What’s in a name?: Subjectivity and the illusion of choice in naming video game characters

One of the first choices ever given to a player is that of the name of a character in a story-based game. Presented as a series of blanks on a screen, it is usually filled in with a generated or default name that serves to give the player the option to accept the name given and adopt that which the game provides, or even reject it for a player-generated label. It is often the very first instance of the possibility space of the game linked to actual performance: the player can choose to name the character they will play anything the game will allow them to at the beginning, before the game as story has actually unfolded. Integral to this instance of presented choice, however, is the subjectivity of the process: the player must act within certain constraints.

The roots of linking naming to experience permanence has its roots in early arcade games. Getting a high score or otherwise achieving something remarkable in the game was recorded in a limited character set after the game had ended. Those players who, locally, had the best performance in a game were able to input their name along with the score or other unique statistic for others to see and challenge. It was a connection between that was done as a character in the game and the player herself, a bridge between the two worlds. Because of the limited space in which to record names, it was also the beginning of naming linking not to person, but public persona and performance within a game. The choice to label the experience occurred only after a performance and marked not each player, but the best in some local area; it was a record of excellence and not necessarily individuality.

The move to more personal connections followed the transition from the public performance to the personal, home gaming experience. As more video game playing was done at home, an increasingly need to grant that same permanence and personalization followed as well. Thus, the move to marking high scores per game and then, later, to allowing naming before the game even starts as a way to make the experience unique to each player. It is this move that changed the meaning and introduced the illusion and even greater subjectivity to labeling the game sessions: instead of the best performance, it served a role of save file differentiation and illusion of importance of the player to the story present in the game.

From a developer point of view, allowing the player to give a name to the file that the sessions will be saved under frees up the developer from using labels that would serve to only confuse the player. Instead of a string of letters of numbers, the player can associate with a name that is used to mark the session and save the data at the same time. A permanence can be presented that is tied to input from the player while also serving the underlining mechanics of the game. The mark of personalization serves not the player but the game ultimately in its use though; the name does not really matter so much as it can separate the files for the system and then later the player. The choice is enforced as long as the player sees it as one; should they use a string of nonsense for identification, it will not matter to the game’s execution.

Those story-based games that allow the player to change the name of the characters within the game do so under the assumption that, while the player might choose to make up or use a name they know, it will not matter to the expression of the story; whatever names entered, the game will ignore them and present whatever was entered irregardless of it making sense or even being coherent. Such is the illusion of even the current naming of characters within a game: the labeling is a choice, but only if the player engages with it as one. The game does not express authority except when it comes to it being unique (in a multiplayer setting) and using a limited character set; the subjectivity of it becomes evident only when the player tries to fight against it.

The naming of the characters in a game is often a very personal act by the player; they pick and choose in order to enhance the experience for themselves. However, it is in this choice to break away from the what the game presents that serves as both the first choice in the game as performance and the first act of subjectivity to the game’s authority simultaneously; the player cannot pick any name they want, but those that the game allows them to express. The illusion of the choice breaks down, however, only from trying to express something the game does not allow. Those players whose names the games fails to accept learn that the game is the ultimate arbiter of player expression and freedom; the player must act within the space of the performance, to go outside of it is not permitted.

This paradigm remains to this day in video games: the player can name their characters, but such naming, a speech act of expressing individuality in the space, is constrained by the game, other players and even the language of the game. Freedom is curtailed not by a physical space, but a lexicographical one; the vocabulary of the game does not allow certain expressions of labels and names. Extended to multiplayer setting, such restraints increase not only in scale, but also scope. An even greater array of names, labels and ideas are cut from player expression because of societal constrictions placed on that fictional world. For better or worse, the player must conform to those ideals which the game allows, a space often crafted not from developer intention, but audience expectation: those that play the game shape its world with their expectations of what is and is not allowed and what should and should not be present in the experience as dictated by their societies.

To name a character in a video game is to engage in paradoxical behavior. For as much as a player might imbue the process of creating a character to play through with meaning and even a ritualistic quality, such a naming is dictated by what the game will accept: it is subject more to what is allowed than what is imagined on the part of the player. The process is presented to players as special and an opportunity to craft the upcoming experience, yet such a expression is ignored in story execution by the game and even later interpretation by the player. The name chosen does not really matter, nor does the player’s individuality either in that moment; the game will not change according to the name, nor will other characters react differently depending on the string of characters chosen.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?: Subjectivity and the illusion of choice in naming video game characters

  1. Jackson

    Would people act differently if you had a different name? I’d imagine your life would be quite similar as a Tom, John, David, Alex etc. The place where the videogame world really starts to break down, I think, is with “joke” names like Penis, Asshole etc.

    That said, you should play Earthbound if you haven’t. Like Dragon Quest, you can name all the characters for your party. The alternate names for each are John, Paul, George, Yoko, and Ringo (for the dog). The game also does REALLY cool things with the player’s name. Not the characters’ names. The player’s name.

    1. Dan Cox

      That’s neat to hear about Earthbound. I wasn’t aware of that. Unfortunately, Earthbound is one of a number of games I consistently read about yet have never played. I should probably look into fixing that at some point.

      Of course, you are right about the different names too. It doesn’t matter all that much as far as the story goes, like I said, yet, in another instance of players investing in the games they play, many people spend time trying to plan out their characters.

      Plus, as far as I could tell, there hasn’t been much work thinking about how soon all the small acts that build up a character start for the player. Giving a name to the character might be a good place to start for that. However, it’s also, as we both said, not that important either. There is definitely something in thinking about which decisions, if any, the player gets and then uses to define the narrative they construct as they play though. Some investment, even on some small level, is happening in that first naming moment, even if it might be meaningless overall.

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