As is evident, WoW has great potential to turn even solo play into a social experience as we saw in the previous parts, depending on what level of sociability we tap into. However, solo play was also utilized as an escape from the social venue of the game, described by the players I interviewed in terms of taking a break or hiding:
Ironyca: You characterized playing alone as a break, what would it be a break from? (Just to make sure I understand you correctly)
Jefflindsay: People talking! haha. That constant scroll of bright green is a strain on the eyes :P
Here we are looking at the extreme end of solo play where the player purposefully wants to avoid contact. One of the more efficient ways to do this is to create a secret alt.
This particular topic is something I feel strongly about, I used to have a secret alt myself, my shadowpriest who later became my main through several expansions. While she was secret, it was a huge relief to play her, I could level and PvP in peace. I wasn’t trying to escape huge guild drama, I just needed a quick play session, some quiet time and no questions asked and my shadowpriest offered all of this.
Obligation and the difficulty of opting out
In T.L. Taylor’s book Play Between Worlds – Exploring Online Game Culture (2006), she documents how experienced players found themselves spending increasing amounts of time helping out friends or dealing with guild matters than actually playing themselves.
Saying “no” can sometimes be interpreted very negatively as rejection. Think about how a friend might react if you say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t attend your party tonight, I’m not in the mood”. I’ve tried it and usually people will think something’s wrong and won’t let you off the hook that easily. Why do you think everyone’s always busy? (whether it be offline or online) – Because it’s the bulletproof answer to every request, every question, every invitation! We aren’t always that busy, but saying so, stops the questioning and lets us move on.
The decision to keep a certain character secret illuminates that perhaps the social obligations that are connected to f. ex being part of a guild or more broadly online friendships, can be either too demanding, or just too difficult for the players to opt out of.
I used to frequent the Guild Management section on the old forums, and one of the recurring themes was guild master burn out.
Every thread about it was written by someone in a position of responsibility, it could be both casual but also more progression oriented guilds, and now this person was sitting in front of the computer, dreading to log in. The same topics came up: guild drama escalating, increasing workloads with recruiting and guild members generally expecting your attention and assistance at random.
Play had become work.
I have never been in a position, where if I took that break I actually really needed, my guild would collapse, no one willing to step up, no one there to continue raid leading, people would scatter – but I know people who have. In such situations they would push themselves, try and stick to it until they could possibly find help to sort things out instead of just vanishing.
The social obligations had them staying in the office working over time.
And so, avoiding the confrontation of having to reject your contacts within the game can be done by simply creating a new character and omitting this fact to others, without having to log off… or can it?
RealID as Secret Alts Prevention
The biggest outcry from the community regarding RealID came from concerns over privacy – that merging real life names with WoW characters was a lot to ask for a feature that simply allowed you to chat to someone regardless of what character/blizzard game you were playing. RealID could be so simple and convenient, but instead it forces you to share, not only real names, but also every character you will ever be online on. If you have anyone on your RealID list as it is right now, you cannot also have secret alts. Putting friends on RealID is for a lot of people, including myself, not a light decision.
But why is Blizzard so vehemently against adding a show-as-offline feature that practically every other social media has had from the onset?
“The second you can turn off your presence is the second everyone does it, and then it’s a weird situation where you appear offline but you’re secretly looking at everyone else who has themselves as online, but then they find out and start offline snooping.
We encourage that Real ID only be used with people you know in real life, friends, family, co-workers, school mates, etc. and for that reason it shouldn’t need to be a secret if you’re on your computer or not.
Also, when one of my Real ID friends asks me to run a raid or fill in a spot and I don’t feel like it, I say no. I realize that may not be a situation that’s reasonable for everyone at all times. I also don’t agree to be Real ID friends with everyone I know in real life in just the same way I don’t agree to allow my Grandma to be friends with me on Facebook (for fear of her seeing pictures of me at parties, etc.). [...]“ (community manager Bashiok – source)
I like how Bashiok in the quote contradicts himself by saying RealID is for RL family and friends, and then goes on to say that he wouldn’t want his “Grandma” on there. Apparently RealID was designed with such a narrow intent in mind that you should only add people who you know offline, who also knows that having a mana potion drop is not big news and who doesn’t run and create an alt when they see you logging on your new low level stealthed rogue.
What I get from the lack of acknowledgement about players asking for an offline function, is a strange fixation on making and keeping WoW social – “goddamnit people, CHAT, chat and play together ALL the time!!!!”.
I think this is social engineering gone wrong, the leash is too tight.
We hear about employees on the work market feeling pressured to keep their mobile phone on, even when they are on vacation, and that’s basically what RealID does. It puts a phone in your pocket and tells you it can’t be switched off, omitting to answer a text message triggers perhaps another message, and another. Everyone knows that when it has been switched on – it’s on, and there’s no switching back. Let me remind you that sometimes people play this game to get away from the drama real life throws at us, yet to find themselves unable to escape overly friendly friends, insisting siblings and demanding guild members.
When I did the interviews, I was actually fortunate enough to actually run into someone’s secret alt:
Fidell: No one knows I have this character or that it’s me! My hide away for the moment lol.
Fidell did specify that she did not intend her character to remain secret forever. It was a momentary choice for her, as she said she might reveal herself on this character in the future.
This series is unfortunately unable to say how permanent players consider their secret alts to be or how often they play them. A deeper investigation into the phenomenon of secret alts and how players utilize them could pose much richer information about the backsides of social gaming and the commitments to others, players can find themselves persistently abiding to and in the end wishing to escape.
This is something I don’t see RealID or the upcoming Battle Tags change, in fact, I believe they are worsening the problem.
There’s a limit to social play and it’s not necessarily something players want to engage in at every opportunity, regardless of the fact they are playing an MMO.