The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs


I’ve spent eighteen months interacting almost daily with the same group of forty to fifty people, for up to four hours a day on occasion. None of them call me by name.

Oh, they know my character’s name in World of Warcraft (WoW), the massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG) where we interact as a guild, confronting the game’s tougher challenges as a team. My guildmates know my catch phrases and my habits, my playing style and my singing ability (or lack thereof), but few of them know the name I was born to. I’m not Chris to them in WoW—I’m Fellstone. And if someone were to use my real name in the game, I probably wouldn’t even respond to it, out of non-recognition rather than petulance. Am I Fellstone to myself in WoW, too?

Gaming in general involves some degree of identification beyond the self. We invest the checker we move with the desire to reach the other side of the board, the video game sprite we maneuver via joystick with the will to thread a maze. Avalon Hill game boxes were festooned with blurbs drawing the would-be gamer into the game world contained within. For instance, Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) invites you to identify with the setting on a personal level:

From your vantage point behind the matched grays of the House of Gaiius, you watch as the sultry image is broken by the clatter of late-arriving chariots approaching the starting line. . . . The Roman is using razor sharp scythe blades—a cruel threat to any wheel or horseflesh which ventures too near. You are all that stands between him and the favorable inside position at the far corner.

The outcomes of games matter because we are involved with them personally to some extent. Role playing games—traditional pen-and paper, computer, and online—rely on the one-to-one identification between the player and the character played for their power and effect. We identify with the character; much of the impetus for playing RPGs stems from the desire to develop the character. RPGs, particularly online and pen-and-paper, tend not to have “winning” conditions, the character’s evolution being the paramount reason for playing at all. At some point, we transition from “Helvetica the Mage died!” to “I died!”

However, other than on dedicated role playing servers (and not always there, either), most MMOs don’t quite foster what might be considered active role playing communities. Text messaging shorthand and contemporary references abound, undoing any immersive qualities that the game’s designers might have attempted to bestow upon their creation through elaborate backstories (“lore” in the MMO parlance) and a consistent mise en scène. It’s hard to imagine yourself in a bustling, brooding city of undeath when the local chat channels are filled with discussions of last night’s football game and how someone is an idiot for asking for directions.

So if they’re not role playing, why do my guildmates call me by my character’s name?

It’s not because of any want to have an immersive experience that my guildmates don’t use my real name. Rather, efficiency, context cues, and the desire to create and reinforce community drive the use of character names, as opposed to real names, in communication in virtual worlds such as WoW.

My current guild is composed of people who, for the most part, do not know each other in the quaintly named “real world.” They initially banded together because they were all Oceanic time zone players on an East Coast US game server. Not knowing one another’s real names, it was simply easier to use character names for communicating. As more and more players joined the guild, the possibility of anyone being able to use a real name and have the reference understood dwindled.

By the time I joined, the guild had over a hundred individual accounts associated with it, and probably multiple Toms and Janes and Davids. Because MMOs have a per-server requirement for unique character names, in a community with many people, ease of use wins out over use of real names. While there might be a Leegolas and a Legollas and a Leglolzas, at least they’re all spelled differently, allowing for distinction, a key component of identification.

I’ve also been in a guild formed initially by people who were friends in real life, and they did use real names, but only in social chatting situations. When the guild was engaged in large-scale fights requiring some degree of precision and quick communication, or when individuals who were from outside the guild were interacting with us, only character names were used. Efficiency trumped familiarity in this instance.

Further, everything you do in game is mediated through the character names. The user interface contextually reinforces the identification between player and character. Characters run around with their names over their heads, and even if you want to send a private message to your friend Larry, you have to type a command that includes his in-game name or, at the very least, click on a graphic that represents his name. Similarly, unless you can see the character on the screen or have previously interacted, to make contact with someone else requires first knowing, and then typing, his or her name.

Names, names, names

This text-based interactivity, by the way, is why people who use diacritical marks or other letters requiring non-standard key strokes to type (like Årîél) come in for some grief. It’s simply harder to interact with them.

The desire (perhaps unconscious) to create and, more significantly, maintain community, also accounts for the use of character names. In the guild formed by real life friends using real names, there was often a sense of an “inner circle” (or “outer circle” in this case?) of people who would interact outside the game. Not being one of the people gifted with a real name in that guild, I never felt fully a part of the group, and ultimately I decided to leave. The conversations that would crop up in guild chat were often continuations of conversations from the night before at the bar or diner. There’s a community there, but not an inclusive one.

While my current guild does have some people who know each other in real life—siblings, spouses, partners, friends—I cannot recall an instance of a real name being used in public communication, either textual or via voice chat. I’m not certain whether they send private messages using real names, or even whether they speak to each other using character names while playing in the same room. But the overall effect of the uniformity of character name usage is to put everyone in the same social rank, such that even discussions between friends of concerts attended, trips taken, or other real life events don’t feel exclusionary. It’s not Tom and Chuck discussing these events, it’s Maynardo and Glisten, and I know them, where I don’t know Tom and Chuck.

It can be argued that this use of character names is just a function of efficiency and context, as discussed, but I find it striking that even when a player is “on an alt”—playing a character other than his or her most commonly used “main” character—most communication is directed at the main character’s name. So if I’m on my alt, Daunt, people who know it’s “me” refer to me by my main character’s name, Fellstone.

Further, when someone changes his or her character’s name—due to a naming rule violation or, in the case of my guild, when we changed servers and some names were already taken by other people—the original name tends to remain in conversational use for some period of time. It’s usually not until the player gets upset at the use of the old name—suggesting some identification with the new name—that the transition takes place.

Game functions still need to be routed through the currently played character’s name in these instances. That’s fairly inefficient to have to remember the various other characters played by each member of the guild and which one is the main character, and yet it’s the norm, at least in my guild, highlighting the degree to which other people see you as embodying not just any character but rather the one they identify you with. And this identification from without reinforces self-identification with that name and that character, possibly to the detriment of my identification with my differently named alternate characters.

Names are serious business in MMOs, and I cringe whenever I see someone who has not given thought and care to the choice of an in-game name. One could trot out the old canard about names having power, and hiding one’s true name for this reason, but in this case, the real name has less power than the character’s name. We are what—or who—we play.

2 thoughts on “The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs

  1. Chris Baer

    That looks excellent. Thanks for the tip. I’m going to have to track that book down.

    I’ve read some of the basics in the field, like Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds. The MIT Press books look like a logical next step.

Comments are closed.