Those of you who are long-time readers of this blog probably already know that I am not a fan of RealID in its current iteration, nor am I all that thrilled by BattleTags (yet). Apart from all the privacy concerns and the fact that online harassment is not only possible, but likely when you’re a woman, there are some key deficiencies in the whole RealID/BattleTag system from a structural standpoint.

First of all, you have two choices: allow it to be enabled (by default) or turn it off through parental controls. I don’t actually have a problem with this. Anyone who’s in control of their own account should be able to be smart enough with their RealID info to prevent too many creeptastic exchanges. But in order to even play Diablo III, even as a single-player campaign, you absolutely must make a BattleTag, which functions similarly to RealID in many ways. The only major difference is that you’re referred to as your BattleTag name instead of your real name. (This, in my not-remotely-humble opinion, is what RealID should have been in the first place. Apart from the forced-to-use portion of it.)

Assuming that you’ve chosen to allow it to be enabled, then, if you choose to give either your RealID info or your BattleTag out to people, they will always be able to tell if you’re online, regardless of what Blizzard game (WoW, SC2, D3) you’re playing, regardless of which character you’re playing. By the same token, you’ll always see when that person is playing as well.

Rohan over at Blessing of Kings had a really interesting post about how we all want to be invisible but want to know if our friends are online and came up with an idea about “going dark”, which would effectively show you as offline to your friends, but you’d be unable to see themĀ  if they were online while you were dark. While I think that’s probably a fair and simple way to accomodate requests for some kind of invisibility mode with RealID and with BattleTags, it doesn’t address the major problem with the system.

The major problem with the current system is that it assumes everyone who has your RealID or BattleTag is of exactly the same importance to you and you would want to be potentially contacted by any and all people with that RealID/BattleTag info at any given point in time.

That, of course, isn’t how people work.

I make very rare use of RealID and I haven’t given my BattleTag out to anyone as of yet. I have precisely six people on my RealID list; one is my brother, one is my Real Life Friend the Resto Druid, one is Majik, one is (I’m not even kidding here) my highschool-era ex-boyfriend and the other two are people I’ve encountered in-game and known for quite some time and respect quite a lot.

Any one of those people are more than welcome to contact me in-game if I’m online. My brother does now and again, as does my RL Friend the Resto Druid. Majik uses RealID with me more than anyone else does, whereas the in-game people and I rarely chat (we’re rather respectful of each other’s time and privacy) and my ex-boyfriend and I haven’t even said “hi” through RealID in the month or so since we’ve been RealID friends.

Again, I like and respect all of those people (well, except Majik… ;)) and I’ve been extremely careful in giving out my information.

However, I also do recruiting for my guild (apply now!) and I see recruiters throwing their RealID info out all over the place. Due to privacy concerns, I won’t do that, but I was thinking seriously that I should throw out my BattleTag info when it’s fully integrated into WoW.

If I did that, though, I would be changing my online experience substantially. What if a potential applicant whispers me through RealID when I’m raiding with Choice on the baby pally? What if some random person on the forums sees my post and decides to hop into my Diable 3 game? If I give out my info, which would be really helpful in terms of recruitment, for example, then I’m potentially changing my gaming experiences significantly. All of a sudden, I’m much more available to a set of people I don’t really have ties to. Suddenly, I have elevated random people to the same level of importance in my life as the six people on my RealID list. Any of them, so long as I accepted their request (and why wouldn’t I, if I were trying to recruit them?) would be able to see when I’m online, in which game and on which character.

In his post, Rohan says that ICQ, which was a great instant messenger client that was hugely popular in the 1990s, was overly complex and complicated in the way they used their invisible modes. I’ll say that it was complex, sure, but I would argue that relationships are equally complex and deciding when and how to communicate with others is complex in and of itself. Thus, a system is needed that is better than “always on” to help deal with the subtleties of human interaction.

There are a couple of different ways that I think this could happen.

1) A Ranked System.

In a ranked system, I would ideally be able to create a group called, for example, “Close Friends” who would then have permission to see me online regardless of what I’m doing in what game. These are the people like my brother and Majik and my RL Friend the Resto Druid, for example. This group would have the most privileges and would be my top-ranked friends.

Then, I’d like a second tier, lower down, which would have mix-and-matchable privileges that include what games people can see me playing and, ideally (well, as long as I’m dreaming, you know?) even be able to distinguish which characters I’d like people to be able to see me on.

So I’d like to create a second group called, for instance, “WoW Friends”. My “WoW Friends” would then have permission to see me regardless of where I am in WoW. Whether I’m farming on Eldre’Thalas, making money on Skywall, raiding somewhere or whatever, they could see me on any WoW character. But they would not be able to see me if I were playing Diablo 3 or StarCraft 2 (not that I play, but you get the idea). In this group, I’d put a couple of the people I’m RealID friends with whom I’ve met through WoW and greatly respect. That said, I’d prefer that this group not have my real name. (It’s kind of too late now, but anyhow.)

The selection screen could look something like this.

See what I’m getting at? Each group, even the top-level group, would have options you could set that would include limiting visibility based on what you want them to see. Using specific selections like this, you could have a really intricate system of groups of people who can/can’t see when you are online, and to whom your private information (such as your name) is revealed.

It’s not the simplest solution, but I think it deals nicely with all of the potential concerns I have. Further, no one knows what “rank” they are because everyone’s ranks are different from everyone else’s. So there’s none of that “hey, Kurn, why am I ranked THREE on your list?? You’re in my first group!!!” nonsense.

There could also be default groups with default settings, but all of them would, ideally, be very easy to customize.

2) The Invisible System.

The second major way I see to deal with the complexities of human interaction is to have exactly what Rohan discarded right off the bat — an Invisibility system. In such a system, you would be able to GO invisible, first of all. (And actually, I would append this to my ranked system, too!) Then, you could select players who would be allowed to see you while you are logged on and invisible. To these people, you would simply appear as “online”. (Note that you would still always be online to guildies and people on your server — I’m just talking about RealID/BattleTag friends.) It would be much less customizable than the ranked system I laid out, but it would still address some major issues.

What if I’m raiding and I don’t want some potential recruit whispering me as I’m working on Heroic Spine? Invisible for the duration of my raid. What if I’m farming and don’t want to be bothered while I’m chilling out, but wouldn’t mind hearing from friends? Invisible but anyone marked as being able to see me while invisible would be able to chat.

It’s not as complicated as the ranked system and so it also lacks some finesse, but this could be a good way to allow people to make use of RealID/BattleTags without someone becoming “too accessible” to various people.

The Blizzard Social Network

I know that I’m dreaming by even thinking that Blizzard will ever evolve their RealID/BattleTag system beyond what it already does. I know that my ideal ranked system will never happen. I strongly doubt an invisible mode will ever come to be.

However, just because Blizzard won’t do that doesn’t mean that we should roll over and accept a system with which we’re unhappy. It doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept whatever they give us with regards to their idea of a “social network”. While it’s nice to chat with people on other factions and other servers in WoW, don’t be fooled. RealID/BattleTags aren’t there for you to conveniently chat with your friends. The system almost certainly exists to take the middleman out of social networking for Blizzard. World of Warcraft has an insanely large community. There are websites, podcasts, blogs, twitters, livejournals, tumblrs, everything under the moon. How are those community sites beneficial for Blizzard? Word of mouth and free advertising for their product, yes, but otherwise, they’re not. They’re taking discussions away from the official forums, they’re allowing people other ways to connect with each other outside the game. If Diablo 3 had come out three years ago, people would have emailed or sent each other messages on guild forums or IMed or texted each other to say “hey, are you playing D3? Wanna play together?” instead of just seeing that your friend is already in a D3 game and allowing you to quick join in.

I’m fairly certain that they’re trying to ensure that their games are “sticky”, in the sense that we won’t need to go elsewhere to communicate. Looking for a friend to LFR with? Log on, check your friends list. Playing D3 to pass the time until your raid? Play with other guildies who might be online doing the same thing. They are, in my opinion, making their three games, and the communication between them, into a whole social media platform.

The only trouble is, they’re forgetting about how complex social interaction really is, particularly in the live format. You don’t need an invisible mode on Twitter, because it’s not realtime. No one knows when you’re checking Twitter or not. Since all three of Blizzard’s games include you logging in (even at the menu selection, in D3 and SC2), there is the realtime factor one must account for. The way Blizzard has accounted for that is this persistent, always-on chat system, which is clunky and extremely basic in terms of the options available.

They’ve got the bare bones of a real social platform built on top of these incredible games and obviously, the games are the priority, but they’re shoehorning the social system into the games as best they can and expecting us (and forcing us, in terms of D3) to use them.

So even though I know they will never make the system work the way a good social system SHOULD work (by using something akin to my suggestions above), I can’t help but wish they would. If they’re going to try to be sticky and make the game platforms a social hub, they need better tools to make the user experience go more smoothly. There is nothing in the world as complicated as human interaction and Blizzard is doing us a grand disservice with their inelegant tools.