Save the Avatar, Save the World

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Blizzard’s RealID system, and have seen many of the opinions against the upcoming change to WoW’s forums.

I think the move is lousy too, for most of the same reasons others have stated. I think ultimately the change is dangerous, both to the customers and to the health of the community. And I say this as someone whose “real ID” has been a matter of public record for a number of years now.

But there’s another aspect to this I’d like to talk about which I haven’t seen discussed so far.

My instinct is that this change will peel away yet another layer of the magic of MMOs: that of being able to pretend you’re someone else. Sure, anonymity can empower jerks to act like even bigger jerks, but the illusion of the avatar also does great things. It allows disabled gamers to ignore their physical limitations; it allows the meek to act with confidence; it allows the person with an average job and an average life to become a legend.

The danger of connecting MMOs too closely with real life is that it takes away the game’s function as a vehicle of escape, perhaps even limiting the potential of the game to inspire the imagination. That’s a heavy price to pay for cutting down on forum spam.

Of course the message boards are technically separate from the game itself, but they represent a big part of the MMO experience for a sizable number of players. That connection is being impacted by the RealID change, which means yet another aspect of the classic MMO experience is being lost–if you’re a WoW player, at least.

Now, let me pontificate to MMO developers for a minute.

From personal experience, I know that keeping a gaming forum as useful and troll-free as possible is a huge pain in the ass. Guess what? It’s also the price you pay for coming to the dance. I don’t care how big your community is or how many posts you have to moderate–hire the freaking staff to do the job right. I understand the motive of wanting to create a cleaner environment for your posters, but don’t take the positive experience away from the good folks in the name of shutting up the asshats.

There is a certain charm in the forum hero known only by a clever handle. The MMOs of tomorrow need to hold onto all the charm they can, not let it slip away–regardless of the motive.

My instinct is that it will peel away yet another layer of the magic of MMOs–that of being able to pretend you’re someone else. Sure, anonymity can empower jerks to act like even bigger jerks, but the existence of the avatar also does great things. It allows disabled gamers to ignore their physical limitations; it allows the meek to act with confidence; it allows the person with an average job and an average life to become a legend.
The danger of connecting MMOs too closely with real life is that it takes away the game’s function as a vehicle of escape, perhaps even limiting how much the game can inspire the imagination. That’s a heavy price to pay for limiting forum spam.

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