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Game players say Blizzard invades privacy

Publisher irks "World of Warcraft" players by peering into their computers to look for hacking software.

A number of "World of Warcraft" players are up in arms over software being used by the game's publisher to scan users' computers for hacks prohibited under its terms of service.

Many publishers of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) contend regularly with players crafting illegal software hacks that provide some form of gameplay advantage, such as increased speed, awareness of monsters or the like.

To that end, some publishers have deployed programs that can peer into players' computers in an attempt to detect the existence of such hacking software. Blizzard Entertainment, publisher of "World of Warcraft," is one of those companies.

We're not the police...
We have no interest in personal information because it has no direct bearing for our game."
--John Lagrave
Senior producer, "World of Warcraft" live operations team

Players sometimes cry foul about such practices, though, arguing that a game developer's need to keep out hackers doesn't outweigh customers' rights to privacy.

"It opens the ability for a company to do a whole list of things under the guise of security," said a frequent "World of Warcraft" player who asked to be referred to only by his first name, Dennis. "Once you give a company the right to scan your system, you've basically opened the door...Now you must fully trust that company with any data on your computer, because it's at their discretion that they download this data and do whatever they want to with it under the guise of stopping the hackers."

Another player, known as Malek, wrote in a forum on the official game Web site that users should be wary of Blizzard's motives.

"All of you people not concerned about this," Malek wrote, "are showing an awful lot of trust in Blizzard and its coders not to do anything malicious."

But Blizzard said that it isn't interested in anything other than whether users are trying to hack into the game.

"Our stance has always been that we really want to stop the hacker that actively attacks our game," said John Lagrave, senior producer on the "World of Warcraft" live operations team. "We have a system that looks for hacks into the actual game itself. We're not the police; we're not the Nazis. We have no interest in personal information because it has no direct bearing for our game."

Nevertheless, the history of MMORPGs suggests that sometimes game publishers underestimate players' desire for privacy. In one case, "Everquest" publisher Sony Online Entertainment quickly deactivated its own scanning software after players reacted angrily.

"We put a feature into 'Everquest' that was scanning background programs to find people who were hacking and cheating in the game," said Chris Kramer, director of public relations at Sony Online Entertainment. "We did it the wrong way. We put it into the game without alerting the player base first. We apologized to our user base and promised that in the future if we looked to use a scanning program, we'll let them know ahead of time."

Blizzard said that its own scanning of "World of Warcraft" players' computers is different from that of the "Everquest" situation, because Blizzard spells out in the game's end-user license agreement, or EULA, that the company maintains the right to perform such anti-hacking scans. Players like Dennis and others who have complained about the scanning on the game's official forums don't have much of a leg to stand on, Blizzard says.

"People should read contracts," Lagrave said. "Whenever we update our game, that EULA is always displayed so that people have to accept it every time. So it's been in their face many times."

Kramer agreed that players need to be more careful about reading what they agree to.

"People should read the EULA," Kramer said. If they don't, "that's like saying, 'I didn't read the contract before I signed it. Why does the devil own my soul now?'"