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Last time I talked about how the widening audience for video games is yielding a new crop of game-inspired baby names. Predicting which gamer names will catch on, though, is a tricky business. Unlike film and television characters, game characters are seldom named on the obvious cutting edge of style. Content-driven cues are different from other media as well. For instance, you can't just look at heroic characters to find gamer names, nor can you focus on genres like romantic comedy or light fantasy.
In fact, "genre" has a different meaning in the game world. In books and movies, genres are about subject matter and emotional experience, like sci-fi or horror. In games, a genre is defined by objectives and interaction styles: first-person shooter, for instance, or real-time strategy. Your reaction to a character may be very different if your goal is to kill him vs. outrace him vs. inhabit him and live his life.
That relationship between player and characters turns out to be key to a game's baby-naming impact. How many named characters are there? How do you interact with them, and how do they interact with each other? Do they grow and change? Do you learn more about their backstories? Is understanding their backgrounds and motivations key to the gameplay? Which defines a character more, his powers or his relationships?
Characters and storylines have grown richer across all genres of games, but the genre where they reign supreme is role-playing games, or RPGs. In particular, the style known as "Eastern RPGs" have always featured long, relatively linear stories and rich characterizations. It makes sense, then, that one of the most popular Eastern RPG series is the king of the game-name domain. Ladies and gentlemen, a salute for:
"FF" debuted in 1987 on the original Nintendo system. Over the decades it grew into a series, spawned spinoffs, and crossed genres and media. The latest release is Final Fantasy XIV. And oh, the names it has inspired. Names like these, all of which reached measurable levels (5+ born in a given year) in the past few years:
In addition, familiar names like Lulu have gotten boosts from Final Fantasy appearances. That kind of impact requires a lot of memorable characters, a high level of player engagement, a broad audience -- and of course a wild and woolly naming culture where parents are ever on the hunt for the new and different.
If you measure in dollars, the video game industry is bigger than music and movies. If you measure by baby names, though, games are still just kid stuff. Yes, a few gamer names like Raiden and Madden have cracked the top 1000, but Hollywood products like Miley blow them out of the water.
The problem hasn't been a lack of appealing names in the games. It's been a lack of women playing them, especially grown women.
The blockbuster first-person shooters and racing mayhem games have traditionally skewed toward an adolescent male audience; hardly the profile of baby-name decision makers. Even the names that do break through feel like compromises. In this age of Aidans, it's easy to picture mom suggesting Brayden and dad countering "Ooh, how about Raiden? Like the thunder god!!" And Madden means shoemaker Steve Madden and musicians Joel and Benji Madden as well as Madden NFL 11.
Slowly but surely, though, the gaming market is broadening. More adults, male and female, play than ever before. We're starting to see the baby naming impact, as gamer names beyond the safe terrain of Raiden and Madden creep up the charts. For a crossover moment, consider that Joel Madden himself named a son Sparrow, like the hero of the game Fable II.
Here's just a small sampling of the dozens of video game names that were given to five or more American babies last year:
Alucard (M): A half-human, half-vampire of the Castlevania series. His name is that of his father Dracula, backwards. (Take that, Nevaeh!)
Arthas (M): Warcraft's tragic prince, he was doomed to join the undead army and destroy his native kingdom.
Cloud (M): Cloud Strife, the mercenary hero of Final Fantasy VII, has a really, really big sword.
Cortana (F): An artificial intelligence in the Halo series, Cortana takes the form of a scantily clad female hologram.
Kaileena (F): In Prince of Persia series, Kaileena is killed by the Prince, but then travels through time to have sex with him. Or something like that.
Kratos (M): The brutal antihero of the God of War series, named for the ancient Greek daemon of strength.
Roxas (M): One of the "Nobodies" of Kingdom Hearts, meaning he's what's leftover after a person's heart is consumed. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
As you can see from that list, the game-name equation is complicated. It's not just about heroes, but about memorable characters. And as always, the name itself is key. Names that fit parents' comfort zones have a leg up, so we see 14 baby Raidens for every Cloud and 5 Clouds for every Arthas. Meanwhile a fabulous title heroine like Bayonetta goes namesake-less, though that one's probably for the best.
The nature of the game matters, too. In TV and movies, stories about attractive young people with supernatural powers have the biggest baby-naming impact. (Think Twilight, Bewitched, Buffy.) In games, attractive young people with supernatural powers are almost as commonplace as warriors with biceps the size of Labrador Retrievers. The qualities that make a game name-worthy are...well, more on that later this week, when I'll crown the video game series that's the baby naming champion.