Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

What's in a name? Okay, okay, enough with the Shakespeare quotes. Since last weekend Blizzard is offering paid character name changes for World of Warcraft. So if you have a warrior named Phred and don't like that name any more, you can pay $10 to rename him to Djoe. But this apparently innocent service raises some fundamental questions of identity in virtual worlds.

In the real world, some people I meet greet me by name, others don't. And there is a certain correlation with how well people know me, because only those that know me well enough to actually connect my face to my name can greet me using my name. I'm not running around with a huge name tag. Recognition in the real world is mostly visual. If I changed my name, the same people would still recognize me.

The virtual world doesn't work like that. If a new guy is invited to your guild you get a message saying:
[Djoe] has joined your guild
[Guild] [Djoe]: Hello guys!
and you can greet him with "Hello Djoe" without ever having even seen his face. You would have no idea if Djoe was previously called Phred, even if you had read on the forums that a guy named Phred had quit his previous guild taking the contents of the guild bank with him. And facial recognition doesn't work in MMORPGs, because first of all there aren't so many different faces in the game, and second the face is relatively tiny on your screen. If you met Phred a few days ago, and today you meet Djoe, still being a level 70 warrior but having meanwhile acquired a different shoulder armor and a new name floating over his head, you'll think he is a different person. There are too many similar looking characters around to assume otherwise. The name *is* the identity, and by changing your name you can easily change your identity. No FBI witness protection program needed.

If Phred never did anything wrong and just changed his name to Djoe because he liked the new name better and didn't think the consequences through, he'll be in for some nasty surprises. For a while he won't get any tells from friends, because they don't have his new name on their friends lists [EDIT: As some readers are prone to dismiss my whole post because of the tiny error in this phrase, I'd like to point out that I missed the fact that the WoW name change apparently also edits friends and ignore lists]. And some guild members might treat him like the new guy Djoe, and not like their pal Phred with whom they did a thousand raids, until they realize that Djoe is Phred. Whatever reputation as a reliable tank for pickup groups, or as the best master smith on the server, Phred had acquired will be totally lost to the new Djoe. It's not unlike the whole Prince / Symbol / The Artist Formely Known as Prince fiasco. So in the end I'm not sure that offering a name changing service is really such a good idea.

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