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Activision Battles 'Trolls', Backs Down on Privacy Fears

Trolls are pretty common in the online game “World of Warcraft.” Unfortunately, they’re pretty common on the game's message boards as well.

World of Warcraft
Courtesy of Activision-Blizzard
World of Warcraft

Trolls, slang for people who haunt Internet forums and rip into other posters for seemingly innocuous statements, tend to ruin the fun for other players, who are sometimes seeking help or looking to start conversations.

Earlier this week, Activision-Blizzard announced its plan to rid the Blizzard forums of these troublemakers;beginning later this month, all posts would be made under users' real names, not their online aliases.

Three days later, though, the company reversed those plans, battered by an onslaught of opposition not just from the troublemakers, but from more courteous players as well.

A large part of the outcry came from players concerned about their privacy. Trolls—on any public forum, including comments on news sites—hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, knowing they can never be held accountable for their comments. Having their name publicly attached to them was not an appealing prospect and they quickly howled.

Others, though, were more worried that anything they wrote on those message boards could be easily found with a Google search—and an off-the-cuff comment made online could have repercussions for them in real-world relationships.

“In a world where employers typically do Google searches for people's names prior to hiring them, this will exclude me from posting since my name is too unique,” said ‘noxiousegg,’ a user discussing the changes on Shacknews.com, another gaming site.

“Even though I'm not a troll, usually, I don't want an employer to render arbitrary judgments based on the content of my posts on a game forum, or worse, on the simple fact that I post at all,” the user also wrote.

Still others were concerned that with access to their real name, other players could dig up additional information about them, including photos, addresses, phone numbers and more. Some female players said they feared harassment.

“Not only do I not want to be petitioned by random people for cyberlovin while I am playing a game, but more importantly I do not want to be a target offline,” wrote user ‘Quira’ in the Blizzard forums.

Preserving the Fantasy

With over 11 million people currently playing “World of Warcraft,” the privacy fears raised valid alarms. While only a small fraction of players use the Blizzard forums, they are still among the most active in the gaming world. And, in some cases, they are the most fanatical.

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Blizzard Software

Names would be taken from the Real ID feature— which is tied in with users’ account and billing information—on the company’s Battle.net service, its online hub for all games.

Blizzard, as a studio, has never had a commercial flop. And its titles transcend traditional gaming borders, bringing casual and hardcore players together. Several celebrities and athletes regularly play the games as well (though it’s unknown if any participate in the forums).

The announcement, however, had caused some loyal players to threaten to cancel pre-orders of upcoming titles. That’s a common reaction when a publisher makes a controversial move and it’s rarely done in widespread numbers—but Activision was unwilling to risk any damage to the Blizzard brand.

Blizzard is the undisputed king of the massively multiplayer world, but new challengers are looming. Electronic Arts is planning to launch a “Star Wars” persistent world next year, which could test the loyalty of “World of Warcraft” players.

While privacy fears by members were apparently the chief reason behind the policy reversal, some players had a different concern: their apprehension was the use of real names in the forum would remove some of the fantasy elements of the games.

Players flock to video games for a break from reality, just as they do with movies. Seeing “Frank Smith” rather than something along the lines of “Winterbane” alongside a post would be like going to a Harry Potter film and seeing the lead actor referred to as “Daniel” throughout the film.

Blizzard, in announcing the decision to back off of its plan Friday, noted it was user feedback that prompted the action. However, it says, it still hopes to find a way to make the forums more positive environment.

“It's important to note that we still remain committed to improving our forums,” wrote Mike Morhaime, CEO and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment. “Our efforts are driven 100% by the desire to find ways to make our community areas more welcoming for players and encourage more constructive conversations about our games.”