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The title for this week’s column is, of course, a reference to the theme song for beloved 80s sitcom Cheers. In the context of the show, a place “where everybody [knew] your name” was a good thing – it was a place where you could go and feel at home; it was a place where people greeted your arrival with “Norm!” (assuming you were, in fact, Norm). Wouldn’t you like to go where everybody knows your name?

Not if that place is the Battle.net forums, judging by the massive backlash to Blizzard’s plans to require users to post under their real names once StarCraft II and WoW: Cataclysm were on shelves.

For this column, I had planned to write a comprehensive, balanced look at the pros and cons of the issue in order to reflect my wholly mixed feelings on the matter, but then Blizzard pulled the rug out from under me and canceled its plans. Whoops. But even if this particular instance is (mostly) no longer an issue, it’s still worth looking at the underlying causes of the change – and the outrage over it.

The anonymity of the internet has always been both its blessing and its curse. Parents are constantly bombarded with reminders that their daughter’s 12-year-old new best-e-friend could be a 40-year-old sexual predator. Without meeting the people on the other side of this series of tubes face to face, we have no way of knowing if what they say about themselves is true. On the other hand, it’s liberating in that we can present ourselves however we want. If we aren’t confident in our day-to-day lives, we can be outspoken behind our internet veils. The internet itself is every bit as escapist as the games we play.

And for better or worse, it allows us to escape our responsibilities – and escape any repercussions for our actions. With great anonymity comes great potential to misuse that anonymity: When nobody knows who you are, you can say whatever you want or do whatever you want free of consequences.

This is what Blizzard was trying to address with its decision to require the use of its real-name RealID service in order to post on its forums. It was an idea borne from a good place; it’s no secret that the WoW forums have a reputation as a bit of a cesspool, and if you’ve ever spent any time there you’ve found that the reputation isn’t undeserved. Trolls, hostility, and a septic nastiness pervade the entire place, making it very unwelcoming for someone who is honestly just looking for a bit of help.

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If somebody is held accountable for the things they say, the idea goes, they might think twice before being so caustic. Even if you don’t put much faith in studies that show that discourse becomes increasingly polite with increasing levels of accountability, all we need to do is look at the internet to see it in action. On the one hand, 4chan has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nastiest places on the internet, in no small part due to its complete anonymity. On the other extreme lies sites like GI.biz, which require full names and credentials in order to post – and the resulting discussion is much slower, but thoughtful, well-reasoned and cordial.

Between the two extremes lies the entire rest of the internet, where the driving force is pseudonymity rather than anonymity – you know, sites like the one you’re reading right now. There is a greater sense of community and identity – and more civility – than in a completely anonymous world, but it’s still far from a world with consequences and accountability. You can say something to get a rise out of people, switch nicknames, and escape any real sense of having to own your words. A determined jerk can never once have to deal with repercussions for his actions, because there won’t be any.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were, though? Accountability isn’t a bad thing in itself. So much of the juvenile and caustic behavior that is so often (unfortunately) associated with the internet and gaming stems from the fact that people can get away with doing it. If you’re on a gaming forum like this one, it’s a good bet that you’ve complained (or read complaints) about, for instance, the Xbox Live community. Think about every hateful teenager you’ve ever met on Xbox Live spewing derogatory trash into your ear, knowing that nobody will ever connect his screaming about “f*ggot n*ggers camping the spawn” with the real person saying them, because he is and will always be TokeNFrag420, not Jimmy McKenzie.

Now imagine if every single one of those people knew that whatever they’d be saying would be forever linked to their real-life identity. Friends and family who searched for their names in Google would see their names linked to racist, sexist, and homophobic bile. Taking the anonymity out of Penny Arcade‘s famous theory just leaves you with a normal person and an audience.

Blizzard’s RealID policy on its forums would have almost certainly improved the level of discourse and neutered the rampant idiocy that makes it so difficult to actually have a serious and nuanced conversation there. But at what cost?

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Some of the reactions to the RealID announcement were certainly little better than fearmongering – some people would have you believe that simply posting on the new B.net forums will get you and everyone you love murdered – but certainly not all of it was. An excellent post on Metafilter outlined the potential problems with the change. Just because you’re playing by the rules doesn’t mean everybody else is.

Was there a danger involved? Absolutely, and people who value their privacy on the internet were right to be upset. I write, post, and blog under my real name, but not everybody is okay with doing the same thing – and I’m certainly not about to force them to do so, either. Women who don’t want to be stalked, minorities who don’t want to have to deal with hateful bigots – there are very real reasons to want to keep your identity a secret in the millions-strong WoW playerbase.

But I can’t help but also feel that many of these problems are just exacerbated by the very anonymity that people are using to protect themselves. If Katie gets harassed by some creeper who keeps hopping onto different alt characters to /whisper her, what happens when the creeper learns that everybody – including all of Katie’s friends – can see his main character and his real name? Is the little joy he gets out of bothering her worth spending the rest of his WoW life getting harassed in return? Probably not.

Unfortunately, as long as people are able to opt out – as they were with RealID – it’ll always be skewed. As nice as it would be to force people to own what they say and take accountability for their words and actions, the anonymous will always be able to take an unfair advantage as long as the option exists. If Blizzard forced all of its customers to forever use their real names, it might even the playing field within its games – but then what about all of the people who’ve never bought a Blizzard game, and who could see the real names and the posts just the same? They get all of the potentially-sinister benefits without any of the consequences.

Unless you’re forcing everyone into the sunlight – like, by something extreme such as government-mandated online IDs or what have you – then people were right to be wary. In a way, it’s almost a shame that Blizzard changed its mind because it would have been such an interesting experiment … but unless everyone is held personally accountable for their words actions, you can’t force anyone to be the same.

John Funk used to write under an online handle, but it was a really obvious one.

Doraleous and Associates on WoW This Thursday

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