What’s in a username? The power of gamertags

Handles form a massive part of our online identities, but they might also change the way we play.

What's in a username? The power of gamertags
What's in a username? The power of gamertags© Valve

1437, BurNing, Aches, Reginald, waytosexy, Ruin, sAviOr...

Looking at the lists of gamertags and online handles you find in eSports and searching for patterns might seem like the best way to give yourself a headache quickly – at a glance, there’s a bewildering variety.

But there might be a pattern emerging, one none of us ever saw coming. Some researchers are more optimistic and have started dipping their toes into the pool of capital letters, underscores and seemingly-random numbers to see if there are any ways they relate to how players behave in games or the classes and races they gravitate towards and their initial conclusions may surprise you.

League of Legends' Reginald picked his name to irk enemy players assuming no-one wants to lose to someone named Reginald – but would a more aggressive name cause foes to assume he's an even bigger threat? Within the realms of Dota 2 fandom, is it easier for Arteezy to attract fans than aabBAA solely based on the complexity of their names? Or, if the pair used the same names in a different game could they be inadvertently associating themselves with a particular race or class? Is Fear that good at Dota 2, or does his name just scare us into thinking so?

“Investigating the names chosen by players in online (or offline) games – their online identities – is of direct value because it informs about the people who play these games,” say Rafet Sifa, Anders Drachen and Christian Thurau in a paper written for the Journal of Entertainment Computing. By looking at naming conventions and how players use and react to them, the idea is that it would be possible to create behaviour profiles of players from their gamertags and handles as well as adapting how names are used for non-player characters.

“Investigating names for the purpose of player profiling is, to the best knowledge of the authors, a novel approach,” say the researchers. However, “name-mining may prove valuable to player profiling, irrespective of the specific purpose (research, community management, cybersecurity, design evaluation etc).”

Essentially, by knowing a gamer's name you might be able to make judgements about his or her play style and temperament and counter them.

© Riot Games

It's an easier prospect to get your head around if you leave eSports to one side for a moment and look at a game like World of Warcraft, where you're only expected to have a unique name on a particular realm. That means that researchers can crawl through collections of realms to look for patterns and common names.

Thurau and Drachen wrote a paper on patterns and inspirations for character names in World of Warcraft and found several things. One is that the character naming strategies appear to be affected by the type of server you're playing on, so role-playing servers give you different types of character name than you'd see on Player-vs-Player or Player-vs-Environment servers. Another observation was that the names follow the same type of distribution as names in the real world.

Looking at how the names split up between different races, particular names tend to get associated with particular types of characters and crop up more often for one race than for another. By knowing the name of a character you can then work out the likelihood that they are an orc or a dwarf or a human.

Finally, the pair noted that names with a negative slant to them (like 'Nightmare') were six times more common than those with a positive slant – something the researchers speculate is related to the emphasis on conflict within the game.

You can start to see how this relates to competitive multiplayer and why it might be important. If just knowing a player's name can tell you about their particular strengths or the way they tend to play, it could affect how you approach them in combat without you needing to have watched them play. Similarly, picking a name which is associated with positive qualities or one which comes across as dominant might affect how team-mates and foes respond to you.

It's harder to investigate games like first person shooters, though. The gamertag or handle is tied to the user's account rather than an avatar and so they must be unique across the entire game rather than within a single realm. That means you can't just see which names repeatedly connect with which player classes or perform better as particular factions.

© Electronic Arts/DICE

Instead the researchers looked at databases of player names from Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Medal of Honor and Crysis 2 and used a string clustering technique to group similar types of name. Let's take BFBC2, where you find usernames like MaliciousMaulr, x6naca6x, Ankur, Daniel08, InSaNe_x_ChAoZz, Craybell, and Acid_Snake. The researchers used a public third-party stats tracker (the Player Stats Network) to identify which class the player scored highest with (assault, engineer, medic or recon) and then attempted to examine how the class affected the gamertags. In that instance they didn't find any significant relationship.

But picking different behaviour profiles like assassins (players who are good at killing others without dying themselves) and target dummies (who are good at feeding kills to others without actually doing much killing themselves) showed off a far stronger relationship between clusters of gamertags and skills. “For BFBC2 at least, play-style is a better indicator of tag choice than [class] selection,” was the conclusion of the researchers.

The field of gamertag or game username research is at the very beginning of its lifespan and further research will be needed in order to draw any firm conclusions. However, related fields may offer a decent starting point for some of that research. The marketing sector is one such example.

Adam Alter is associate professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business. In a recent article for the New Yorker he explained how “people generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand”. His discussion in the article relates to stocks, brands and politicians, but with the amount of money being directed at professional gaming thinking of team names and individual gamertags as brands makes financial sense.

Speaking about the attraction of simple names, Alter told Red Bull “I’d imagine that simpler names are more memorable, more recognisable, and easier to repeat mentally when people are thinking of the other players who occupy the same gamescape. It’s hard to think of a time when a simpler name would hurt a gamer or a team, but easy to imagine that gamers with very complex gamertags might get lost in the mass of names.”

Smite
Smite© Hi-Rez

In other words, if people gravitate towards the simple and the easy to pronounce it might be easier to generate fandoms if your team has names which fall into that category. Obviously it's unlikely to override a reputation for terrible gameplay or poor sportsmanship but findings like this could potentially lower the difficulty of building up a following online which can then be used both for building morale – and also for selling tickets to events or merchandise supporting both players and teams, which can be every bit as important to a pro gamer’s career as their twitch reflexes.

Many gamertags and online handles are personal, sometimes in-jokes or personal references, sometimes evolutions of earlier nicknames, sometimes a username chosen for a forum or avatar elsewhere which has become part of that person's identity. The way the developers operate multiplayer competitive games also means that the names are generally unique and tied specifically to the account holder rather than one of a number of different characters within a game. As a result, even if certain usernames were found to be more useful in some way you might struggle to get players to ditch their older digital selves in order to adopt them.

But with eSports events now regularly offering prize pools nudging over the million dollar mark, any information which could tip the competition in a team's favour is of value. If the research bears fruit, the question of 'What's in a username?' could become a significant part of a team's strategy. That which we call a 7ckngMad by any other name may well not smell as sweet.