Enter at Your Own Rift: Revisiting anonymity in our games

Rift Ascended
It seems like ages ago, but back in July of 2010, Blizzard shook the MMO world with the announcement of RealID. You probably recall the firestorm, but the long and short of it is that Blizzard was planning to make all posts in the forums display each poster's real-life first and last name. The protests against it were so loud that Blizzard backed down from the move and life resumed as usual.

The intend was to integrate social media into Blizzard games, particularly Facebook, but it became a huge can of worms because it forced everyone who wanted to post on the forums to reveal their true names. But social media is continuing to grow, and there are lots of ways that game companies have made use of it. In this week's Enter at Your Own Rift, let's look at Trion's approach and revisit the idea of anonymity in MMOs.

RIFTbook

If you head to the RIFT forums, the first thing you'll see along the way (if you are logged into Facebook) is a listing of all of your friends who also like the game. Enter the forum and you can see others "like" your post, and you can also "friend" other forum posters. In addition, with RIFTconnect, you can auto-Tweet and post your in-game achievements to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Trion is certainly not the only company to make its game site more social-media-friendly, but it's clear that when it launched, Trion wanted to integrate that as much as possible from the get-go.

Removing the mask

Oddly, another recent development has got me rethinking whether or not it's better to keep the veil of anonymity. A couple of months ago, a new Facebook group was formed for old EverQuest players from the Prexus server, my home away from home. The community there was so close that you could pretty much identify someone in game just by his appearance, without having to even glance at his name tag or guild affiliation. Our server was also a hotbed of contentious arguments and drama of epic proportions, and each day we'd bust out the knives and hash out the events of the night before. Amazingly, the creation of this new Facebook group has attracted hundreds of old-guard Prexians, and the experience has been a cross between a curtain-call and a high-school reunion. We've played catch up, and at the same time, we've put a face to the name. (Oh, so you're the one who played the trouble-making lizard Monk!)

Perhaps it's the distance of time, but there hasn't been any indication of lingering bad blood or clashes between those who have joined the group, and that's saying a lot because many of our forum threads became personal. It makes me wonder what it would have been like had we all known each other a decade ago when we were playing. We probably would have seen better behavior overall, but then again, part of the nostalgia of EQ came directly from the type of player contact that would not have been possible without that avatar to cloak ourselves with.

Life Rift
It's just not cool -- yet

I'm much more accepting of removing anonymity these days, but there are still three big areas that need to be addressed before that veil can be fully lifted. The first is that MMO gaming is still not socially accepted. Sure, it's come a long way, but there are still plenty of companies that would hesitate to hire you if you said you played World of Warcraft (or any other MMO recognizable to non-gamers). As a former teacher, I would not want my students to know I played MMOs in my spare time. The thought of being endlessly griefed for handing out a C- or (at the other end of the spectrum) being followed by a classroom-sized horde as I try to quietly solo in game is not an appealing thought.

The second cause for caution is that the internet is still the Wild West, and while community managers and forum moderators have made internet forums a much more family-friendly place to post, they can still get contentious. The more anti-social, antagonistic posters sometimes have gone as far as to reveal a player's real-life name, address, and other identification in an attempt to harass those whom they don't agree with. Free discussion shouldn't come with such risk of exposure, and until things mellow out a bit more, anonymity should be a choice.

Lastly, there is the roleplaying aspect. I don't consider myself a roleplayer, but I know that I was definitely more into character when my guildmates knew me only as my avatar. I still joke from time to time about being a little scrappy fighter who refuses to wear pink bows, but it's different because everyone knows me as Karen rather than as my character name. For roleplayers, I would think it would be a lot harder to get into the spirit of things and look past it if they knew Fiona the wise and beautiful Justicar was really Gus the truck driver and local beer-guzzling champion.

In any event, what Trion has done so far is a nice step in the right direction. Trion's tool allows players to link their real-life backgrounds with that of their friends, but at the same time, it gives them control over whether to maintain that anonymity with others or not. With features like RIFTconnect and the recent mobile apps, it's clear that RIFT not only acknowledges the importance of social media but finds the balance between making it useful and keeping it optional. MMOs in general are a lot less anonymous than they were in the past, but things are not quite to the point that that veil of anonymity can be lifted completely, and we might actually be better off that way.

Whether she's keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan saves Telara on a biweekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, the column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen for questions, comments, and adulation.
This article was originally published on Massively.