Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Virtual Worlds: A Rose by Any Other Name

Virtual Worlds abound us in the cyberconoasphere, they surround us, infuse us, bind us – create shimmering and beautiful communities, enlighten ignorance, bring light to darkened rooms, fuse cliques, fight social wars, and they all know us by our names. The mark of a person in cyberspace isn’t their voice, it isn’t their face: it’s their name.

So: what’s in a name? In cyberspace a person’s name is their face, it’s the interactive identity of selfness that others identify. The persona can be changed, the avatar and icons that come along with it, all of those other identifying features that everyday people use on the street have been washed away into the glittering purity of the name.

Today on Slashdot, CmdrTaco, the premier editor and commentator of that community, lent us a piece of his mind in a rant directed at Blizzard Entertainment—the producers of World of Warcraft—for a very real slight.

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.

Slashdot | Blizzard Made Me Change My Name

They took away his name.

They didn’t exactly take it away in a very ceremonious or respectful manner either, especially when examining the underpinnings of the psyche when it comes to names and cyberspace. This is how everyone knows you. How everyone sees you. How everyone minds what and who you are.

Blizzard does have certain naming policies set in their TOS that every player reads before joining, it was one of these that CmdrTaco violated without realizing it—no, not the celebrity clause, though it would have been funny if that were the case—the “Cmdr” part of his name breaks the “no titles,” clause. This is actually one of the rules of the game, it is written in the TOS. This isn’t a case of Blizzard doing something they hadn’t already warned they do to people; this is about Blizzard choosing inadequate, inconsistent, and disrespectful enforcement of these rules.

For 45 levels and hundreds of hours of game play, CmdrTaco went along as he normally did, his guild got to know him by that name, everyone else in the world watched him go by. He was CmdrTaco. Then suddenly, out of the blue yonder a GM speaks down and smacks his identity from him. Those 45 levels and hundreds of hours suddenly blow to ash, they become naught.

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!

Slashdot | Blizzard Made Me Change My Name

Without so much as an apology this happened; not too different from suddenly being stripped naked because thy clothing slightly approximates something not permitted—defrocked after wandering the city for decades as a well-meaning citizen.

This brings me to one of the fundamental ironies of cyberculture: as with anonymity so there is perfect identity.

Out here on the edges you are who you say you are, no more, no less. Your reputation is attached to your name. If your name is new and shiny and nobody knows you, that is you. The unknown, the new, that wide-eyed traveler seeing everything for the first time—this is true even if you are a grit-and-bone veteran of every war in the trenches of cyberspace. You change your name, and for a moment—to everyone else—you are a different person.

There are people who are social chameleons; they change their behavior, their whole states of being between each of the cliques that they visit. For the denizens of this cyberspace it is only exemplified; here you can actually become a different person for different communities if need be. A new name: a new person.

Have a community where you are seen as a nice person, a hero even, polite, kind, and sweet—but you want to let out your bad side sometimes but don’t want to take the repercussions? Make a new name, never refer back to your alternate one, and let loose.

Reputations are valuable, why else would defamation be recognized as something that can inflict damage? In cyberspace names and reputation go hand in hand; when the name is all that identifies you it is the only thing that connects your reputation back to those communities.

A cyber-rose by any other name: would not be the same.

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