From Game Developers to Social Engineers

I’ve spent more hours than I care to think about in one of my favourite social spaces, a pub called the William IV on London’s Harrow Road.

I’ve popped in to grab a coffe and read the paper for 30 minutes, barely saying a word to anyone. I’ve unwound with a few mates and a few beers. I’ve wandered in alone and hopeful, spotted a bunch of people I know and ended up dancing with strangers hours later. I’ve gone to their restaurant for a romantic meal for two, a birthday party for 20 and loads in between. I’ve partied in their upstairs function rooms for work parties, friends marking special occasions or one-off events put on by groups in the local community.

The folks who run that pub know what they’re doing. They’ve put a lot of effort into making it as great a social space as they can. They create the space (provide the environment, the “tools” if you like) within which the customers build the social links and create social events both expected and unexpected. They also respect that it’s the choice of the customer how to engage with the social space and the other people within it (all while enforcing acceptable behaviour – nobody gets away with causing trouble for anyone else).

I wonder what would happen to the place if they demanded everyone wear name badges? People would think they had lost the plot completely, and all go to the Paradise round the corner instead. It’s up to the customers who they choose to share their personal details with.

WoW is another of my favourite social spaces. I go there with friends, I spend time by myself, I meet new people – some very cool, some complete assholes. My friends know a lot about me already, those I’m getting to know may know some things which it’s been at my discretion to share. The assholes mostly know nothing, which is how I like it. I will never give up the ability to exercise that discretion myself.

Blizzard’s proposals mean that I would have to do exactly that if I wanted to follow their recommendations to receive Technical or Customer Support. That’s the current ultimatum in a nutshell – “If you don’t relinquish your preference to only release your personal details at your own discretion, you will be denied access to our primary support channels and be consigned to a second rate service with no corresponding reduction in subscription payments”. In terms of the principle of opt-in, this has blown that out of the water. Customer support is an integral part of the service for which I pay a subscription, not an opt-in choice. There’s no longer a principle to protect, as is still the case for no real-world transactions for gamplay affecting items. While the first implementation of OpenID respected the “opt-in” only principle, these proposals take it away, and once that line has been crossed there’s no telling what other parts of the game may be denied to those unwilling to engage in Blizzard’s attempts at social engineering.

There’s no ethical principle that separates the denial of access to Support forums from the denial of access to the LFD tool or joining a guild, for those who wish to excerise their own discretion. Both of those examples are far more “optional” than customer/technical support.

I’m reminded of how upset a very elderly relative once was to find that during a stay in hospital all the nurses and staff called him by his first name. Apparently they did so under instruction, as it had been decided by some distant management stratum that first names better conveyed the sense of friendliness and informality that the hospital should be associated with. My relative was not some old grump, all stuck up about formalities. He was just born into a generation where being able to say “Please, call me by my first name” was a social gift, an acknowledgement of welcoming someone into a closer circle of aquaintance, a sign of appreciation and invitation to friendship. He would have been on first name terms with all the nurses within a day, but by taking away his ability to get on first-name terms in the way that it mattered to him, he was made miserable and the policy only served to hamper his relations with the nurses. It had the opposite effect to what it intended by taking away any respect for the individual.

In my opinion the hospital management were a bunch of idiots. They got as far as thinking “being on first name terms with people is great – it’s a mark of friendliness and informality and that’s a much preferred state of affairs than aloofness and formality”, but suffered brainfail in not even considering the nature of the transition between the two. Being on first name terms is a symptom of friendliness. By foolishly assuming that friendliness was a result of being on first-name terms, they managed to upset entire generations.

This is exactly what is happening now with Blizzard’s RealID proposals. Blizzard have seen how their creations are developing as a social space, and are understandably exited about the possibilities. It genuinely is very exciting – networks of frienships are being formed, people are coming together in ways that make issues of geography, social class, disability, ethnicity and gender more irrelevant than ever. From “anonymous” in-game interactions, real friendships are forming, and the sharing of personal information is an important part of the development of these friendships. But like the hospital managers, Blizzard are getting the cart before the horse – “friendships are good, and involve sharing personal information, so lets impose the sharing of personal information to make more friendships”. They are some of the best game developers in the world, but as social engineers they are firmly at the level of the worst blunderers of the NHS, trying to rebuild society from the symptoms up.

There’s no doubt that a lot of folks, like me, see the imposition of sharing real names as, well, an imposition. A lot of the arguments against it I’ve read have described the problems caused by the wrong poeple having access to it. I think there’s just as big an issue in the right people getting it. The sharing of personal information is as close a defining act of commitment as there is in an online world. By taking the discretion of when and with whom to share it away from individuals, Blizzard are meddling with one of the cornerstones of online friendship. They must believe that by demolishing the ritual and imposing it’s results right at the start they are hastening the networks of friendship. Maybe for some people they might be right. For some of us though, they could not be more wrong.

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