Sir Chair of the Duchy of Desk: MMO Name Inspirations (or the lack thereof)

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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.

Can you find the stupid names in this picture?

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.

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Gravatars Enabled

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Sort of sounds like a line from a Gerry Anderson Supermarionation show: “Gravatars Enable!”

Generic GravatarMovement Point has turned on support for gravatars (Globally Recognized Avatars, though their globality relies on blog sites enabling the service). The notion behind the gravatar is to have an avatar that follows you from site to site as you leave comments, to create some semblance of continuity. People with shared interests tend to visit similar sites, so seeing a familiar comment avatar should help create a sense of community in the otherwise anonymous ether.

Gravatars are keyed to the e-mail address required for commenting at most blogs, though rest assured that said addresses are never displayed here at Movement Point. People without a gravatar account have a generic avatar, like the one above.

I like the notion of a single avatar for multiple sites and services. Establishing a “reputation” online is not as simple as establishing a persistent avatar (especially since you can change your gravatar at will), but any steps in the direction of accountability and defined identity online are good steps.

WordPress, the blog engine behind Movement Point, has one-click gravatar support, so it wasn’t hugely difficult to turn it on. Hardest part is figuring out what avatar you want to represent yourself everywhere . . .

Wargaming Inside: Intel's Corporate Wargames

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Tim Casey, at the Intel IT group’s blog reports on their experiences using wargaming to simulate and understand enterprise-level security threats and presents the resulting white paper (“Wargames: Serious Play that Tests Enterprise Assumptions,” .pdf).

One of Casey’s colleagues at Intel attended the Naval War College‘s 2002 “Digital Pearl Harbor” wargame and came away impressed:

So we decided to stage something similar at Intel, but focusing on the attacker viewpoint rather than the defenders. Although this is somewhat different than a classical war game, we kept the basic process (and the name “war game”) to keep it different from other risk assessment methods. It wasn’t easy to come up with our own game. At the time, there was very little about war gaming that wasn’t based on military objectives, and it was almost all from the defender’s point of view.

What strikes me, in reading both the article and the white paper, is the process of defining “war gaming,” both linguistically and procedurally.
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Single Player: B-29 Superfortress

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It’s something of Air Combat Week here at Movement Point, as we take a first look at Khyber Pass Games‘ newly published solitaire wargame, B-29 Superfortress: Bombers over Japan, 1944-1945 (2008).

Following solidly in the footsteps (airstream?) of Avalon Hill’s B-17: Queen of the Skies (1983; originally from On Target Games, 1981) solitaire game of bomber missions over Axis-occupied Europe, KPG’s B-29 challenges the solo gamer with the task of shepherding a Superfortress and its crew on 35 missions against Imperial Japanese targets in the Pacific. And just as the B-29 was a far more complex beast than the B-17, so too does this new game add to the complexities of its antecedent. The chart and tables book comes in at forty pages, covering such minutia as celestial navigation and engineer instrument damage tables. B-17, by contrast, contains fewer than ten pages of charts and tables.

Cross-reference, check, roll, apply, and move on.

Complexity in a wargame can be a double-edged sword. There are people who live for chrome in their rules, but quite often, games that add layer upon layer of complexity wind up as “shelf queens,” destined to gather dust and the occasional comment from a visiting gamer friend to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, I have that game, too. Never did play it. Looks cool, though!”

However, in a solitaire game, complexity can often mask, or at least minimize, the sense that you’re merely rolling dice to see what happens. One of the real knocks against B-17 is that the limited number of decision points the solo player encounters reduce the game to a dice rolling exercise—you might as well just roll the dice once: 2-6, you win; 7-9, you draw; 10-12 you lose.
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The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs

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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!”

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