My Azgalor Paladin is running through Stormwind when I get a message from a GM proclaiming that my account is in violation of Blizzard policy and I must change my nickname. I try to find out more information, but I am kicked from the game. I have been CmdrTaco since April, but when I log in, I choose the new name: Violated. This experience has brought up a host of feelings on matters of virtual identity and virtual worlds.
First of all, the reason that my account is in violation is that my name contains a title prefix. It took dozens of inquiries to get that explained. 'Cmdr' is the problem. I'm told that since the game has an internal honor system with titles, my name is not allowed. Never mind the fact that 'Cmdr' is not one of their titles. Never mind that countless other titles abound in the game: Mr, Sir, Sensei. Am I in violation of their policy? Probably. Is the policy stupid, meaningless, or inconsistent? I think so, but that's not really why I'm writing this.
I've been using 'CmdrTaco' online for around a decade now. It predates the existence of this website. It has followed me from game to game, both local, networked, and massive. My only problem with it is that as Slashdot grew in popularity, I started finding places where an impostor has taken it. I was excited when I was able to get it in Warcraft. It's like a warm blanket. It's stupid I know, but it's mine.
But Blizzard chose to take it from me. Now let me be clear: this is certainly their right: They own the dice and the board and the rulebooks, and I only play in their world. But If the US Government told me to change my name... let's say Congress passed a law making it illegal to have a first name that is a verb (Don't laugh, the White House cease and desisted The Onion!) Well I guess 'Rob' would have to go. My friends would still recognize me: I'd still have the same face, address, and social security number. I'd just have a cool new name like "Captain Fantastic Malda". With a name like that, the auto mechanics would never try to rip me off!
In this virtual world, two levels gives me a couple new pieces of armor, and suddenly I am unrecognizable to anyone who may have run an instance with me. In guild chat, I am a total stranger to people I may have chatted with for months. My history with other players has been erased. It almost makes me wish that I spent my first 45 levels ninja looting!
It's not like Blizzard decided to change gameplay dynamics. I spend a lot of time working on the Slashdot moderation system, and I never have any problem changing any "Rule" in the system if I believe it will improve the overall functionality of the whole system. If blizzard wants to make my mace have 5 less DPS and 3 less stamina because it's unbalanced, well I can accept that. Balancing gameplay is really hard. But in a massive multiplayer game, your name is different- that isn't about balance, it's about identity.
A friend of mine actually quit Everquest over a forced name change. His name was Marilyn Hanson and while fighting something he was disconnected without warning. When he returned, his name had been changed to a randomly generated one. When he asked GM, he was told that he could not have celebrity name. When my friend asked who Marilyn Hanson was, the GM could not answer, but instead just said arguing wouldn't matter. My friend quit EQ that day.
I don't think I'll quit WoW over this, but I will take away some lessons. The GM I talked to had a nickname of something like Lathanian. I found this disconcerting. If you were arrested by Officer Snuggles or found guilty by the honorable Judge Lawtron, it's hard to take that seriously. In this case 'Punishment' is being dealt. A real human is wearing a shroud of anonymity and handing out the bitchslap to a total stranger. That really makes the whole experience even more dehumanizing. In a massive virtual world, we're still people.
You don't see names and faces, which is why you'll see a 60 corpse camp a 30. When you don't see the real person on the other side, the tendency is just to forget. You expect it from opposing factions- but it feels different when it's the GM. Personally this is something I struggle with in my work too. You deal with a hundred support requests and it starts becoming abstract. Unreal. Virtual. I doubt it's much different if you work at the support counter at a retail store, but I think it's easier to forget when the only communication is chat.
Second, the GMs at blizzard really have no power. I asked for contact information. For email information. For names. For an appeal. To talk to a supervisor. And the best they would give me was the generic help phone line or a mailing address. Like with a stamp! I was told that almost every question I asked was unanswerable in game. I gave an email address but they never emailed. They wouldn't even tell me what was wrong with my nickname until after a half dozen inquiries of why. You have really no recourse against a GM. That scares me.
Lastly, I didn't really realize that I was so attached to my nickname. It's not because I'm "Famous"- We have a lot of readers, but these days very few actually know who I am. And of those, the percentage of people who play warcraft, and are alliance, and on azgalor... well it is very tiny. As CmdrTaco I probably had a total of 5 people actually recognize my nickname (and nobody ever gave me gold because they read Slashdot!). As Violated, nobody ever will recognize me for my day job. But that's really not what bugs me. I was really attached to my name. This character bounded through Azgalor slaying monsters and meeting new people. Now that character is erased and another character stands in its place. Same armor. Same class. But different somehow. I like my nickname. I wish I had it on every system I used. I'm annoyed that someone else registered my nickname on gmail before I could. It's always the first name I try when a system asks me to create an account. I feel strangely possessive about it. I doubt I'm alone in being attached to a pseudonym. And I feel kind of stupid admitting it.
Anyway, I've said my piece on the subject. And just to be clear, I'm not really mad at Blizzard. I think what they did was needless and inconvenient, but not evil. Their policy may be silly, but I still was in violation of it, so I guess I got what I deserved. But I wonder about others. And not just in Warcraft, on any online forum. I wonder about our attachment to virtual names. And if nothing less, it will make me take changes in Slashdot a little more seriously next time.