Boston, the Harvard Faculty Club, a snowy morning in February. About 30 technologists, encryption experts, academics and corporate execs, plus a handful of journalists, sit facing each other around a long horseshoe arrangement of tables. The assembled luminaries include leading developers from IBM, Microsoft and Mozilla, not to mention former FCC commissioner Reed Hundt; Esther Dyson, the founding chair of ICANN; Marc Rotenburg, president of EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center; and Doc Searls, editor of Linux Journal and an author of the Cluetrain Manifesto.
It's cold outside, but the faculty club has laid out coffee and pastries for breakfast. It's a good thing, too, since it's going to be a long two days here, talking out the issues, approaches and possible solutions to the problem of how we create identities on the internet and, once created, how we keep them safe. Phishing, stalking, secure desktops, one-way hashes, World of Warcraft and the Department of Homeland Security will all come up over the next 48 hours. It's pretty obvious nothing's actually going to be solved in this room, but it's an impressive collection of talent nonetheless. What does it have to do with the future of online games and virtual worlds? Quite possibly, everything.
One of the best things about the internet, in the minds of many people, is the anonymity it affords. For gamers, that anonymity comes into play nowhere more than in massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds, where the disconnect between our physical and digital selves gives us a chance to take on new roles and experiment with different aspects of the combined persona that bridges the gap between the two realms.
But that anonymity can also be one of the internet's great drawbacks. Freed from accountability for their actions, some players seek to experiment with the more annoying sides of their online identities, becoming in-game griefers or forum trolls. On a more serious level, some use the protection of the screen to pull off scams that can cost unsuspecting players real money, or to stalk other players online (and sometimes offline as well). And for those honest virtual businessmen out there, anonymity can sometimes make it difficult to build the kind of solid reputation of trust that any smart customer looks for.
Finding solutions to the problems of online anonymity will be important, especially as more and more people find ways to do things in online worlds that have a deep and real impact on their own and others' offline lives. But retaining the advantages of an anonymous medium is important, as well. The question, then, is how to split the difference. How can I convince you I am who I say I am in a digital context, while at the same time protecting myself from prying eyes, and giving others the chance to maintain the cloak of anonymity some find so crucial to their online lives? Who am I, anyway?
No matter what kind of online existence you have, these issues should already be important to you. Even if all you do online is pay your bills, you want to know you're not giving your credit card number to a phishing site, and you probably want to know the government isn't harvesting data about what kind of purchases you're making. If those purchases include buying World of Warcraft gold on eBay, though, you've got another problem. How do you know the guy with eBay handle WoWSalez0r really is the in-world character he claims to be? And, if you've got a more complex virtual business venture in mind, like one of the investment banks that spring up every so often in Second Life or EVE Online - ventures that can mean real money for both their executives and investors - how can you convince potential customers you can be trusted with their money? In the real world, you may be a person of high standing and accomplishment, but in the context of cyberspace, you're just another toon.