I’m not happy with most of my online “handles” or “nicknames” or “Gamertags” these days. It’s been brewing for a while, really, but also the parameters have changed.
I probably got my first one back in 1989 or 1990. We moved across town when I got out of the sixth grade and I made friends with a couple of the neighborhood kids. One of them had a Commodore 64. My cousin also had one. This, naturally, meant that I would have a steady supply of games to “borrow” and “copy onto a blank floppy disk,” so my parents caved and… well, actually they splurged and got me a Commodore 128. Not long after, I acquired a modem and connected it to Quantum Link.
Q-Link was America Online before America Online was America Online. Seriously, it was the same company and everything. The same basic idea of shopping, chat rooms, and all the crap that AOL did before the internet came along and blew up their walled garden. I chatted, I played a lot of Bingo, and I ran up a huge phone bill. It was also the first time that other humans would call my be a fake name, a handle, something me and a friend cooked up because Q-Link asked me what I should be called and we had to immediately think of something. It was pretty forgettable because I forgot it.
Over the years a bunch of equally useless IRC nicks and spoofed email addresses on Usenet posts would follow. I’m trying to think about when any of this really mattered for gaming. I guess it’s Quake, right?
Quake just turned 25 years old this week. It launched with internet support, but it wasn’t great if you were on dial-up, which I was at the time. Eventually, id would release QuakeWorld, an update to Quake that added predictive movement to Quake that helped make playing on a 28.8k (or, later, a 56k) modem feel a lot smoother. With Quake, you had a list of servers, each like their own little neighborhood hangout, complete with house rules and a set of regulars. In theory, anyway, you wanted a name that people would remember when you won. Maybe you’d fill it with weird colored letters like the cool kids were doing back then. But you could change it at will. Have a rough match? Accidentally type in a bunch of curse words and disconnect mid-match? A simple console command changed your name and no one (other than the admins, anyway) would ever know.
Xbox Live took that concept and locked down the namespace. Could you even change your name on the original Xbox Live? Or did they save that for the 360, where you could change your name for a mere 800 Microsoft Points? Either way, this is where I abandoned my personal Xbox Live account, named after some old, dead IRC nick, and started using the company account.
The logic was simple. “They’ve got achievements and stuff now, people should see that the GameSpot account is playing games and playing them to completion.” So I took over the “GameSpotting” account and started getting points. I ended up using the same name on the PlayStation 3, which didn’t offer the ability to change your name. So in late 2007, when the name “GameSpotting” didn’t make much sense anymore, I was able to change one to “GIantBombing.” But to get that name on the PS3, I had to create a whole new account. That means that somewhere I still have login credentials to a PSN account with some early downloadable PS3 games on it. Oh well, we’ll get by, somehow.
I actually think I prefer the freedom of Quake… but also more modern platforms like Steam and EA, which pretty much let you change your name whenever. Steam is very open that way, which is nice, and it’ll even keep a list of your recent nicknames, in case your friends can’t remember why they have someone named “The Real Dick Butkus (Seriously)” on their friend list.
Anyway, I was staring at my Steam profile for the first time in a while and thinking about how much all of this has changed. And how my actual attitudes about it have changed. I liked the old-timey days of Q-Link and IRC, but every time I found myself in a situation where someone was calling me by one of those names, I felt like a giant idiot as opposed to the extremely cool Tron character or budding young cyberpunk I felt I should have been. I’d feel the same way as esports took on its early forms and those first amazing Quake players started being known by their handles. These days, we have people going by “Ninja” in mainstream settings. It’s dumb! But also? It’s fine. At the end of the day, there’s something really rad about choosing your own name. It feels like that long-promised future of joe boys and razor girls in some sick way.
Not to left-turn yet again here, but my actual point here is that naming children is really weird. Here’s my philosophy on it: I don’t like my name. Never have. It’s too plain and too common, there was always another Jeff in the classroom so I always had to be “Jeff G.” This… has started happening again recently, and now that I’m a grown adult, I’ll say that I hate my name less than I used to? When someone says my child’s name, I want it known that that could only be one person. At the same time, I think overly weird names are stupid and impractical. It’s a real push and pulls, folks. But I think the thing I realized here is this: if my kids hate the names that my wife and I have saddled them with, they should change them. Legally, if possible, but if it means they want to go by “Hashtag SnakeDickskin420” instead? Well… maybe once they move out from under my roof. Parents gotta throw up slight obstacles, make sure a kid really wants it, ya know?