Virtual worlds blog Terra Nova takes a look at some of the choices players make when naming their avatars in Massively Multiplayer Online games, examining the rather mundane inspirations that guide some decisions.
While focusing mainly on a World of Warcraft forum thread that examines avatar names derived from common household objects, Terra Nova’s Timothy Burke also touches on a very interesting point about the intersection between names and voice communication:
Other times, we’ve given some thought to how a neologism or random name sounds. But other times, the question itself is a bit of a surprise, and we suddenly realize that something which was entirely textual up to that point is now also oral. It’s really interesting to see how people negotiate that moment of invention, where they have to decide just how to say the character’s name, or decide that they don’t really care how it’s said and will respond to any recognizable variant pronounciation.
As I’ve examined in the past, character names are important to a player’s immersion in the game world. If my character’s name is unpronounceable, or untypable, I have to accept that other players will refer to me by a nickname or shortening of my chosen character name. If you cannot adapt to the name that is bestowed upon you because of the inherent complexity of your chosen name, you’ll find your immersion lessened.
The fact that most games put up barriers to name changes, ranging from a not-insubstantial fee (as in World of Warcraft’s $10 charge) to a complete prohibition on changes (as in EVE Online), suggests that game developers understand the importance of a consistent name, both for continuity of reputation within the game world and for that sticky, immersive quality that keeps players playing—and paying for—the game.
One of the ways to reach Movement Point is to type “doctor who mmorpg” into a search engine, owing to our twin fascinations with Dr. Who and gaming here. This site doesn’t show up until the third or fourth page on that search, though, so you have to be pretty desperate for news about a potential Dr. Who Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game to click through to here. And yet my site stats indicate that someone did.
I can understand the desire. Over forty years, Dr. Who‘s writers and producers have populated the show’s more-or-less coherent universe with plenty of planets to explore, characters to revisit, and enemies to defeat yet again. MMOs, and role playing games generally, put the player into the story universe, to shape it and become a part of it, a form of “active” fan fiction. Millions log in to fight dragons daily; it’s not such a stretch to imagine gamers going online to take down Daleks.
So what, then, would a Dr. Who MMORPG look like?
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!”