Last July, Blizzard introduced its Real Id plan for its battle.net service, which essentially forced users to disclose their real names in order to use the forums. In the face of intense pressure, Blizzard redacted the plan within days of announcement. The threat to personal privacy in online gaming, however, is far from over. In October, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that tens of millions of Facebook app users had their personally identifiable information sold off to advertisers and internet tracking companies. A real privacy problem arises when players voluntarily give up their anonymity in a game and/or online.
The Real ID issue proves that many users prefer the existing systems built under the web’s rubric of anonymity, and will resist revealing real identities. Conversely, the social media/gaming system not only encourages, but requires disclosing one’s real name in order to play the game. As over 80 million players at the time of this post can attest, you need your real friends (in as much that Facebook friends are your real friends) in order to harvest those turnips. Even though a great deal of personal information is shared through social media, plenty of users still feel strongly about protecting their personal privacy, as Zynga has come to learn first hand (here here and here). As our social media/game identities increasingly converge, the separation between game identity and real identity may disappear.
Utilization of real identities has not deterred Zynga’s zillions from continuing to play games such as Farmville, Cityville and Mafia Wars. Some of the problems associated with anonymous multiplayer gaming online have not continued in social gaming. Because players are cognizant that their avatar and personal identity are one in the same, players in social games tend to interact primarily within their existing social circles. This leads to greater accountability and avoids issues such as child luring (see here and here), online griefing, and even IRL grief. Knowing the identify of who one is playing with, as well as the comprehension that one is not anonymous, may lead to more civilized behavior. At the minimum, it may help avoid some of the worst online behavior which has resulted from players’ sense of anonymity. On the other hand, it could enable some more players to more easily stalk their victims or seek revenge in real life.
As players increasingly utilize mobile devices, and location aware technologies become the norm, game play and personal privacy has moved beyond the living room and into the local laundromat. Foursquare mayors are proud of their often short lived terms in office, but few consider the implications of sharing their “check ins” with the world. Your friends might not think less of you for checking in at five bars in a row last night, but your employer/spouse/insurance agency may have a different opinion.
Needless to say such online gaming spans the globe. When gaming online, the players typically conform to the “rules of the internet” more so than their local laws, but game developers still have to conform to the law of the land. Depending on a country’s privacy laws, failing to comply can even lead to criminal consequences. European Union privacy protection laws are notoriously more stringent than American privacy laws. UK and Canadian parliaments have regulations and laws which heavily emphasize protection for personal identifiable information. Importantly, there are strong restrictions on transferring such personally identifiable information out of EU countries. While safe harbor may be available for qualifying companies State side, for games premised upon openly/inadvertently sharing personal information, such protection is unlikely. As a consequence of such regulation, social gaming innovation may likely remain firmly centered in America. Blizzard and Facebook have demonstrated that forcing users to give up their anonymity is a futile move. With more social gaming utilizing real social connections, the real question to consider is: what will happen when users voluntarily surrender their privacy?