug reports via the in-game ticketing system (which I consider inferior because I can’t search it to see if someone else has already reported that issue) but if they don’t give me easy access to customer service and technical support outside of the forums, I just might find a new game to spend my time on.

    When I made my account, I put my real name on it, because Blizzard assured me through their privacy policy that they would never reveal private information about me. Now, they are deciding that my first and last name is no longer considered private information. I don’t think that’s their choice to make.

    Over the past two days, I have felt a combination of sadness and fear, but mostly a profound sense of betrayal and disappointment. Blizzard was the last company I still believed had some human decency, and my faith in them is severely shaken by this announcement.

  7. It’s worse that than, Kiryn. If you’ve posted on that technical support forum, you’ve now tied your character name to your real name. Perhaps you were on a PvP server and someone tried to gank and you killed them. Now they can google your character and server name and probably find that post you did. Now they have your real name.

  8. “As far as being able to express yourself without fears of reprisal, I can’t help wondering if that’s overblown. Are people going to be randomly attacked or attacked for engaging in normal conversation?”

    There are guilds on WoW dedicated to players who are homosexual or transgender. They have legitimate reasons for desiring anonymity and should not have to surrender that right if they want to post to forums.

    A Blizzard employee, in a misguided show of support, gave his real name on the forums. Within hours he had been forced to go completely dark due to harassment. Of course, this was only after someone else with the same name was harassed first.

    The fact is, those who wish to hide their identity for the more nefarious reasons will still find ways of doing so. This policy will ultimately hurt legitimate users, not the trolls.

    It should also be mentioned that this is not simply about removing trolls from forums. The primary reason for the policy is a deal brokered between Activision/Blizzard and Facebook. A/B is essentially looking for new mechanisms to monetize their player base.

    (This is a big deal primarily because games have long been considered a “privacy zone” by players – due to desire to escape from reality, and their competitive nature.)

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  10. Wait, if the reason the in-game ticketing system is inferior to the forums is that you can’t search them first, what’s to stop you from continuing to search the forum first, and the reporting the ticket in game under the new system? It’s a pretty minimal difference.

    I mean, I don’t like the change either, but quitting the game because you can do basically the exact same thing you can do now is kind of silly?

  11. If Blizzard proceed with this decision then it will definitely be interesting to see how things pan out. I’m not convinced it’s going to have much of a positive affect though and I’d bet we end up seeing a lot more stories about how issues in the game world have spilled into issues in the real world.

    Although I do think it’s interesting that Blizzard want to run this big ol’ social experiment, I just honestly don’t think there’s a real need for it and that it sacrifices too much in the process.

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  13. “Over the past two days, I have felt a combination of sadness and fear, but mostly a profound sense of betrayal and disappointment.”

    MMO addiction is a real thing. If you feel this passionately about it. If this change really instills fear and betrayal in you then I might consider rearranging my priorities. The only way you can vote is with your wallet but WoW is so big that a few hundred thousand subscribers isn’t going to affect anything. Basically you can either:
    a)Not post on the forums ever
    b)Post on the forums and accept the fact
    c)Find another game
    d)Quit MMOs

    But threatening to unsubscribe will mean nothing to them.

  14. Well it’s meant enough that they’ve backed down.

    I think you over-estimate WoW’s numbers. WoW at its peak claimed 11.5 million which counted about 6 million people from China mainly casual players playing in internet cafes and paying by the hour.

    Some of the other zones may also be cheaper than Western Europe and North America. WoW has localisations in Russia and South America.

    Many people have moved on since the launch of Wrath of the Lich King. This is nothing unusual and is simply part of the life cycle of WoW – it peaks when an expansion comes out then dwindles until just before the next expansion.

    So they may have never had more than about 4 million in N America and Western Europe which is where concerns about privacy are strongest and where revenue per head is highest. In fact Morgan Stanley believed they peaked at just under one million: http://stabbedup.blogspot.com/2009/11/wow-new-users-figure-and-its-so-low.html

    So in that context, yes, a few hundred thousand of their more affluent subscribers is rather a lot.

  15. They did say in their press release, “at this time”. So maybe they are just waiting for SC2 and cataclysm to be released. I think they want to be in the public goodbooks so they can get as many preorders as possible.

    Obviously a few hundred thousand unsubscribers would hurt. If you do the maths, its a pretty large number. Well it’d be interesting to see if blizzard brought this idea back in the future.

  16. I think it would have been an interesting experiment (I mean, we could have seen the power of psychological magical thinking – would using real names actually change gamer culture that much?).

    But I think it’d benefit more players in game if they could cut some of the nastiness in general channels and random groups. And yet, no one wants to use their real name in a RPG, that’s rather the point.

  17. Updated the OP to reflect the fact that Blizzard backed down.

    Some great posts in this thread –civil and thoughtful like you all are prone to. After reading many reactions, here and elsewhere I’m torn on the wisdom of the original plan. I still think it would have impacted poster behavior for the better. And I think one of the common misconceptions is that this would have linked your name to your character. That wasn’t ever true AFAIK, so you need not have worried about reprisal from a PvP beating or stalking form within the game. Or that someone would find out that you belong to an all gay or all female guild, for example.

    That said, I think there are some legitimate concerns about losing valuable privacy in the forums, especially around tech support and recruitment. And honestly the biggest fear I’d have (if I were currently a WoW player) would bet that Blizzard would use this as a foot in the door and eventually remove anonymity from WITHIN the games.

    Anyway, we’ll have to see what Blizzard has in store for Plan B.

  18. After thinking about it over the past few days, I’ve realized that it’s the intent of removing anonymity that I agree with, but not the actual method Blizzard tried to use to do it. In other words, I like the idea of making the Internet less anonymous and more accountable, but I don’t particularly agree with the “Real Names” idea.

    Using real names would have been a poor idea, for a number of reasons, unless if they 1) made the forum private (hidden from Google) and 2) had a way to verify someone’s name so that a troll could not use a fake name.

    However, I am a part of a few forums that do use real names and it has worked out very well with minimal or no trolling. But, I must point out these forums are for more mature topics and have more mature people than your typical WoW or MMO forum.

    Also I was curious about the psychological and social aspects of this experiment, though this isn’t the most ethical way to run such an experiment, is it? :)

  19. Interesting food for thought, what if they let you keep your anon id, but you had to type in your real name into a “verifier” box before you posted?

  20. Real ID in WoW and how it may affect you: You have a level 80 Death Knight all geared up and you’re tanking for your guild 3 nights a week. You apply for a day job. Your prospective employer searches for you online: discovers you have maxed out engineering and mining on your death knight… sayonnara new job. :)

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