On the official World of Warcraft forums, there's a long conversation going on about the most common character names. Participants in the discussion are using the Armory to search text strings.

The thread itself is a nice demonstration of a large group of people investigating their own underlying patterns and practices. Reading the thread made me think about how interesting just the naming practices of players in virtual worlds are, in and of themselves.

The discussion is quick to bring up and highlight some expected rules and patterns underlying naming: the heavy use of popular culture, especially fantasy, names;  the use of names that reference World of Warcraft's game mechanics or lore; the use of leetspeak or other cybercultural conventions and phrasings. These are aspects of naming practice that have received a lot of attention from scholars, as have the ways that gender, race, names and identity overlap. David Jacobsen wrote back in 1996 about the "pragmatics of naming" in text-based virtual worlds, and the subject continues to be interesting, particularly given the usefulness of tools like the Armory in looking loosely for patterns.

Early on in the WoW thread, one person notes with surprise how often everyday material objects and commodities are used as names. I thought that was a really interesting observation, so I ran some searches of my own in the Armory along the same lines. After a while, I was almost more fascinated by the few cases of everyday objects which did not produce more than 40 characters of the same name. Looking around my office, every single object I could see produced 45+ names, often more 75+ names. "Postcard", "Ballpoint", and "Exam" were about the only words to check in under that threshold.

Looking out my window, "Tree", "Grass", "Leaf", "Garden", "Sidewalk", and most other things I could see were over 45. "Parking" and "Administration" (only one name!) and "Library" were the only things to come in under the threshold.

Granted, against the size of the overall World of Warcraft player population, almost any word is going to produce a few hits. (There's also an upper bound: no single unique word can have more hits than the number of servers.)

This started to be a fun game in its own right.  I tried a semi-random handful of social and critical theorists.

Foucault (72)
Gramsci (24)
Rawls (42)
Giddens (10)
Hayek (52)
Marx (82)
Sedgwick (34)
Weber (69)
Adorno (27)
Heidegger (78)
Nietzsche (17)
Althusser (10)
Orwell (85)
Huizinga (3)

Then I tried some conceptual vocabulary.

Discourse (32)
Pareto (16)
Theory (95)
Genetics (50)
Postcolonial (0)
Trope (19)
Ethnography (0)
Quantitative (2)
Sovereignty (78)
Statistical (5)
Electroweak (0)
Gaussian (32)
Hegemony (72)
Quanta (58)
Materiality (1)
Econometrics (6)
Prose (59)

Like I said, an amusing thing to do. Informally, however, you end up with an interesting implicit map of what players are thinking about, what they know, and some interesting questions about how whimsy, meaning and the look and sound of words intersect. Particularly in terms of material culture, the names alone are almost an accidental map of the environment around players, a kind of radar image of the objects and things around them or things whose presence in the everyday world comes readily to mind.

As long as I'm on the subject, the sound of words is another domain where I think names in virtual worlds are an interesting thing to investigate. Many of us have had the experience of being asked how we pronounce a character name due to the now-prevalent use of voice chat in many games. Sometimes that's obvious because the name is a real word or a real name known to us. 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.


Comments on Nomenclature:

Szonja says:

Another related issue is the one of names in foreign languages. As a Hungarian, other Hungarian players can recognize me if I use a name in my native language. But if I still want to communicate with other people, it's useful to avoid using accentuated letters that are very common in Hungarian. Also, I can play with the feelings the same row of characters evoke in different languages. For example I have a character whose name is Tenger. She is a she, and a druid. I think the name does have a feeling in a fantasy environment, while in Hungarian it means Sea. It's a funny game to find the perfect name for each of your avatars, if you try take into consideration all of these factors;)

Posted Mar 11, 2009 1:57:54 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

There's a curious side issue to that--there are players who use accented characters in their names in order to be more difficult to casually contact, or in order to have a name that they'd like to have which is already taken.

Posted Mar 11, 2009 2:10:21 PM | link

Steve says:

You missed out (Gnome) Chomsky.

Posted Mar 11, 2009 2:15:23 PM | link

Flourish says:

I had an Alliance shammy named "Durkheim." He loooooves the totems!

Posted Mar 11, 2009 2:41:32 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Quite a few Chomsky and Durkheims, it turns out.

Another amusing vein: disguised obscenities and insults.

Bullsheet (73)
Forkyou (34)
Upyours (59)
Doggystile (15)
Fokk (3)
Cuhnt (3)
Aswiper (1)

And so on. Most of the really obvious variations of fuck, cocksucker, and so on have clearly been disallowed. But that leaves an infinite field for the imaginative.

Posted Mar 11, 2009 3:00:19 PM | link

John Carter McKnight says:

I couldn't resist - I now have a troll shaman named "Postcolonial."

One of the most entertaining naming conventions in WoW is punning and/or beef-related names for Tauren - our guild has a "Kaotao" and a "Cowlune." Humorous names seem much more common for Tauren than for other races, probably due to the incongruity of cows in battle.

Do other races - dwarves or gnomes, maybe - invite clever humor in naming?

Posted Mar 11, 2009 4:12:37 PM | link

The Other Nick says:

Interesting observations. I know I thought hard for more than a few moments before naming my first hunter "SnuffMuffin", and was surprised at the number of both directly positive and negative comments the name generated in-game.

Conversely, when the "Chef" title was announced, I promptly renamed my Human rogue "Ramsay", and am thus the only "Chef Ramsay" running about on my server. I'm a bit disappointed that this hasn't garnered a single comment from any other player, but maybe cooking and MMO's don't correlate...

I'd be interesting to look at the deviation from common real-world names based on the physical deviation of player avatars. Are Human toons more likely to have "Human" names? Do players feel more free to diverge from the commonplace if their characters happen to be seven-foot tall cows? How do players react when the world imposes more strenuous restrictions on names (I'm thinking about LotRO)?

Posted Mar 11, 2009 6:12:03 PM | link

Nexus Burbclave says:

I do tend to use humor when naming gnomes. I am particularly fond of my banker alt named zurich (hello to any fellow Illuminati fans). :)

In general though, I got more punny with my horde characters, like my orc hunter named Thaime, or my Tauren Shaman named Aberdhene.

Posted Mar 11, 2009 10:38:53 PM | link

Adam Hyland says:

On the subject of the armory, I'm always impressed by the rather serious efforts to glean data from it which have sprung up.

Scroll back through the posts to find answers on data, methodology, and...well...lots more data.

As for the name thing, one more obvious role for the extended character set is to skirt name restrictions--most often to find some way to name a NE hunter legolas.

Posted Mar 12, 2009 2:25:26 AM | link

SusanC says:

In PvP MUDs, like MUD1, there's a tactical advantage in having a name that is difficult for a killer to type.

By the time they've typed "k dsjhkfsduhsdf w ls", dsjhkfsduhsdf is long gone.

Unfortunately, "k them w ls" (which a self-respecting killer probably has programmed on function key F1) reduces some of this advantage. You can but hope that the game will resolve "them" to something the killer didn't expect.

Posted Mar 12, 2009 6:19:18 AM | link

PetitPiteux says:

I never been in WoW, but what about macroer/gold miner taking random names out of dictionaries? Beats random string of letters... I know in eve some macro miner names look very much like being randomly generated...

Posted Mar 13, 2009 11:30:43 AM | link

Eric Nickell says:


We looked a little bit at this while PlayOn was alive:

At the time, most of my play experience had been on RP servers where there was some enforcement about not using names that contained titles or rubbed against the game motif. As a result, I don't think it occurred to us to look for common words. Honestly, I guess I'm RP at heart, and would just as soon names be names and not commentaries.

Posted Mar 13, 2009 8:46:57 PM | link

Daniel "Veco on Silver Hand" S says:

It doesn't surprise me that people name their chars after everyday material objects. I suppose they did exactly what you did, Tim, to come up with names (in your case for the search). They simply looked around to get inspired. ("Damn, I have to find a name. Oh, I'm so not creative. Oh, I see a table. Table. Yeah, table! Great name.")

It would be interesting to analyse the naming conventions even further, e.g. in accordance with in-game correlations (Aliance/Horde, male/female and so on) and real-life characteristics (age, country of origin, blabla).

Here is an example: There are 91 chars named "Anorexia", and 86 are with the Horde. Surely no coincidence.

Obviously one name search is not sufficient for a proper scientific study, but by looking for similar patterns among a larger group of terms, someone may actually get a basis for robust results.

Posted Mar 13, 2009 9:22:13 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Oh, it doesn't surprise me either, but what I think is interesting then is that it's a kind of accidental inventory of the material world of players. I almost think of it the way I think about narratives of spirit possession where I worked in southern Africa--ancestral spirits would ask people to observe certain kinds of material practices (or avoid other material objects) for a short period of time, and there's a way in which that was an kind of accidental history of material culture in this region. (E.g., the antiquity of the spirit often matched the material culture it wanted to be associated with). You could almost get a visceral map of what's around players by tracing the frequency of different objects-as-names. That's complicated a bit by other considerations--some objects "sound" better as names, or are funnier or more appropriate-seeming.

Posted Mar 14, 2009 11:17:52 AM | link

Baredil says:

Posted Mar 15, 2009 7:43:15 PM | link

bolt says:

All of my WoW characters begin with "Gothar". Gothar was my UO primary character. So far I have Gotharum, Gotharia, Gotharen..

Posted Mar 19, 2009 10:03:54 AM | link

Dan Hunter says:

On bolt's point, I recall Dmitri Williams (aka Suntan/Sunspot/Sun*) noting that naming based around people's first character was so prevalent that he was just going to call his character "Motif" and be done with it.

Posted Mar 21, 2009 1:23:44 PM | link

foto video nunti says:

My Wow characters begin with kill3r : kill3rsen , kill3rz0r . I saw in Wow many names like "ossama bin laden, jessus" and many like this.I think blizzard must forbidden this names.

Posted Mar 22, 2009 5:32:48 PM | link