In the time since I last posted about STARCRAFT II: WINGS OF LIBERTY, my most anticipated game of the year, the beta has been taken offline and brought back for a final brief round of testing, an actual release date has been announced (July 27th), and developer Blizzard Entertainment has announced and swiftly retracted plans to force all users to display their real first and last name when posting on their forums. The whole thing seems rather moot now that Blizzard has climbed down in the face of an outpouring of public wrath, but I’d like to say a few words about it anyway since it touches on a pertinent subject that I don’t believe I’ve ever brought up on this site: privacy.

As you’ve probably noticed, my real name is visible on this site, as is a picture of my face. Anyone who has met me in real life would have no trouble connecting the site to me if they came across it, and those who know me at all could probably do so even without the headshot, given that the site makes clear what my hobbies are. I personally don’t have a problem with this: I could easily post anonymously, giving away nothing personal about myself, but I’ve chosen not to hide behind a veil of secrecy. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why, as I don’t really have anything in particular to gain from letting the whole world know that I’m a heterosexual white male in my twenties from Glasgow with fairly left-leaning libertarian political views and an addiction to Pepsi Max. Then again, I don’t really think I have anything to fear either. While I have clearly defined views that not everyone is going to agree with, I don’t consider any of them to be particularly outrageous or likely to cause widespread offence. Dig into the past and you’ll probably find that I was at one point a whole lot more blunt and antagonistic, but these days I prefer to take a stance of not saying anything to anyone that I wouldn’t happily repeat to their face. (I have been guilty of lapses in the past. For instance, in my BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER reviews, I got pretty accusatory about who I personally held responsible for the episodes and creative decisions I didn’t like. I doubt I would make the same mistake today.) Larger entitles, such as DVD and BD publishers, are a whole other matter: if I’m not happy about something, I’ll make no bones about it, but I always do my best to stop short of blaming and/or attacking individuals.

Other people, however, are a lot more cagey about their identities - and rightly so. If, for example, you’re a gay rights blogger living in Iran, chances are you don’t want to broadcast your name, location and face for all to see. Other people, for whom the threat of their identity being discovered is far less life-threatening, can also have valid reasons for not revealing who they really are. Perhaps you don’t want the teenagers on Xbox Live to know you’re a screaming homosexual, or maybe you don’t want the company you work for to know that you’ve bad-mouthing it online (see the Bastardstones scandal). Or perhaps you simply want to keep your online and offline personas separate, for no other reason than that’s the way you like it. That’s entirely right and proper. I personally have no problem telling people I run a web site that reviews the image quality of BD releases, but I understand that not only are there valid reasons for remaining anonymous online: you shouldn’t NEED a reason.

Which brings us on to Blizzard’s forums and their plans to lift the veil of secrecy, revealing the real names of everyone posting there. Barring a couple of posts I’ve made in the STARCRAFT II beta technical support section, I haven’t personally been active on the forums for years. They were a hive of spam, insults and general stupidity when I last used them circa 2002, and while the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, they still have problems. The logic of the so-called “Real ID”, according to Blizzard, was to facilitate better conduct. It might very well have worked. In the past, I’ve posted on a couple of forums that have required real names rather than nicknames, and have found them to be very civilised. However, that didn’t stop one instance of a nasty little shit finding his way to this site and being very uncivilised to me via the comments function. (He never admitted it was him, but his distinctively dreadful grammar and punctuation gave him away.) He dicked around for a couple of days before I eventually blocked his IP address after he made some thinly veiled threat to the tune of knowing where I lived and that he wasn’t a million miles away from me. I haven’t heard from him since. However, I know from my hosting provider’s log that, for a number of weeks, he continued to visit my site with a frequency that bordered on obsessiveness.

I suspect the individual in question was simply a dickhead and an attention-seeker with nothing better to do, but it serves as a good example of the sort of thing you’re setting yourself up for when you create an online presence. You can understand, therefore, why so many people were up in arms over Blizzard’s Real ID plans. I won’t regurgitate all the arguments here, but one of the most persuasive demonstrations of how bad an idea this could be comes in the form of this screenshot of a forum discussion relating to the announcement. Fair enough if you create a forum that requires users to display their real name AND make this clear from the outset. That way, people who don’t feel comfortable revealing their true identity can simply look elsewhere for their forum fix. However, to apply it retroactively to a board on which people were previously able to hide behind nicknames, and to essentially tell players “you won’t get online technical support for our games unless you consent to your identity being broadcast to the whole world”, is a step too far.

To Blizzard’s credit, they climbed down pretty quickly when they realised just how negatively Real ID had been received. The company’s president, Mike Morhaime, wrote a direct letter to the players. They didn’t have to do this. In spite of the unprecedented backlash, they would have continued to rake in massive quantities of cash per month from WORLD OF WARCRAFT subscriptions. The fact that they actually paid attention to public feedback and reacted accordingly in my opinion puts them several steps above the likes of EA and UbiSoft, who have ridden roughshod over their customers with excessive and unpopular DRM schemes. The sinking of Real ID is people power at its finest and proof that not all rich corporations are completely deaf to their customers’ concerns. (Of course, the fact that one forum member demonstrated the folly of the system by Googling the real name of one of Blizzard’s forum representatives and, within a few minutes, providing links to his Facebook and Twitter accounts, home address, a satellite photo of said address, phone number and the names of some of his family members, may have been a contributing factor too. Because I’m not a fan of that sort of invasion of privacy, I won’t be linking to any of it here.)

Still, though, the above may give you pause for thought next time you choose a user name when signing up to the official goat porn message board.