This Robot Reveals How We Name Our Fantasy Selves

Nov 17th 2015

Millions of Americans use alter egos every day. We spend hours conversing, negotiating, and battling under names we've dreamed up for ourselves in the richly constructed worlds of video games. And now, thanks to the game Fallout 4, we have a glimpse of how we choose those names.

Image via Ollyy/shutterstock

The hugely successful new role-playing game features a robot character that will call you by your own custom-chosen name. (In the past, the practicalities of voice acting ruled out this level of name customization. The game Mass Effect 3, for instance, allowed players to choose a first name and sex for their protagonist Commander Shepard, but other characters would simply address them as "Shepard.") The Fallout 4 robot is a butler by training, named Codsworth and voiced with an English accent. Addressing the player politely by name adds a grace note of oh-so-personal service.

The constraint of pre-recording voice lines remains, though, so Codsworth has a set repertoire of names available – about 1,000. This means that the game's developer, Bethesda Softworks, had to choose names they knew could represent the fantasy alter egos of millions. Given the data they have from past productions, that name list should represent our collective gaming id. As it happens, one resourceful fan dug up the complete list of name options, so I've attempted to take a peek inside that collective id.

First, I had to wade through the id of Bathesda Softworks itself. The names of dozens of the company's developers and executives make the list, which is good news if you want a robot butler to call you Hasenbuhler, Tresnjak, Moonves or Purkeypile. The team's personal obsessions shine through as well: the list is jam-packed with characters from Mad Max: Fury Road, the action movie that would have been in theaters just when game development hit the home stretch.

Even if we grant a big chunk of names as perks for the sleepless development team, that still leaves hundreds more to target the public. A breakdown of those names reveals some patterns in our fantasy selves. It appears that our alter egos are:

- '80s movie heroes. We save the world in guises like Venkman (Ghostbusters), Deckard (Blade Runner), Plissken (Escape from New York), Indiana (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and McFly (Back to the Future).

- Lewd and crude. If you crack up at the idea of a robot butler calling you "Boobies," "Assface" and more, you're in luck. Codsworth will only let you transgress so far, though; the list is wisely free of ethnic and sexual slurs.

- Exalted. We answer to King, Queen, Prince and Princess, along with Sir and Ma'am.

- Lazy. One name says it all: Asdf. (Try typing it.)

- Animals. Not surprisingly, we take on the mantles of fierce and noble beasts like Eagles, Cobras and Dragons. More surprisingly, Ferrets.

- Borrowed from other games. After living in the skin of characters in other role playing games, we're loath to give them up. Fallout 4 lets you take on names like Walker (Spec Ops: The Line), Corvo (Dishonored), and Hawke (Dragon Age II).

- Tough. Names like Spike, Brick, Blaze and Crash show up throughout comics and games as signs of damage to come.

- Creators. More homage than alter ego, some of us tip our caps to action and imagination with names like Asimov, Clarke, Bruckheimer and Corman.

- Personal. The top hundred given names and surnames are almost completely represented, suggesting that many of us simply want to be called by our proper names. Or to put it another way, we want to be our own fantasy heroes and save the world ourselves.

What Names Make You Swipe Right? They're Not What You Might Think.

Nov 12th 2015

You're drawn to some names, and turned off by others. I know that about you, because you're human. All of us react to people's names, consciously or unconsciously. Now, a dating app has tried to tally our reactions in the form of "right swipes."

If you've never browsed for beaux on your phone, here's what you need to know about right swipes. In the age of the popular Tinder service, mobile matchmaking has been boiled down to bare bones ingredients. Input is just a name and photo, and response a single finger swipe: to the right for a "thumb's up," left for "no thanks." Now a Tinder competitor, The Grade, has broken down swiping rates by name.

Here are their most right-swiped names:

1   Brianna   Brett
2   Erika   Tyler
3   Lexi   Corey
4   Brooke   Andy
5   Vanessa   Noah
6   April   Shane
7   Natalie   Jeffrey
8   Jenna   Rob
9   Molly   Frank
10   Katie   Jeff
11   Laura   Zack
12   Rebecca             Brandon


As a Laura, I was surprised to see my own name on the list. Not because it's unattractive – all Lauras are naturally irresistible, of course – but because the typical Laura was born more than 40 years ago. Along with names like Jeffrey, Rebecca and Frank, it's a sign that The Grade's list isn't just signaling youth.

Instead, the names seem to follow two distinct style threads. The first, not surprisingly, is sexiness. Double letters abound, a feature common in names perceived as sexy. Brianna and Vanessa are lacy and sinuous, Jenna is associated with a prominent porn star, and Lexi just plain rhymes with sexy.

But the second style that leaps out is niceness. Short, friendly names and especially nicknames are generating great responses from would-be dates. These are the approachable names that draw people in, as salespeople and politicians know. In particular, the names Katie, Molly, Laura and Andy were all top suggestions when I asked users for the most likeable names they could think of.

In other words, even in a photo-dominated swipe-hookup interface, we're drawn to people who seem friendly, approachable and nice; people who seem like they'd smile and like us back. That's an encouraging sign for the app dating world. It suggests that plenty of users are thinking of those photos as real people, and possibly hoping to make real connections. It's also a good reminder to parents to take friendliness seriously.

Friendliness is a powerful social force that's undervalued in the baby naming process. As we get caught up in the race toward creativity and distinctiveness, the friendliest names remain simple, informal and familiar. That may not be a recipe for high fashion, but it's a great way to make a first impression.

The World's Favorite Girl's Name

Nov 4th 2015

What do Italy, Slovakia, Mexico, Estonia, Chile and Russia have in common? Incredibly, they all have the same #1 baby name, and they're not alone. Welcome to the new world of Sofia.

I've collected current baby name statistics from 49 countries, and the dominance of this one name is stunning. The map below shows the popularity ranking of Sofia (or its most standard local equivalent: Sophia in the United States, Sofie in Norway, Zsófia in Hungary) among all names for newborn girls. You can click on the image to view it larger in a new window.

This one name ranked #1 in 9 countries, #2-3 in 20 more, and top 25 in a total of two-thirds of all countries that report baby name statistics.

Together those countries, on 5 continents, speak 22 languages representing Baltic, Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Turkic and Uralic language groups. Dominant religions among them include Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Sunni Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, and unaffiliated/none. The name crosses borders of every kind. In fact, for three years it topped the name charts in both the United States and Russia. When was the last time those two nations agreed so completely on anything?

Even this map dramatically under-reports the phenomenon. First off, not every Sofia-loving country tallies baby name data. Greece, the name's homeland, is just one example. Among the countries we do have data for, many report only the top 5 or 10 names. That means that Sofia likely is quite popular in some of the countries labeled "unranked." And remember, too, that the map only reflects the popularity of one form of the name. It's common for Sophia, Sofia and Sophie to all be counted separately, sometimes with multiple forms ranking among a country's top 10.

In essence, the entire Western world has agreed on the most attractive baby name.

To be clear, I can't say definitively that Sofia is the world's most common girl's name in terms of number of babies born. With no popularity reports from large countries like China, India, Nigeria and Brazil, we just don't have the data to say for sure. But it is certainly the most widely popular, and it has surpassed the traditional #1 Maria/Mary in many countries where that name used to reign.

Unlike Maria (and Mohamed, the top global boy's name), Sofia hasn't been elevated as the core name of a religious tradition. While it is a name with religious history behind it, its popularity is a phenomenon of fashion, not faith. That fashion has come fast and furious. In the United States, the combined usage of Sophia, Sofia and Sophie has risen tenfold over the past two decades:

I've found similar trendlines in the other countries for which historical figures are available. For instance, you can click to see the soaring Norwegian trends for Sofie and Sofia. Other names have enjoyed waves of international popularity, but not like this.

Why Sofia? Most of the forces behind other global fashion trends, like clothing or music, don't apply here. There are no commercial influences on baby names, no marketing or advertising campaigns. Nor is this a celebrity-driven phenomenon. While there are famous Sofias and Sophies today, they don't approach the global fame that Sophia Loren achieved fifty years ago.

So what's driving the trend? As every parent knows, the choice of a baby name is multi-factored. I can't claim to fully understand what that makes Sofia irresistible in Finland or Belarus, but a look through American eyes offers some clues to its global appeal. The name is instantly recognizable as a classic, yet it was uncommon in every spelling from the 1930s through the 1980s. That means today's parents didn't grow up surrounded by Sophias, so it doesn't sound tired or over-familiar to them. It features long vowels and no consecutive consonant sounds, two key elements of current name fashion. It has a regal history and saintly pedigree. For the etymologically inclined, it means "wisdom." And obviously, it travels well and appeals to varied cultural backgrounds. Many of these qualities are shared by the most comparable past boys' name trend I've identified, Matthew/Mathias/Mateo.

The specific name choice, though, is only the face of the bigger story: the very fact of a global name trend. For 33 countries to all share the same fashion trend in baby names means that they're all naming based on style. That has not been the historical norm around the world. Choosing a current, stylish name requires moving away from traditional practices like naming after grandparents, and away from norms like John and Mary (and Juan and Maria, and Ivan and Marija). Across borders and cultures, we're all treating baby names as statements of individual style – and in the process, discovering that we're more alike than we ever imagined.