Laudator: Frans Valenta

The BigBrotherAward 2012 in the “Consumer Protection” category goes to

Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

a division of Activision Blizzard,

for turning a playful spare time activity at the computer into a battle for privacy with a seven-headed dragon. A first victory has now gone to the online role-players; but the dragon has only been lightly wounded, and it is rearming.

If you are familiar with fantasy literature and mythological figures, you will know: dragons, especially the multi-headed varieties, are often used to symbolise evil. Such as Hydra, the serpent-like beast Heracles had to slay as the second of his twelve labours. Now online role-players are getting to feel the might of the dragon, too – and not just while they are completing their tasks or “quests”.

There is a dragon that follows the players all the time, and whose presence they can not notice, because it is invisible. It hides away in the terms and conditions, successfully camouflaged under pages and pages of text, which (as we all know from experience) are swiftly clicked away so that one can finally get on with the game.

Just this once, we would like to examine closely what such a dragon looks like, and how it affects the players. A Hydra, for example, possesses nine heads, eight of which are mortal and one immortal. As soon as one head is cut off, two new heads grow in its place. The dragon deployed by Blizzard Entertainment and other online role-play providers, such as second market leader Electronic Arts, has rather similar features.

Once upon a time, around the year 2004 or 2005, online role-players would simply create a cool phantasy name and an enchanted password to open the gates to the dungeons of the virtual worlds. Today’s laureate, the Blizzard dragon decided in 2009 that this was no longer good enough. It wanted to register all users in its universal account system, encompassing several games at once. Since that time, all users are forced to register with an existing email address. Other game providers followed the example. The weapon which the dragon deployed for this assault on privacy was the first of its seven heads: a change of terms.

The Terms

In effect, terms are the immortal “chief” of the games. They force the user to accept all conditions, without exception. Without clicking the “accept” button, users are not granted entry to the “World of Warcraft” and other virtual game environments. By accepting, the users relinquish “all rights and title in and to the service (including without limitation any user accounts, titles, […] characters, character names, stories, dialogue, […] moral rights, […] transcripts of the chat rooms, character profile information, recordings of games)” – this is quoted from Blizzard’s “terms of service”, through which the provider is given wide-ranging influence over the users’ private data.

For example, users must consent to a permanent

Memory Scan

of the computer’s working memory while the game is running, carried out by the provider’s software (the software used by Blizzard is called “Warden”, Electronic Arts has “Origin”). The scan will register all processor activity. These programs were developed because many players were using so-called “bot” programs to collect “gold” or increase their character’s strength. This upset most other users, and there were calls on the providers to respond. The memory scan is meant to detect “bot” programs and prevent cheating. What the providers will do with the information they collect – not all related to gaming – is completely unclear. This led the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil rights groups to rate the scanning programs as “spyware”.

The next dragon head with a license to spy is the permission for

Chat Recording.

This affects all the text communication that is typed into small chat windows during the game. At least Blizzard is not storing audio chat recordings, as an automatic analysis is technically unfeasible due to the variety of languages and dialects. At least for now.

A very rich source of spy fodder for our dragon, though, is

Game Recording.

This registers all of a player’s actions chronologically. To prevent users from realising that a data retention and movement profiling scheme is established here,

Player Rankings

were introduced. Honourable mentions will appear for fights, “player versus player” action, for completing “dungeons” and “raids”, for professional skills acquired by one’s character, its reputation, and its participation in so-called “world events”. Reading information about a character is not restricted to the owning player. Everyone who knows the name of a character in a gaming “world” can use the so-called “armory” to access the information on the Internet. This will reveal how often and how long players have been playing.

By observing the way a player has played over time, a

Personality Profile

can be obtained for every player. US patent 20070072676 – filed in 2005 and published in 2007 in the name of a Google researcher – describes in detail how recorded gaming characteristics, time spent in chats, behaviour in trading, territory exploration, decision-making in conflicts, a calm or aggressive style of playing or a player’s readiness to take risks can all be analysed for the purpose of targeted advertising.

Psychologists could well derive from this whether someone might join the military, who should have his credit rating downgraded, who possesses leadership qualities, who should be avoided because of rowdy behaviour, who is a potential game addict or probably unemployed. Some game tasks seem like they were written as a direct recruitment tool for special forces – players may have to carry out targeted killings of civilians, or force confessions by torturing with electric shocks. Tasks like this have a strong resemblance to the Milgram experiment of 1961, which tested ordinary people’s readiness to follow authoritarian orders even if these were clear violations of their conscience.

In the field trial labs of our “dragon creator” Blizzard, everything is recorded. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with organisations that might show great interest in these player profiles.

“This will not harm me as long as I operate my avatar anonymously”, many players may have thought – that is, until

Friend Lists

were going to be introduced. The friendship scheme would have compelled forum users to use their real name online, instead of a pseudonym. Again, this was prompted by players calling on the provider to act against trolling co players. “Fine, we will personalise our service then”, was Blizzards response, “and while we’re at it, why don’t we include Facebook accounts and their friend lists as well.” In the words of the company, this would “enhance the social-entertainment experience for our players”. At least this feature is optional: Players must actively allow Blizzard’s game “Starcraft II” to access friend lists on Facebook.

A co founder of the company praised the change with the claim that “removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven't been connected before.” But the players were not at all pleased that their employers or neighbours might suddenly be able to identify them as regular online players. Very soon, there were more than 12,000 complaints filling the German forums alone. A “shitstorm” broke loose on the dragon, on Blizzard and its “battle.net”.

The community manager in the US wanted to lead by example and blithely published his real name. Soon, this led to action: at lightning speed, his address, phone number, age, name and age of family members, personal preferences and more details were posted in the Internet forums. Capitulation was achieved within two days. It was announced that “at this time […] real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums”. This was at least a partial victory won by players with their growing desire for protection of their personal rights and data.

Blizzard had already won an Austrian Big Brother Award in 2005, in the “communications and marketing” category, for spying on computer’s working memory and data.

Our reason to give today’s BigBrotherAward is the full interaction between numerous components, under the label “Real ID”. When players log on to, say, “World of Warcraft” and “Starcraft II”, using the same e mail address, they find themselves on Blizzard’s battle.net server and they can see if their friends are online in other Blizzard games. And of course they can be seen themselves, too. If players just want to have a good time in a colourful gaming world and not leave a character fingerprint on the network, they must be very well informed, use separate e mail addresses and take meticulous care to separate their game identities.

The dragon may have lost one head in the failed attempt to introduce real names via Real ID. But soon, two heads will grow back – what will they be? Blizzard’s partial withdrawal was not caused by insight, neither was it for the sake of players’ convenience: it was due to massive protests against a naive mistake in marketing. With comprehensive recording of players’ actions and behavioural patterns, Blizzard and other game providers are paving the way towards personalised in game advertising and character profiles that could easily be shared with third parties after a clandestine change of terms.

To make one thing clear: we do not think that online gaming is evil as such. Blizzard in particular offer some very creative games. We would wish that this BigBrotherAward – and the publicity that comes with it – will make Blizzard rethink its privacy settings, and that players will take the trouble of actually reading the terms. Our hope is to set a signal for the whole gaming industry, for the benefit of consumers.

In that spirit – congratulations, Blizzard Entertainment, on the 2012 BigBrotherAward.

 

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