Battle to preserve online anonymity rages in video game community

How a World of Warcraft incident highlights the need for new rules

Breaching the 'magic circle': How a World of Warcraft incident highlights the need for new rules

A screen shot from the latest 'World of Warcraft' expansion, 'Wrath of the Lich King.' ((Courtesy of Blizzard))

Micah Whipple may not be a familiar name to the online masses, but in the World of Warcraft sphere, there's no greater symbol of the need for privacy.

The young man became a scapegoat for gamer outrage earlier this year when the owner of the massive multiplayer game announced it would require users to post their real names in official forums. The stated reason for the dramatic change: to oust "trolls" who were disrupting the chatrooms.

A community manager who interacts with players, Whipple decided to show support for the new company policy and wrote a short post under his forum moniker, Bashiok, that revealed his true name. "Micah Whipple, at your service," it said.

The reaction was furious and swift. Forum users combined their amateur sleuthing powers to find and share as much information as they could glean online about "Micah Whipple," including personal Photobucket pictures, links to a Facebook page plus information gleaned from it, a Twitter account and the apparent phone number of his mother's house where he was living.

This picture, apparently of Micah Whipple, circulated in forums and blogs in the weeks following backlash against Blizzard. ((Photobucket))

Not long after, World of Warcraft owner, Blizzard Entertainment, beat a hasty retreat on the policy — and Micah Whipple receded into publicly inaccessible corners of the internet.

The phone number, listed repeatedly in forums and on blogs, was disconnected. Whipple's Facebook page adopted strict privacy settings.

And the Whipple online trail dried up. Attempts by the CBC to reach Whipple were unsuccessful. Blizzard says community managers are not available for press interviews.

However, his story — no doubt partly as imagined by the posters as the fantastical realms of the virtual WOW world — continues to make the rounds on blogs and forums alike, as commentators cheer the collective victory of users over the company. 

'A cultural misstep'

What remains also are questions about why a company owning an online game where users are among the most highly protective of their privacy would dare suggest they give up the prized right — and whether it could happen again to gamers or even other online communities.

"I think they were not thinking like gamers," says Sidney Eve Matrix, a film and media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who studies cyberculture. "They know the culture requires to some extent an online persona. … It was a cultural misstep, really."

About 11 million subscribers to World of Warcraft — equivalent to the population of a small country such as the Czech Republic — from around the world converge in its virtual, mythic space, making it the most popular massive multi-player online role-playing game, known as MMORPG for short.

But despite the large population, MMORPG players, more so than members of almost any online community, expect their identities to remain hidden, largely due to the social stigma attached to playing such games — but also for fear of real-world retribution for World of Warcraft -realm actions.

Some experts theorize that Blizzard may have had some commercial interest at stake. "These things are usually not motivated by altruistic reasons," says Matrix.

Blizzard denies there was any ulterior motive.

"The idea behind having players use their real names in our forums was driven 100 per cent by our desire to promote constructive conversations and improve the overall forum experience for our players," said Blizzard spokesman Bob Colayco.

Above all, Matrix says the incident highlights the ongoing battle the public has to engage in to preserve anonymity on the internet.

"We're getting impatient with online sites that are encouraging us to divulge more personal information than we’re comfortable with," says Matrix. "That's why Facebook is always in hot water."

Privacy rights changing

For Suzanne de Castell, an education professor at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University who has been closely watching the case, the incident highlights an increasing number of battles between multinational companies and the public over who controls the right to reveal personal information.

Real ID

Though Blizzard Entertainment quickly reversed plans to force forum users to reveal their true identities, the so-called Real ID program that the bungled change fell under included other policy changes that have since gone through.

Blizzard says players posting on forums using real names was just "one small part of a larger initiative to raise the level of discourse and make our forums a more welcoming place for players to talk about our games." The company is pushing ahead with other plans.

Under Real ID, users now have the option to communicate with their friends using their real names while playing Blizzard games. They can chat across games and realms.

"The whole issue is that people are paying to play and they have a certain [expectation] that their rights will be protected. But the game companies are the actual bosses. They can do whatever they want. And that is an odd thing in terms of rights," says de Castell.

De Castell has been studying the Real ID incident as part of her broader research on privacy and end-user licensing agreements for software or virtual games. She says users of many online sites don't realize how many rights they sign away when they click on the "I agree" button for user contracts — and companies may bank on that fact.

"As soon as you sign in to the game, you have to agree. Everybody knows you're not going to read these things. They continue to use these things as a medium to legal rights insurance. But it's only protecting the companies. It's not protecting the players," says de Castell.

De Castell argues that such user agreements are like forced consent because the form appears after you've already invested time in the process and your agreement is necessary as a condition of moving forward.

"We've got a media shift, but that hasn’t been matched with ways we conduct things legally," says De Castell.

In her preliminary research on the topic, none of the surveyed users of virtual games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life had fully read the terms of agreement and only a few had read any of it.

Privacy rules

Though privacy rights aren't enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada does have legislation governing the federal and commercial use of private data. Businesses can only disclose personal information for the purpose that consent was given. And if consent was given, the purpose must be what the user would consider appropriate.

In the end, though privacy has been declared dead by some, many companies ultimately realize that good privacy is good business.

Stephen Downes, senior research officer at the National Research Council of Canada, suggests that the only way to people will move toward revealing their identities online is if it is to their own advantage.

"Naming yourself clearly, that will become common when there is some benefit for the person who is posting that identity online."

For now, the benefit for WOW players is solidly on the side of maintaining a protected virtual space — and it will likely stay that way indefinitely.

De Castell says play of all sorts is meant to exist in a "magic circle," a classic notion older than digital media but no less applicable.

The term coined was in the early 1900s by Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga, who declared that play to be truly creative and free must happen in a space — whether it's conceptual or physical — that is protected.

Though the virtual world can sometimes be quite porous, allowing a mingling of real and virtual worlds, players have come to expect a certain amount of safety in the confines of their game. That trust was broken when Blizzard announced its Real ID plan.

"It's supposed to be a game," says de Castell. "And a game is supposed to be relatively insulated from the rules and norms of everyday life. And when that is breached, it's not a game anymore."