I am a gamer. I openly admit this to anyone, as I am quite passionate about my hobby and excitedly follow the play-style and design trends that permeate this often misunderstood culture. I have played a little bit of everything, dating back to the early 90s; obscure 8-bit NES titles, pre-GUI text adventures, modern first person shooters, Jap-RPGS…you name it. I was even heavily involved in the poorly understood Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i) movement of the late 90s, but that is fodder for another post.
I love to discuss gaming, whether it be the nuances of game design philosophy, overarching lore that hearkens back to some of my favorite literature, or sharing stories of the sheer fun and challenge of playing against people online. I’m pretty much always up for a gaming conversation, assuming the present company is equally interested, or noticeably tolerable. But my favorite thing to discuss is the societal trends of gaming and the industries impact on how we socialize and entertain ourselves. I will defend gaming as a legitimate hobby until the day I can no longer accurately use WASD.
Gaming from its onset, was solitary. Early consoles required you sit within a cords-distance of your TV. Games were designed with one, possibly two, gamers in mind. The term “single-player” did not exist, only “one-player” or “two player”. But as technology became more sophisticated, it became easier to include more than just a few gamers. Arcades allowed up to 4, 6, 8 players at once, which led the industry towards a social gaming movement. Remembering the 6-person X-Men arcade game of the late 90s (Colossus was my favorite), it was not difficult to see that the future of gaming involved multiple people playing simultaneously.
Our modern systems have embodied this idea perfectly. The Wii is social gaming at its very finest. In fact, the “single-player” component of the Wii is severely lacking. Even the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 heavily rely on multi-player gaming, assuming the majority of players seek human interaction in their gameplay. Not even PC gamers are safe; MMOs have taken over the RPG market with only BethesdaWorks titles like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout 3 holding it down for the single-player crowd.
This is not necessarily bad. In my college days, I gamed online for arguably unhealthy periods of time. It was my relaxation, my escape from the sometimes boring realities of being a student. I played Starcraft and Diablo 2, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike and most importantly for this discussion: World of Warcraft. I was hardcore; gaming hours every night, raiding with 39 other people, running a section of my “guild” and loving every second of it. WoW was my first foray into the dark, mysterious land of MMOs that I had always figured was not for me.
But I was wrong. Something in the magical combination of story, character development, accessibility, strategy, challenge and social interaction hit every primal and intellectual urge I had ever tried to fill when playing a game. It turned out that the thing missing from all those single-player console RPGs was other people! Traditional RPGs like the the Final Fantasies and Breath of Fires will always hold a special place in my heart, but after a certain point, you want to share your accomplishments with friends; something not so easily done when you have to invite them over to your house to check out your characters.
It also gave me an avenue to stay in touch with some of my closest friends, without the need for awkward “update” phone calls or expensive and lengthy trips. We could hang out, albeit in another alien world. We could work collaboratively towards something exciting and abstractly tangible. We could have all the fun we used to have sitting in someone’s basement in high school, all while dong our own thing as we explored our collegiate careers. It was mainly this aspect that kept me involved. Exciting stories and exotic fantasy lands helped, of course.
I had companies like Blizzard to thank for their beautiful creations. Their creativity let me maintain a social life with those who meant the most to me while subsequently fulfilling my every possible wish for content and playstyle in a video game. I commend them for creating what I could argue is the best video game I have ever played. I am normally one to support their ideas, as they often lead to fresh trends in the gaming industry that other companies can’t help but adopt if they want to stay competitive. Their history of successes is testament enough to their design philosophy, so I do no quickly dismiss public announcements of their new ideas.
RealID at a glance seemed like a brilliant concept. Tie in the “real-life” social aspect of gaming so that players could easily meet up with their friends to play a game. For someone like me, this was incredible. I could see if my friends were playing, and if so, what game, and was even given the tools to communicate with them across platforms to organize a mutual session. If only it had stopped there.
Digital privacy is a sensitive topic, and many social networks take heat for any slight aberration of information sharing policy. Social networking is opt-in, but even people who choose to partake expect some level of data privacy. On sites like Facebook, you can offer as much (or as little) information about yourself as you would like, and even set decently strict parameters about just who can see that information. While your digital security is at risk by posting anything about yourself online, at least social networking sites offer some level of protection.
A recent development suggested that Blizzard would be using RealID in a capacity that no one expected – or more importantly – wanted. Their brilliant plan was to have all official forum posts include an identifying title, to make gamers accountable for their thoughts and language. While tame in theory, the problem entered when they disclosed that the identifying title would be the gamer’s real first and last name. Needless to say, the throngs of nerds were unhappy that their privacy, no matter how minor, was being breached.
The defenders of the idea argued that everyone knows your full name; the government, your employer, your friends and neighbors. They also claimed that many who were upset with the change were hypocrites who embraced other forms of social networking. The main distinction is that social networking sites are generally benign. People are not openly inflammatory for fear of social repercussion, and “dramatic” flame-wars on the likes of Facebook are over esoteric nonsense that has no real impact on the world. Sure, people get divorced and fired due to things said on Facebook, but they openly offered that information and actively allowed it to be associated with their name; they were never forced.
The idea of being forced was the problem with RealID. Many gamers do not wish to associate their everyday existence with something that carries such a social stigma. It is a sad fact that we as a culture are more harsh on gamers and the accompanying alt-lifestyle than we are on the degenerate swarms of morons that clog our TV channels during prime time hours. Steve from finance might not want his coworkers to know that he exists as a powerful mage after hours, just like your project manager might not want to let slip that he too enjoys to unwind in a 3v3 ladder match.
Couple these kind of privacy issues with the intrinsically competitive nature of gaming, and you have a recipe for an article on Fark. Facebook promotes e-stalking, but it rarely invokes enough passion in a person for them to seek physical confrontation with another person. Gaming however, can lead to unbelievable fits of “nerd-rage” (yes, that is exactly what it sounds like) where many already socially damaged individuals could easily lose control over an online loss. Displaying names gives these people an extra resource, should their online bloodlust follow them offline, adding an unnecessary risk for all gamers. The last thing I need is “DeathRogueX” pounding on my front door because in his opinion, I cheated my way to victory in a perfectly legitimate competition.
The above theoretical scenario only needs happen once, to some poor sap, and online gaming would immediately be hit with a wave of uneducated opinions about its safety. It would inescapably become the scapegoat for all things evil, and take even more of the brunt than it currently does as an excuse for adolescent violence. If the above scenario happened to a girl or child, we may see the entire gaming world shift radically; and probably not for the better. It has already happened on smaller scales in other countries, so all it needs is one mainstream US exposure and we all as gamers, take one huge step backwards.
Regardless of these obvious flaws in the plan, the one thing that bothers me is that Blizzard, a flagship of the gaming industry, ignored one very important piece of tradition in gaming culture. Almost everyone I know that is an avid gamer, goes by a handle. Mine for example is “Rumbeard”, but also includes mutations like “Rum” and “Rummy”. Very few people know my actual name, nor I theirs, and this is perfectly acceptable. Handles, tags, aliases and guises are inextricably tied to the basic fun elements of gaming. Some choose to be witty with their names, others edgy, others downright weird. We take pride in our alter-egos and are given a clean slate to be who we want to be, completely separate from who we are. Gamers want that disconnect from the ordinary, it lets them escape and enjoy, in whatever capacity they choose.
Why Blizzard was oblivious to this is seemingly obvious, given their recent deal with Facebook. They did not forget it at all, instead they made a greedy grab for a popular tie-in and attempted to force social networking onto gaming, when almost all gamers did not want it. The two functions are not mutually exclusive despite whatever superficial similarities they might have. The entire world of gaming relies on anonymity, at least from your true earthly identity.
If gamers are comfortable identifying themselves, it should be their choice to do so, not the discretion of the company who makes the game. As seen by the events of the past few weeks, companies will lose massive amounts of players (and in turn money) if they try to so radically change a paradigm that has been around since you could enter the name of your character at the beginning of an RPG. Digital privacy is important, nay paramount, in the gaming culture and to betray that idea is to forcefully shake the foundations of the industry.
Seeing that they decided not to use real names, some of my faith in Blizzard has been restored. My copy of Starcraft II is still pre-ordered and I will still gobble up any details I can about the future projects from Blizzard. I do however hope that this RealID fiasco is enough to prove to companies that they need to listen to their customers. Some of them are warlocks, after all.
This post requires more Vespene Gas.