Vague Patch Notes: Anonymity is not why people are awful online


One of the intentions of the Vague Patch Notes column is to have a place to share things that we’re going to need to reference again in the future. It gets a bit silly to have to constantly re-explain some things, and it’s good to just have a single point to link back when explaining why, say, the social penalty for PvP never works, why sunsetting doesn’t mean a game was bad, or why Kickstarters are problematic. And as it has come up in our comments and work chat several times in the past few months, in part because of toxic behavior in Fortnite and the impact of regulation in China, it seems like a good time for a fresh discussion on why abolishing anonymity isn’t actually going to make people not be awful monsters online.

This is something that I’ve touched upon before elsewhere, but the short version here is that we already know anonymity itself is not the thing that leads people to be horrid monsters online. It’s related, in part, but it’s not the root cause, and trying to fix things by removing the ability to be anonymous is actually a slippery slope down a much worse incline than the one you’re trying to solve. Most of the people making the suggestion have nothing but good intentions designed to ensure that jerks online no longer have a wall to hide behind, but it’s a road that leads to marginalized people being more exposed and the jerks being largely unaffected.

So let’s start by looking at something that we unfortunately need to consider whenever we discuss toxicity: Facebook. Facebook is terrible. There’s a reason that “your racist family members on Facebook” has become a ubiquitous cultural touchstone rather than just something some people have to deal with. Many of us have at least one relative or personal contact who has been deeply offensive or terrible on Facebook by this point.

You may be aware that Facebook requires you to not be anonymous, and while it is possible to circumvent the system, most of the people in question are quite willing to attach all of this nonsense to their real names. Exampleman Q. Fakenamington is perfectly happy to let everyone know that Exampleman Q. Fakenamington doesn’t trust immigrants or science without a trace of anonymity.

The reason for this is something that probably has a lot of complex psychology you could use to analyze the problem, but the simple version seems to be fairly straightforward. These are not people who need to be anonymous; rather, from their perspective, their targets are functionally anonymous. They don’t see people they’re attacking as being real people. And given the existing problems with explaining to Exampleman Q. Fakenamington that you’re gay the next time he starts in on one of his anti-homosexual rants, you’re probably more inclined to ignore him than argue with him.


Of course, most people who have a genuine desire to fix these problems are also cognizant of the fact that just removing anonymity is not in and of itself enough to fix the problem. It’s seen as more “step one” than “the only trick.” No, usually this ties in with the idea that you need to tie some kind of consequences to being a turdwaffle in with that lack of anonymity.

And it’s not entirely wrong. After all, people are a lot less likely to be utter fecal disasters in games where there is an expectation that being terrible has consequences. In Final Fantasy XIV, even if someone is terrible at the game, there are going to be consequences for suggesting that they play chicken with a stationary industrial fan; in World of Warcraft, there’s no expectation of swift or fair moderation, so people are more likely to just say these things.

Here’s the thing, though. Let’s say that I’m reported for suggesting that someone’s appearance suggests a heritage unusually rich in simian ancestry. What if I said that in response to someone shouting about how trans people don’t deserve rights? Should the consequences be different if that were my motivation as opposed to criticizing someone’s play style as a Warrior? Who decides that? If that should result in lesser consequences, how do you prove that the insult was tied to genuine offense instead of concern trolling?

I realize it might sound like I’m just asking questions about how one chooses to moderate a game, and that is accurate as far as it goes. This is a complicated question. But the point I’m making is also that it is genuinely complicated, and just saying “there should be consequences” implies a central authority that can make the call over what those consequences should be and enforce them universally.

Do I really need to make it clear that such central authorities can have their own agendas and desires which may not always align with those of the people who suggest these solutions? Like, I hate to put too fine a point on it, but this is literally the premise of an episode of Black Mirror in which the point was “this is a terrible idea and would lead to really dysfunctional human dynamics and behavioral incentives.”

Or you could look at China’s whole social credit system, which sounds in theory like what these people are advocating for and in practice is a pretty horrifying tool for party control over social interaction. (Read up on Xu Xiaodong, for example; love him or hate him, it’s clear that his social credit score has been messed with for espousing views China’s government dislikes.)


This isn’t even a new concept in the MMO space. We all remember the RealID fiasco, right? For those of you who don’t, the short version was that Blizzard wanted to ensure that posting on the WoW forums required you linking your real name and identity to anything that you said on the forums, disregarding the fact that there were people who had aspects of their lives in-game they did not necessarily want to broadcast to the whole world. Yes, it’d be nice to know that Exampleman Q. Fakenamington (what is this dude’s deal) is part of a guild called Racial Epithets Are Good Actually, but it’s kind of harmful when it turns out that another gamer is actually a trans man living in a regressive area where he can’t be open with his identity, and now he’s either exposed or driven from the game or both.

After immense amount of public backlash, Blizzard backed down and abandoned RealID, which was honestly always a terrible idea. Again, the problem that the company was attempting to solve wasn’t actually that the players were anonymous but that people saying and doing awful things saw their targets as anonymous. And attaching a real name doesn’t change actually that. If you can’t care about someone’s feelings attached to a name like Grignr or Moondancer, you aren’t going to care when it’s Firstname Lastname either

It’s not that the core idea here is wrong. Facing some sort of deterring consequences for being an awful person is, ideally, what we all want. The goal of every enforcement system is to catch the people who terrible to others. The problem comes with the idea of creating some unbiased third-party arbitration group that keeps a perfect watch over who deserves consequences and has the authority to enforce them.

This is something that even supposedly neutral moderation teams in games can’t manage. (It was just this week that MechWarrior Online’s mod teams messed up and banned someone for saying “trans rights.”) And trusting another outside authority with more power is just asking for trouble and inviting it for a lot of people who deserve anonymity… while not even slowing down the people who never cared about it to begin with.

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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