Vague Patch Notes: Maintaining MMO anonymity in the age of parasocial bonding

If you meet the Buddha on the road, leave him alone

    
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Trouble double.

In an author’s note at the end of the novel The Dark Tower, Stephen King writes frankly that some people will not like how the novel ended or question the ambiguity of the conclusion. He implores readers who still have questions or don’t like the ending to leave him the hell alone. “My family and I have a good deal less privacy than we used to,” he writes, “and I have no wish to give up any more, may it do ya fine. My books are my way of knowing you. Let them be your way of knowing me, as well. It’s enough.”

I have been doing this job for more than a decade now, and with each passing year I think King was even more right than I did in the prior year. This is especially interesting when you consider the parasocial bonds created by reading someone’s writing, the very nature of interactions in MMOs that we all play, and how all of us are adapting to new paradigms as we navigate a world that is at once more distant and more connected over the past few months. So let’s talk about leaving people the hell alone.

In all honesty, one of the things that I tend to be somewhat terrified by is people coming up to me in the various games I play – Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, Star Trek Online, or whatever – and immediately starting in by saying that they know me. It’s flattering when it happens, but it’s also a surprise and kind of a lie. And it’s a very, very different context from, say, comments on an article.

There’s a very limited span of time for basically any of us in this field wherein playing a game is our job. Playing a title for Choose My Adventure? Part of the job. Streaming it? Part of the job. But the minute the stream ends, it’s no longer your job, and all of us work in this field because we do genuinely like these games. There are betas I have not particularly cared for or games that I didn’t like on launch, but those are games I choose not to continue playing after the work part is over.

And the thing is that for some of us, part of the joy in the first place was that you stop being Steve from Accounting for a little while once you log in.

Don't call me Kyle right now.

Remember the whole RealID fiasco? The short version was that Blizzard basically wanted everyone on the official forums to post using their real names instead of just character names. Players and fans hated this, and this was back in the days when Blizzard did things that lots of people didn’t hate on the regular.

A lot of that backlash came from people who, by all accounts, just enjoyed the fact that playing WoW even without explicitly roleplaying was still a moment of stepping out of your own shoes. You could be someone else for a while, be regarded as someone else, and you got complete control over whether or not other people got to know all the details of your personal life.

That’s where the “kind of a lie” part from before comes in: If you religiously read everything I write, thank you! I really appreciate it and your feedback. But just as I do not know you, you do not actually know me.

You have a window on me, yes, but it’s a window that I choose to open or contract based on the situation and the details in question. Just as an obvious example, in my writing I’d like to think I can come across as charming, even witty at times. (In reality I think I’ve managed “witty” exactly once, and that was more a matter of falling with style.)

The nature of a parasocial bond is creating a feeling as if you know people based on their works – writings, videos, hearing them blather over podcasts, and so forth. It makes the person in question feel more directly accessible. But while this isn’t the same as putting on an act – and none of us are playing characters – we are still changing our behaviors as a part of public performance. Our podcasts are not actually recorded without any editing or professionalism or change in affect for public consumption.

And none of this is, inherently, a problem or weird! We all have different faces and different facets of our lives. If you had a long-standing habit of hanging out with the regulars at the local comic book store, that’s fine; that might not be something you tend to bring up with people at your workplace, but it’s still perfectly normal.

But if you saw your boss at the comic store, it’d be weird. And it’d be even weirder if your boss now wanted to treat you as if the two of you were fast friends because of this shared bond.

Roooooooock monster.

This is, of course, not unique to MMOs or this field. It has an even more common manifestation in the form of developers doing their best to keep their personal characters secret because however much many of them might love their fans, time spent playing the game is not the same as community engagement time. People have some idea of who Yoshida plays in FFXIV, but when he’s playing that character, that’s time for him to do things, not for players to start chatting with him.

And I think it’s the same thing you yourself experience. You don’t want to necessarily be running dungeons with your boss when you log in to FFXIV. You really don’t want to find out that your boss is the kind of jerk who provokes off the MT and types the whiniest crap conceivable in dungeon runs. (Or, conversely, that your boss is way better at the game than you are.) These are different parts of your life, different spaces.

Some people want these to be linked together. Others would rather keep them separate, and speaking personally, I’m in that latter group.

One night, I was out mining for shards in Thanalan when another player came up to me and eagerly said that she knew who I was and she loved my pieces, that she was super excited and it felt like meeting a celebrity. I think it was probably somewhat accurate because the fact of the matter was that, like a celebrity, I didn’t have much to say. I was decompressing at that point in the day and just idly mining. I really wasn’t even sure how to end the conversation; this was my time for me to play the game, not really to provide hopefully entertaining analysis of the gameplay or anything else.

For myself – and most gamers, in my experience – the reason we don’t tell other people where to find us isn’t to make the process into a puzzle. It’s because we genuinely enjoy the game as a separate portion of our lives from the professional segments. And while it can be exciting to realize that you might be playing with writers and developers and community team members, most of them are in the game for the same reason you are: to not be these things for a while, but instead be out on an adventure. To be like, well, you.

My articles are my way of knowing you. The game is the designer’s way of knowing you. Let them, in turn, be your way of knowing us. It’s enough.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Mia DeSanzo

Nobody seeks me out. /pout. I don’t even obscure my character names in screenshots. It’s probably just as well though. I am awkward on my best days and there isn’t even a word in English for my social impairment on my bad days.

Actually, people may not really know me from what I write or from knowing me in certain circumscribed relationships like working in the same office, but they know a lot. I am not 100% transparent, but I am more WYSIWYG than not.

On a tangent: I am of the mind that the relative anonymity of the Old Internet was a feature, not something to be done away with. The ability to create yourself in the mold you wish instead of the one fate smashed you into was empowering. In the case of social media, tying our profile to our real identities is about making our data more valuable, not about integrity, no matter what they say. Multiple identities for multiple audiences would be a gift in social media, and a lot easier than editing permissions for every meme.

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Kickstarter Donor
mysecretid

An excellent article, well written. I have nothing else to add, I just wanted to say “Thanks”.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I try to maintain some anonymity online. I never use my real name, if I can help it.

I’ve lost count of the amount of different emails I have.

I use a pseudonym on social media, only a few people who are IRL friends know my real name.

This Twitter I use to log into MOP is a burner account, not my main Twitter.

Heck, I go by a nickname IRL, so most people never use my real name, not even my family. I’ve even had to change that nickname.

I was foolish and naive once, and made an online account with my old nickname.

This allowed some trolls to Google me, find me just about everywhere online, and cyberbully me.

I wasn’t even saying or doing anything bad, they just decided that they didn’t like me and bullied me, stalking me online and trying to make me feel miserable.

I got so sick of it, I decided to delete that account and everything I ever posted with it online. For all intents and purposes, I disappeared.

Ever since then, I’ve used many different anonymous online accounts, which don’t have any overlap.

Being anonymous allows me the freedom I need to be myself online.

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Kickstarter Donor
mysecretid

I have a lot of aliases and barriers as well, for reasons (and history) similar to what you cite. It’s never the good folks who become a problem; it’s always the ones who just decide to come at you “for the lulz”. Hence, the need for constant digital smoke and mirrors.

Cheers,

Ririrawr
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Ririrawr

not to a worries, i only hunt ppl down to say a thank you (for whatever), then spam-hop my merry way away

but back to being a serious for a lil

which is pmuch the only acceptable extent of seeking someone out like that, in my books

unfortunately waaaaaay too many forget that certain RL boundaries need to be utilized online as well, for whatever reason

and then there are those considered “social-outcasts” that conflate published stuff with actual communication, and that’s a whole bigger mess there

also now i wanna see raging versions of the MOP staff if they were their characters in a PUG *cough*

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styopa

Thanks for another thoughtful and interesting essay. I have a number of mixed feelings about it, which speaks to the value of the topic as a subject.
They’re in no particular order because a) it’s early, and I have a really busy day ahead, b) I’m on my phone, and it sucks posting from here, and c) nobody’s much going to read it anyway.
– On a gut level, if you don’t like the consequences of semi-celebrity, there’s a very, very simple way to make those sorts of interactions cease. It’s a much smaller-scale version of the hypocrisy of movie and film stars moaning about their tedious and annoying fans…before fleeing out of the public and back into the insular world of megajillionaires that they live in BECAUSE OF THOSE FANS. Look, there’s an endorphin-hit from people reading and enjoying your work. That’s why writers write – for the vast majority it certainly isn’t the money. They write to be read, that is their addiction. That (tiny) consequence is the PRICE you pay for that endorphin hit.
EDIT: adding because I should make it explicit – I’m only partly victim-blaming here (because I think the appellation of victim’s a bit of a pose, anyway). I think the people who SEEK OUT celebrities, or go agog and intrusive when they see them, are depressing, dysfunctional personalities trying to validate themselves by their social contact with someone they see as important. That’s messed up. So I’m conflicted, certainly when people hunt down the real life house of Jenna Marbles…on the one hand, that’s FUNDAMENTALLY psycho, OTOH JM has that lifestyle precisely because of that overall internet fame that drives a tiny crazy segment of the bell curve to that level of mania….I don’t approve at all of the former, but to suggest that somehow they can be divorced from the latter seems unrealistic to a level of cognitive dissonance. I want to be drunk, but I don’t want the hangover.)
– How do they know who you are, in a Dogbert sense anyway? I mean, unless there’s some function of being a writer for MOP that compels you to be connected to your toon (like you *have* to use your main in streaming sessions or such) that I’m unaware of? I suspect this difference is generational; in 30 years of being online (yes, I’m dating back to MUDs, BBSs, and Eris) I’ve never ONCE deliberately connected my ‘online’ persona to my real one. Where I had to publish things online using my real name, that was strictly firewalled from any online identity, with the two never referencing each other. I rather suspect that today it wouldn’t take much to dig my identity out both due to the cumulative nature of one’s online footprint, better tools for digging, and less rigor on my part in the last handful of years.
– Finally, the entire concept of ‘parasocial’ relationship. I certainly understand your use of the term (it’s a well-crafted term, so credit if you coined it) but again, generationally I’m probably not getting something. I certainly recognize the syndrome, but I’m basically flummoxed at the idea that anyone could believe they have a bond with a writer, based on reading their works. An insight into? Sure. A fondness for? Absolutely. But a bond or relationship? Both of those words imply duplex, and writing is simplex: the words go one way, nothing the other. I don’t have a “relationship” or “bond” with Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, nor Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen just because I deeply enjoyed their works. Not to sound too ‘get off my lawn’ but how pathetically desperate are people for actual connection if they’re contriving ‘relationship’ from that? That’s messed up.

Anyway, this is too long already. Thanks for the thought-provoking work. I promise I would never accost you virtually nor in game if I had any idea who you were.

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jinarra

Sound advice. Parasocial relationships can turn toxic REALLY damn fast.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Never had an issue with this as the only folks I “idolize” for doing their jobs are those in the military. Sure, I geeked out when I met Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis at a con, and a little bit more when I met Garrett Wang too but I didn’t approach them like “Hey, I know you!” Unless you actually interact with a person daily you don’t “know” them. Same goes with the muggles who post on these threads. None of us really knows the other, what their jobs are, what they’ve done in the real world and what they’re capable of doing.

King also pushes a great point in that no matter how thoughtful you think you’re opinion about his created content is, he doesn’t want to hear it. Neither do game developers. It’s bad optics for them to say this, but it’s true. They have their vision, will make their content…like it and play it or don’t. Do they want you to like it? Sure. Are they going to jump right up and institute a change you personally want in 5 minutes? 90+% of the time no. That’s not to say people shouldn’t voice their opinions. It’s just those wonderful few out there that think their way is the only way and everyone else is lesser for not agreeing with them make the King’s of the world loathe to interact if they felt inclined.

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Bryan Correll

another player came up to me and eagerly said that she knew who I was and she loved my pieces

comment image

Mewmew
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Mewmew

This sort of reminds me of what it was like in high school, people thinking they know you when they, in fact, know nothing about the real you. It’s why it is nice to get away from a lot of those people sometimes when high school is over.

There are places where I’m known a bit, but in most games, I try to basically stay anonymous now. I get to relax and play the way I always wanted when I don’t get at all personal.

I have a lot of feelings about things that happened to me growing up online, though a lot of it was because I was a naive kid without supervision that shared everything.

These days I want to be just another gamer in the crowd when it comes to my online presence, except for those times where I choose to share more. Those times are usually just to try and help young girls online to protect themselves though (both physically and mentally), sharing what I did wrong to try and help them do the right things.

I love gaming but I had a shift where I moved my private real-life stuff to all be just that, private and kept to real-life or just shared with people I also know in real-life. They are two different worlds to me now.

Even people our real lives don’t especially know the real us. People use what they know about themselves and others to judge how they think people must be.

I admit I’m guilty of thinking I know people better than I do from watching certain streams. When in reality sometimes they have to put on a different personality for the streaming.

There are some personalities I feel I know a bit from some streaming, usually smaller streams where you get to participate with the streamer more. If I would ever say anything to them outside of the stream is highly dependant on multiple variables though :D

I’m not the type of person who would go up to a celebrity and talk to them as if I knew them or anything, for the most part. There are some celebrities that seem a bit more warm and fuzzy that I might try and say something to if I saw them somewhere, but it depends on the situation and what they were doing. I wouldn’t bug them if I found out who they were in a video game.

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Robert Mann

RealID and players having their identity known to all: Bad, agreed.

Identity tied to the account solidly enough to allow dealing with the bad behaviors that are so rampant… I believe good.

The internet and anonymity are a huge discussion, where people will inevitably point out that even when their identity is known people act like soiled diapers. It’s true. It’s because there’s no consequence to acting that way, generally, even when your real identity is known. So obviously just having that available to the people operating online services isn’t enough. There’s got to be a reason for the people who would act in malice, or out of gross ignorance in how to treat other people nicely, to pay attention and care.

It still won’t fix everything. Of course it won’t. Yet, if the worst offenders were automatically removed from ever impacting your gameplay? I’d say that would be a huge plus. Having the people who cannot resist naming themselves something sexist, or those who believe that purposefully harassing others online is okay… get thrown into their own little group hell server based on past games? That’d be excellent for removing a lot of the foulness from being involved in what is otherwise a pretty good thing.

So I agree with everything you said. People want to just chill, sometimes to avoid those they otherwise know, etc. That’s cool! That should be not only allowed, but encouraged. I want “Social anonymity” to be the thing. Where we can all have our downtime as we want in terms of that social part… but where the asshats suffer consequences that are far more difficult than just buying another account or creating another character to get around.