GamesBeat

E-dentity Crisis: The Birth–and Buying?–of the Names We Play

I once worked with a guy named Ace, and he could save the world faster than anybody in the office.

He was no slouch in our company soccer games, either, but on the field he went by the substantially less awesome name Scott Augustyn.

The difference here, of course, is that the name Scott came from his parents; the name Ace came from his brain.

Augustyn was a videogame-strategy editor for the late EGM2, sister magazine to the more recently late Electronic Gaming Monthly, my ol’ gig. He, like me, is part of the first generation that has grown up with a privilege previously reserved for amnesiacs, fugitives, and folks in witness-protection programs: We can rename ourselves. And while Augustyn could–and did–write books about how to whiz through role-playing games and unleash Killer Instinct combos that would last 15 minutes, I was more interested in gleaning a different kind of gaming knowledge when I first saw him input a character name 13 years ago.

 

"Ace, huh?"

"Yeah," he told me. "I remember playing a game way, way back where if you did really well, you were called an ace…. It kinda stuck with me. As I played more and more games and found that I was pretty decent at them, I would keep using the name."

Agustyn admits that the origin of Ace–a name he says is still flying high in his games and online profiles today–isn’t all that stupendous. The background of my own in-game name since the days of BBS handles–Jocko–is even less so: It spawned from an old David Letterman skit so obscure you’ll never find it on YouTube.

What, you think you can do better?

Identify yourselves

Most of you, in fact, do. A while ago I asked the readers of SoreThumbsBlog.com (this site’s primordial ooze) for the origin stories of their electronic identities–let’s call them "e-dentities" to be cute. Hundreds responded, and I read all your tales. For many of you, crafting your e-dentity is a crisis. This single moniker, after all, often does double, triple, or quadruple duty, stretched to cover everything from your Xbox Live Gamertag to your AIM name to the meat of your e-mail address to your online-banking login ID. Pick something lousy and the consequences reverberate to every corner of your life.

Inspiration for your names pops mostly from pop culture–comic heroes, sports stars, products (more on the possibility of ad-sponsored game names in a bit), TV shows, and anime from Akira to Dragon Ball Z. Heavily used names are customized with birth-year suffixes and l33t vowel-numeral swaps. And when the names are more personal, they serve as a snapshot of someone’s life. "[Mine] started back when Tripod sites were cool," says gamer Corey Baines, aka CBXweb. "I started a site that had–what I didn’t know then–a blog, pictures of cars, stupid things that my 15-year-old mind was interested in. I told some of my World History classmates about it, and one of them quipped, ‘What is it called? The Corey Baines Experience?’"

The name had a certain something, Baines thought–at least once he shortened the last part to "X-perience" in fitting with the x-phile vibe of the late ’90s. The Corey Baines X-perience then compressed to initials to serve as a character name in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. "I wanted to add something that reminded me of the Internet, so I added ‘web,’" Baines says. "The whole CBXweb thing just took off from there. I used it in [Phantasy Star Online], PS2 online games, XBL, and so on. But CBX is also now my professional name for music producing. I even have a jacket with it written on the back in silver Sharpie."

Google CBXweb and you’ll find a trail of Baines’ business over the years, from blogs to YouTube videos to social-networking goings on. He may have crafted his identity, but in many ways his identity owns him. He’s locked in now. There’s a lesson here if you hope to stick with one game name forever.

Just ask Kevin Hallaian, who naively opted to use the name his momma gave him. "Most people instinctively know not to use their real names when causing trouble online," Hallaian says. "But me–I was a moron. My real name is unique. I’m the only Kevin with my last name in the world, so I didn’t have the leisure of blending in with the John Smiths or Robert Bakers. The day I realized that one could type their name into Google and find everything they’ve ever written as a stupid teenager neatly categorized for the world to peruse was a sobering moment in my life." More web-wise, Hallaian uses the less-easy-to-track YoctoYotta today.

Stick with an e-dentity long enough and it might supplant your own surname, giving future family trees some funky-sounding offshoots. "My brother and I played DOS dial-up modem-to-modem games on the PC, and the multiplayer screens asked for a username," says Illinois gamer Troy Lowe. "At the time, it appeared that X was a very trendy suffix. My favorite GI Joe character was Falcon, so I wrote mine as FalconX. My brother likes penguins, and when he saw my name he labeled himself PenguinX. Since then, it’s been an entire family tradition. When my brother married, his wife became DuckX. My wife now plays as FinchX. My nephew is PigeonX, my niece ToucanX…it goes on and on."

A smuck3r born every minute

One respondent wrote that he included "Viper" in his name because the Dodge Viper is his favorite car. And that got me wondering: Hey, could high-profile gamers sell their names to the highest ad-buck bidder? Maybe, for instance, killer PC pro-gamer Fatal1ty might change his moniker to something less fearsome but more financially rewarding like, say, Smuck3rs. Because with a name like Smuck3rs, he has to be good, right?

Turns out there already is a Smuckers on Xbox Live. When I stumbled across this Gamertag, I wondered if maybe I had found evidence of corporate backing of a top player. Could the J.M. Smucker Company, maker of fine fruity spreads since 1897, have actually paid someone to adopt the company name as a Gamertag, promoting the brand through pownage? Or perhaps this was simply the Gamertag of Timothy P. Smucker, chairman and Co-CEO of the family business?

Smuckers

The latter is more likely, but it was actually Smucker’s corporate lawyers that locked down the name. "The only reason that a company would want to buy a [Gamertag] is to make sure that somebody else doesn’t perform mischief under that name," says Raz Schionning, the game-savvy web director at American Apparel. "The marketing value of having a player out there with your company name is limited, but the potential for mischief is serious. If reports go out that a gamer under the Gamertag American Apparel has been assaulting people, that could do a lot of harm to us." To head off that calamity, Schionning says the company secured Gamertags for American Apparel and its CEO early on, and they take that precaution for any new gaming or social-networking service that offers an e-dentity. This practice, he says, is common sense across corporate America.

Schionning, who got the American Apparel brand into Second Life, says the concept of paying gamers to adopt brand names as Gamertags isn’t unheard of, but it’s an idea fraught with peril. "I feel like a lot of hardcore gamers would be really opposed to it because it’s so blatantly commercial," he says. "Imagine running around as Citibank or something–you’d get blasted!" And John Andrew Lindblom, who handles U.S. auto-industry clients for the Wunderman ad agency, brings up an even greater hazard: "When we target gamers, we don’t want to seem like Noah’s Arcade from Wayne’s World. You know: ‘Hey, come hang out! It’s hip! It’s gnarly!’" Lindblom says viral marketers have conditioned gamers to wax suspicious at the first whiff of shilling, so companies keen on traversing the gaming brandscape would probably fair better taking a more obvious approach, such as offering product-related avatar skins or logo tattoos that actually look cool. "If you target gamers and treat them right, they’ll become advocates," he says. "Treat them wrong and they’ll burn you."

Unfortunately, the owner of the Smuckers Gamertag has yet to accept my friend request on Xbox Live, so I’ve been unable to confirm whether he or she is a flesh-and-blood player or just a corporate namekeeper. But I did notice that the Gamertag "Jif"–aka, the peanut-buttery subsidiary of the The J.M. Smucker Company–is still available. Better lock that one down fast, Smucker’s Inc., before some choosy mom chooses it….

Author’s note: Big thanks to all the SoreThumbsBlog readers who sent me their game-name origin stories.  They made for such interesting reading that I’d hate for them to languish unread in my Gmail inbox. So please dig out your stories and paste away in the comments below.


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