One of the things I’m most interested in as an ethnographer is the interface between online and offline life, and how this line is increasingly blurred. I originally became interested in this when reading about the Magic Circle, a concept which was first used by Johan Huizinga and refers to the “membrane” that surrounds a game world. This construct, although more then half a century old, has been immensely useful to me in understanding how people operate within the rules and norms of digital game culture.
When you are inside of the magic circle, different rules apply and you are protected from most of the norms and consequences of “real life” as long as you are inside of the game and obey its rules. As the term “membrane” suggests, the boundary between the game world and the rest of life is porous, and elements often go back and forth between the game and the non-game. For example, even if you are playing a game and are allowed to attack other players' avatars, threatening other players or physically injuring them is not permitted. This porous boundary surfaces in digital gaming in examples such as the sanctioning system Riot is testing to reduce online toxicity as Jim reported from GDC. Blizzard Entertainment sued a gold farming / power leveling service back in 2007 for real-world damages for violating the rules of their magic circle, and being from Iran means you are excluded from World of Warcraft entirely. These are large-scale phenomena, mostly involving the breaking of game rules (or the prioritizing of game-external rules like government sanctions). In regular interactions by rule-abiding players, these kinds of consequences won’t be encountered regularly; in day-to-day gaming life, players deal with the barrier of the magic circle most often when it comes to their identities.
Players (and, indeed, users of any digital service) by and large want to have control over how much identity information they disclose, and they want to know ahead of time what information will be out there. Most of the participants in my ethnography agreed that if they wanted another player to have their real name or their physical location or other identity traits such as gender, the players themselves wanted to be the ones to divulge that information. This became problematic in World of Warcraft and other Blizzard games in July of 2010, right in the thick of my ethnographic research, when Blizzard Entertainment announced that they would be integrating real names with characters using the RealID system. This was a change in the previously-established system in which real names were not associated with characters in any way. This sudden change provoked a huge backlash from the community, resulting in what was apparently the most Blizzard forum posts about a topic ever (up until that date) and a mass exodus from the game in protest. A few players in my study quit playing right then and there over concern about the safety of their identities inside of this game that they loved playing. Blizzard had changed the rules -- all of a sudden, to get into the magic circle you would have to bring your real name with you.
The greatest concern came from the women I interacted with. Women receive enough harassment in the game already from being “discovered” to be women either by having their voices heard over voice chat or even divulging their gender identity willingly. The women I talked to often used the veil of anonymity provided by the game to protect themselves from harassment, either by not explicitly revealing their gender or by avoiding voice chat whenever possible. The attachment of real names via RealID removed that option for them; many women have explicitly female names that would remove any protection from such gender-based threats. One of my participants was being internet stalked at the time by a former guild member, and she was instantly worried that her real name being associated with her character would put her at greater risk of harm from this person and his friends. As a warning about this possibility, apparently a Blizzard employee who willingly attached his name to his character had his personal information posted on the forums by players within five minutes. The problem here was that players had no agency in this decision -- they could not control who saw their names or when, and that was a gross breach of the rules for the membrane of the magic circle. What had once been a relatively safe space suddenly became a source of threat for their physical well-being.
In the end, Blizzard backed down and made RealID and real names an optional feature -- one that is very limited in its use. The players I studied use RealID only for their offline friends who also play World of Warcraft, or those other players with whom they have become so close that they would willingly divulge that information anyway. Again, it’s about players wanting control over what information goes back and forth between online and offline spaces, and keeping the rules that are in play inside of the magic circle consistent.
I sometimes get the sense that referencing the Magic Circle is passe in current theoretical approaches. However, in my ethnographic work, players were well aware of that boundary between the game and the rest of life and could clearly articulate what that boundary meant to them. Examples like the RealID fiasco and the players' desire for agency show just how useful the construct still is after all these years.
Player Culture: The RealID Fiasco and the Magic Circle by Lauren Collister, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.