As is being widely reported, the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) has confirmed that it is changing its policies to allow users to change their screen names almost at will. This change was actually announced back in June, as a bullet point in a blog post by Microgaming Head of Poker Alex Scott. At the time, Scott claimed the change would be forthcoming in the following month’s client update; although that ended up not happening, Scott confirmed to Pokerfuse last week that it was still forthcoming, and now expected for September 22.

Temporary vs. persistent screen names

Most of the stories on this change have focused on the obvious advantages of such a system over persistent screen names, some of which were expressly stated by Scott. Scott told Pokerfuse that the primary intent was to stop “parasitic” players from chasing the weakest players from table to table and avoiding other regulars. Others have pointed out that it also reduces the value of using third-party assistive software like HUDs, prevents data-mining (which is against the terms of service of most sites, but hard to police), and so on.

These are all real and self-evident advantages of course, but they’re all advantages which are also provided by anonymous play, which MPN has already been offering for years. Comparing changeable screen names to permanent ones, then, seems a little bit pointless; if MPN had simply decided the advantages of anonymous over persistent-identity play were overwhelming, they could have simply made the entire site anonymous, as is already the case with some other sites, such as Bodog/Bovada.

Since MPN opted to continue offering both anonymous and pseudonymous play, the real question is what advantages and disadvantages are had by non-persistent pseudonymous identities relative to full anonymity, rather than to persistent identities.

Update: Ed Pownall, PR Director for the Bodog brand, reached out to us to offer his take on MPN’s decision:

While we applaud MPN’s movement towards our Recreational Poker Model with the option for players to change their screen name more regularly we are not convinced this will solve their problem in the way we believe our ‘all anonymous’ version does. This is because the casual player is largely unaware about being fleeced by data miners so probably won’t undertake to use this feature.

A persistent identity is still an option

One obvious advantage, from a public relations and marketing perspective, is that the change is one that is being made available to players at their discretion, rather than one being forced on them. A player who wants, for whatever reason, to retain their screen name can still do so, for as long as they want. Of course, when one player opts to keep their screen name, while playing against others who are changing theirs on a regular basis, they are allowing an information asymmetry which is to their disadvantage, but some players may not particularly care.

Some players are more social than others, for instance, and may enjoy chatting while playing with familiar opponents; even if those opponents are changing their names, as long as the first player is keeping his, it allows others who know him to say hi. Other players – particularly tournament players – may be in it for recognition as much as money, and may want to keep their name so as to build a reputation; it’s obviously much less satisfying to win a tournament when the rest of the world knows only that it was won by “Anonymous Player #8.”

It’s not all or nothing, either. Players are limited to one screen name change every 30 days or 1000 real-money hands. While some players will attempt to change their name as often as possible under this scheme, and others may never change theirs, I suspect the majority of players will do so more erratically, opting for a switch whenever they’re on a downswing and becoming paranoid that their opponents have twigged to their strategy. Under this system, everyone is free to strike whatever balance they want between near-total anonymity and a persistent identity.

Thwarting software without confusing humans

Some players may also opt to use the option to make minor changes to their screen name to throw stat-tracking software off their trail, while still making their identity clear to actual human beings who know them. For instance, switching a capital O to a 0 or vice versa in my username would not confuse any humans as to my online identity – most probably wouldn’t even notice that it had changed. It would, however, be a sufficient change that standard third party software would no longer identify me as the same player, and effectively cause my HUD stats to be reset for all my regular opponents.

Of course, in the case of off-site and real-life friends, players can also tell people when they’ve changed their name, so even with a complete change of screen name, it will still possible for players to seek their friends out at the tables, or rail them when they’re running deep in a tournament, which is impossible with full anonymity.

A matter of feel

Perhaps most importantly, seeing a variety of screen names at one’s table just feels different from playing against a set of numbered, anonymous opponents. The narrative of the game is very important to casual players, and full anonymity probably undermines that to some extent. No matter what, online poker will never compare to live in terms of its human aspects, but screen names at least provide some sort of image – possibly correct, possibly not – of the sort of people one is playing against. Such images may be misleading, but there’s still a much more visualizable story to be enjoyed when hands are playing out between people named, say, “grindinhard,” “.oO Brandi1985 Oo.,” “TexasTom,” and “Cheetos420” than between four faceless, numbered users.

Also, while anonymous play does raise some legitimate security concerns, which we’ll get to in a minute, it also inspires a certain amount of paranoia. You may not actually be any more or less likely to be playing against a bot or a cheater when seated at a table with changeable screen names than at an anonymous table, but I’d wager that for the average user, the humanizing effect of screen names makes the former far less likely to inspire fears that this is going on. And while various kinds of botting and cheating are a real and growing problem in online poker, I’d say that for the time being, we’re still at a point where the damage done to the ecosystem by players’ fear of such things is still greater than the damage done by the things themselves.

Some downsides

All that said, changeable screen names are not simply the “best of both worlds.” Despite holding some obvious advantages over either full anonymity or persistent pseudonymity, MPN’s new system does bring with it a couple of foreseeable disadvantages: it’s more vulnerable to collusion than either of the alternatives, and it introduces the possibility of spoofing, which was never an issue before.

When anonymous play was first introduced, one of the biggest complaints was that players felt they could no longer keep an eye out for collusion between their opponents. This is a valid concern, as under anonymous play, players can no longer tell whether two similar instances of suspicious looking play at different tables involved the same players, or different ones. Advocates for anonymous play have two counterpoints to make: firstly, that sites’ security teams detect more instances of collusion on their own than with user assistance, and the vast majority of “collusion” cases reported by users prove to be nothing of the sort. Secondly, that anonymity presents a barrier to collusion, in that it’s harder for would-be collusion partners to get themselves seated at the same table, and that the process they’d have to go through in order to do so – changing tables repeatedly and comparing flops until they both see the same one and thus know they’re seated together – would itself be a red flag that site security teams could look for.

The first point is probably true, though the recent uncovering a bot ring by TwoPlusTwo users, which had been missed by PokerStars security, is an effective counterpoint to the notion that self-policing by users is always not important. More critically, however, the second point goes out the window when it comes to changeable screen names; now, two players interested in colluding can change their screen names repeatedly to avoid notice by other users, while simply telling each other what name they’re now playing under, so there’s no trouble finding each other. Of course, if they always sit together, that can easily be picked up on by security, but a clever collusion team needn’t be that obvious.

Probably less important, but still an issue, is the fact that users will now be able to assume identities formerly held by others, and possibly use this to malicious ends. Fortunately, MPN does not allow direct transfers of funds between users, so the most obvious form of abuse – posing as someone using their old screen name to solicit loans from friends who aren’t aware of the change – shouldn’t be an issue, but there are other, more subtle things a would-be con artist could try. The most likely problem that we’ll see, in my prediction, is that loophole being exploited for purposes of harassment.

In particular, I can see the possibility of such spoofing being an issue for players whose usernames were well-known and connected to their public identities prior to these changes. After all, changing one’s username won’t change any Google search results connecting one’s real identity to that pseudonym; if the person in question is sufficiently high-profile that they’re worried about others seeking to damage their reputation, you can see how they might be averse to switching to a different username, thereby opening the door for others to impersonate them using the old one. Meanwhile, refusing to change brings its own problem, in the form of the information asymmetry we discussed earlier; caught between those two unappealing options, I can imagine these changes being a deal-breaker for some players in that position, though probably not enough of them to worry MPN much.

Update: According to Alex Scott, MPN will be imposing a delay between the time a user changes their screen name and that screen name becoming available as a valid choice for others; this won’t completely eliminate all possible spoofing abuses, but will prevent those related to game integrity, such as a winning player immediately grabbing a name previously used by a known losing player, prior to other players noticing that the latter has stopped using it.

No possibility for three options

Unfortunately, when it comes to changeable or persistent pseudonyms, I can’t see any possibility to have it both ways. The same site can offer both anonymous and pseudonymous options, as MPN is doing, but trying to offer both changeable and persistent screen names would be hopelessly confusing. The difference between those two possibilities, though significant in its impact, is much too subtle for the average user, whereas the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity is much more obvious and tangible. The switch from persistent pseudonyms to changeable ones is also a much easier sell than the reverse, so once these changes go through, it will be hard for MPN to backtrack if the impact is not what is expected.

All that being the case, I think this is brave move for MPN and it will be interesting to see what comes of it. On the whole, I think the advantages over either of the other models outweigh the disadvantages, provided that MPN can quell people’s anxieties about cheaters and team-players hiding behind ever-changing identities. That’s as much a problem of perception as reality, though, so tight security alone won’t cut it; players don’t just have to be safe, they have to feel safe, and the latter may prove the trickier to provide.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.