Concealing Your Identity

Wes Makin

Wasn't Peter Parker a World Dip Champ?

Superman. Spider-Man. Batman. What do these three crusaders for good have in common? (Other than a non-Newtonian, let alone Einsteinian universe?) Why, secret identities, of course! And why do these heroes hide their identities? To protect their loved ones primarily, but also, to only a slightly lesser degree, to protect themselves. ("Fellow Arkham escapees, it looks as if Bruce Wayne is the keynote speaker at a charity function tonight. If we blow the building up, no more Batman!")

And what, dear reader does this have to do Diplomacy? The simple fact that many of us play games under the guise of an alter-ego. Not just the Kaiser So-and-so type of alter-ego's, but using the Gunboat variant, full and complete anonymity. (For purposes of clarity I must mention that when I talk about Gunboat in these paragraphs I use the electronic definition of the term, as opposed to the postal definition -- which as I recall is equivalent to the e-mail game's "no-press.") Personally, I usually play Gunboat games because that's what the opening was for when I was looking for a game. But I know that there are players that prefer to play in Gunboat games for some reason or another. One assumes that a large subset of these players do so because of reputation (good or bad) and the probability that extra attention will be focused on them, even before the game begins.

So, since no one (other than the game's moderator) knows the true identities of the players, these concealed players have nothing to fear. They can play out the game without their reputation preceding them, right? Wrong! There are players out there, and I'm probably one of them, whose identities can be easily determined by their opponents if those opponents know what to what look for.

It's All a Matter of Style

Disregarding mistakes (signing press with the wrong name, forgetting an "endpress" and letting a .sig file slip through), players' secret identities run the risk of exposure for one reason: writing style. Authors are tempted to write under pseudonyms, but more often than not these attempts at going incognito fall quickly apart. An example; I had the opportunity to read "The Running Man" before it was revealed that Richard Bachman was an alias for Stephen King. The pen name didn't matter. My overwhelming impression as I read the book was akin to, "This guy writes just like Stephen King."

If King was a member of the Diplomacy community, and if he wrote reasonably long press, I'd guess that there would be a strong chance that people could ferret him out in Gunboat games. And if he was a particularly strong (or weak) player, that knowledge would color the detectives' attitudes toward him and his game. It's not just famous novelists who can be recognized from their writing style:

>All right! I got my unit into [that space]!

>Fellow allies, we've pretty much got our foe trapped.

>and, since Ally #1 is such a good plan maker,
I'm blushing.

>I'm going to let HIM think about it. (Etcetera)
I'll look at a map and get back to you soon about the Fall.

Any guesses as to the identity of Ally #1 (the responder?) Up until this exchange, there wasn't a truly distinctive style to his writing. Oh, his plans were well thought out and in-depth, but stylistically there were no red flags; he had gone to great pains to make himself as undetectable as he could. But upon reading the above toss-off response, I would have been certain (and I would have been correct) that the responder was none other than our beloved publisher, Manus Hand. One single message, written off the cuff (as opposed to thought out and planned) and I know the identity of a power. And be sure, having been stabbed by Manus and his oh-so-logical sounding arguments, I would definitely treat Ally #1 with a critical eye.

Now Manus isn't the only Diplomacy player out there whose style I'm likely to recognize. He just happens to be the one who I consulted about this article and who was kind enough to send me a whole mail folder full of press from one of his gunboat games for me to analyze. And in talking to Manus, he has seen a large amount of Gunboat press whose author he recognizes as well. (Including, I'm sure, mine.)

So the question becomes, how do you avoid being obvious in your press style? By taking the time to examine your press, and see what traits you consistently have. In preparing to write this article, and discussing it with Manus, I have come up with a list of things that either Manus or I (or, in some cases, both of us!) tend towards in our press:

  1. Trailing thought pattern, usually set off with ellipses (...)
  2. Side comments, with lots of parentheses.
  3. A consistent style of noting orders when discussing plans ("a mun m ber," for example.)
  4. A tendency for very long press, or for very short.
  5. Responding notation. Many of us have the "greater than" symbol as the default setting for noting the original text. If your default is different, it stands out. How you use the notation is important also. If you are very consistent in how you set up the spacing when you reply, you are leaving clues.
  6. A standard beginning or conclusion to your messages. If you start your messages in each game with the same "Howdy!" you will be detected if you do so in your Gunboat games.
  7. Writing style. Do you always paragraph the same? How is your grammar and spelling? What is your language usage like? Capitalization? This category probably stands out most when one is reading a message in one's native language, from another person with the same first language.
And that's just a sampling.

None of the above style-clues alone is enough to pinpoint your identity in a gunboat game. But when they start being combined, they can become as distinct as fingerprints. How can we as players avoid broadcasting our identities when we're trying to remain anonymous? Most simply, by waiting an extra minute or two before responding to another power's press. And by thinking out, and planning our press, instead of typing it up as we're thinking about it.

Wes Makin

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