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.