Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
(Editor's note: Since this editorial was written, Blizzard has reversed its decision to force gamers to use Real ID on its forums.)
Game companies are no strangers to strong opinions from their customers, but even Blizzard - a firm accustomed to howls of outrage whenever it makes a change to World of Warcraft - may have been taken aback by the speed and passion of the response to its plans to enforce "Real ID" on WOW's community forums.
The company's intention is to try to drag discourse on the forum back to some measure of civility by attaching everyone's real names - which Blizzard has access to thanks to their billing relationships with their customers - to their posts.
The company's intentions are obvious, and unquestionably good. At present, posters on the Blizzard forums use their in-game names, which creates some semblance of a reputation for each poster - but it's an imperfect system, at best, as evidenced by the speed with which many topics can descend into abuse and unpleasantness.
Changing to a real name system would, at a stroke, ensure that players are attached to a single identity, removing their ability to anonymously abuse or troll other users. It would force people to think about the possible consequences of what they were writing, now that it was attached to their real names - to ask themselves whether they really wanted a future employer, doing a quick Google search, to turn up abusive tirades on a gaming forum, or worse, racist, sexist or homophobic statements.
The operator of a popular BBS I used well over a decade ago employed a simple phrase as the basis for many of his moderation decisions - "you own your own words". It was simultaneously a refusal of unnecessary censorship, and a warning to those who might otherwise be censored; with permission to speak, comes responsibility for the consequences of your speech.
Blizzard's intent, no doubt, is to bring that fact home to its posters, stripping them of the anonymity which seems to bring out the worst in many gamers and internet users in general - as summed up rudely, but depressingly accurately, in a famous Penny Arcade comic strip some years ago.
This may seem like a bit of a storm in a teacup to many in the games business - an interesting footnote to the slow and tortuous development of the relationship between game companies and their customers, at most. It is, however, indicative of a much wider issue which the industry has, so far, shown little enthusiasm for tackling.
As games evolve from being products to being services, the management of the relationship between company and customer is becoming one of the core functions of any games firm - whether they like it or not. Companies have understood for some time that a strong community can be an excellent PR and marketing tool. Some of the more enlightened firms are now realising that in the age of games as a service, a community isn't nice-to-have; your community is your game, it's your revenue stream, it's your lifeblood.
That means that cultivating, nurturing and ultimately policing that community is a central function for any firm operating a game service. At present, it's a function which is generally swept to the side. "Community manager" is a job title which has sprung up in the past five or six years at a host of companies, but few developers or publishers afford that role any importance beyond being, essentially, a low-level combination of PR and customer support.
That approach is both short-sighted and foolish. World of Warcraft is an extreme example, of course, but it's always been fascinating to note the combination of pride and discomfort in Blizzard's executives when you point out that their fantasy world has a much larger population than many decent-sized countries - over three times the size of Ireland, for example.
A population that size, interacting with one another, is an immense responsibility. Blizzard tackles it far better than most; it thinks about how its community works, where problems lie and how the company can change the structure of its community tools and services to improve things. Many other companies in the industry seem to believe that a few off-the-shelf forums and some low-paid staff members answering questions is sufficient. It is quite patently not.