Whenever a person joins a new online community, they receive empty boxes. Some boxes ask for something small, like the person’s date of birth, other boxes asks for something as big as our identity. This “identity” box takes more time than the others because it asks us to define ourselves for the entire internet. This box wants to know what your username will be.
A username says a lot about the person on the other side of the screen. Something silly like “wobbly_woobles” can show your sense of humor while a username with just a person’s name may present them as more serious. A username can say things about a person’s hobbies or their interests with something along the lines of “watercolorwarp” or “Cubsfan91.” Others make their usernames into something that makes them feel cool and unique. The username is a complex concept that helps us see some personality past anonymity. There are millions of ways that a person can interpret a username. These identifiers are a large part of video games as well as social media sites and social applications, so what does the concept of the username mean to a game developer?
Cameron Baker released his game #Notifications around a year ago. He developed the game in response to the harassment that was becoming normalized on Twitter at the time. At the time, any responses to the harassment that Baker saw would deny the harmful situation with statements like “it’s just the internet”, or “cyber bullying isn’t damaging”.
“To me, #Notifications was an answer to those statements, a vignette that showed how much online harassment can infect your day to day life as well as the ridiculousness of meeting a general statement with harsh personal attacks.”
Baker believes that what the user wants to get out of an internet service changes how they define themselves online. Some users want to be unknown by others and may even want it to stay separated from their day to day life.
This isn’t always the case for everyone though, some may want to present their online persona as parallel to their immediate persona. “Those who wish to interact with close friends and family might choose a nickname or perhaps even their own name. But this also goes for services that help promote the ‘brand’ of users – anyone from politicians to comedians and even the odd game dev. I’d say that services such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all fall very easily into this personal brand category.”
Nina Freeman, the lead designer at Starmaid Games, developed Cibele which released late last year. The game tells the story of a young woman meeting a boy on an online game, falling in love with him, and then meeting him in real life.
“I think with Cibele at least, I was interested in showing that relationships are really just relationships. Whether they are engaged through this mediated space, like an online game, or just through real life, I don’t think there is much of a difference other than the immediacy of being with a person.”
Freeman also gave an opinion on how representation and identity plays a big part in internet participation.
“A big part of being on the Internet in general is presentation. We are always authoring our identities in a sense, and obviously usernames are a part of that, profile pictures are a part of that, icons, signatures, and all of that coalescence into an internet persona. I think people do it to different degrees.”
Making a username for the first time is like cooking a new, complex recipe. All the ingredients are there to make the dish, but since they haven’t made it before it ends up being less than satisfactory. Especially in the earlier days of the Internet where things were much less organized, the amount of thought that went into a person’s first username was different.
This month, Kyle Seeley announced the sequel to his nostalgic-chat client game, Emily Is Away. The game is very reminiscent of the 90’s, early 2000’s with Blink 182 icons and reminiscent away messages on each user’s profile. The first username he created was based off of an account creation screen.
“It’s really dumb, but who’s first username isn’t,” Seeley said. “I was probably in middle school or something and setting up AIM. When you create your profile it asks you a bunch of questions about your name, your age, your email, all that stuff. So I thought I’d be clever and make my username ‘somanyquestions0’. Of course, nobody understood the reference or thought I was clever, but that’s who I was for years.”
Nina Freeman spoke about her first username as well, “My first username was pixelgal123. When I was a kid I did a lot of web design, and I made anime layouts for Neopets guilds and eventually started making fan websites. Everyone was into HTML. I was a 90’s HTML girl. pixelgal was a way for me to say ‘I make websites, I’m cool’”
Freeman also talked about how usernames change based on the growth of the greater-internet culture with a specific focus on growing up in the 90’s and 2000’s, and creating profiles on instant messaging clients or on a website like Neopets. “Everyone had one and this is during a time where it was still super new to all of us and not all of our parents were very familiar with it. So we would all have really weird usernames, there are always those ones like ‘rockstargirlxx25’ so everyone had their own thing. It was all about ‘what is me?’ ‘what is my personality?’ ‘what is my favorite song?’ ‘what is a funny joke username?’”
Seeley added to the talk of limitations and differences between social media profiles during the 90’s/2000’s era. “In AOL instant messenger, where your ability to customize your profile was fairly limited, your screenname, your icon and your info were pretty much all you had to forge your online identity. As time has gone on and new services have taken up where AIM left off, our toolbox for creating our online identity has expanded. For example, Facebook allows you to really personalize your profile in a way that AOL Instant Messenger never could. I think the limited toolbox AIM gave you resulted in a higher reliance on icons to convey your personality.”
The icon/profile picture is the other aspect of a person’s identity that is almost always a part of their profile. On Facebook or LinkedIn, someone may expect a user to have a real image of themselves. However, websites like Twitter and Tumblr don’t give the users the impression that they need real pictures of themselves for their icon, this is also true of social gaming services such as PSN, Steam, and Xbox Live.
Owen Goss is one half of Milkbag Games and developer of Photobomb, a game where the player has a limited time to search through social media profiles in order to find a bomb. “The original inspiration for the game was reading about the Boston marathon bombings in 2014. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, users from online communities started scouring facebook and twitter looking for clues about what had happened and who might be responsible.”
Goss believes that profile pictures allow a user to express their themselves while also remaining anonymous. “I think profile pictures and icons are another part of a user’s persona online. Like usernames, they help the user to express something about themselves to others they meet online. The profile avatar can be used to show the user themselves, or something that hides their identity, while still allowing them to say something about themselves.”
Are usernames going to continue being used or are we already outgrowing them? Social services such as Facebook use real names and video game social networks are focusing more on connecting to your immediate friends. Online relationships could become more normalized due to this, or they may disappear in the focus on immediacy. Freeman believes that it doesn’t matter whether a person is online, offline, using an alias or not, at the end of the day we are all humans that want to connect.
“As people get more and more comfortable using technology to communicate and speak, the more natural those kind of relationships are becoming and you can tell because online dating is bigger than it ever has been. When I was younger and the stuff in Cibele happened it wasn’t such as thing. It is kind of wild to look back and see how fast that stuff has progressed because I really don’t think there is that much of a difference in whether you are meeting someone in real life or online because language is so powerful. Our human urge to connect with other people are going to be met because that is what we want and it doesn’t matter how we do it, we are just going to get there. For me, I think there is really specific differences, but in general it is all under the same umbrella of human relationships.”
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