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.
Parents often ask me whether their favorite baby name will take off in the future. I can make some good educated guesses through the next decade or so. (See "The top baby names of 2019?") After that, though, my crystal ball grows cloudier. Will Joyce be the Jennifer of 2050? It's impossible to say.
You might well ask, "does it matter"? If a 40-year-old Joyce is suddenly surrounded by baby namesakes, what's the harm? If anything, it will make her seem attractively ahead of her time.
But there is one group that faces greater risks from long-term shifts in name fashion: fictional characters. Unlike dear Joyce, people in books don't age along with their names. Worse yet, their readers don't age. A new generation of readers decades or centuries later may not pick up on the social signals the authors meant to send with their name choices. You can see that shift clearly in older books where the the characters' names are discussed and analyzed.
One such book is a favorite of mine: Edward Eager's kids' fantasy Seven-Day Magic. The story centers on two sets of siblings. The first, Susan and John, "look worthy and dependable...like people who would be president and vice president of the class." Indeed, Susan admits "we usually are." To her brother she complains. "Our names sound just like us."
The book was written in 1962, but that name commentary still resonates. Susan and John aren't nearly as common today, of course. The number of Susans born, in particular, has dropped by 99%. Yet the siblings still sound like a "worthy and dependable" pair.
Now meet the other family. The eldest boy is imaginative, opinionated and hot-tempered. "It was typical of him, Susan and John felt, to have an interesting and unusual name and to have sisters with interesting names, too." The boy is named Barnaby, his sisters Fredericka and...Abigail.
Barnaby and Fredericka remain ultra-rare today as they were in 1962. Abigail, though, is now a top-10 staple. In fact, Abigail and Susan have essentially swapped places on the popularity charts, making Abbie the Susie of 2010.
It takes the author's description of the name as "interesting and unusual" to help today's readers understand that Abigail and siblings were an eye-popping sibling set, marking their family as unconventional. Even with that pointer, I doubt any young reader can appreciate how a rare name would have seemed in the naming climate of 1962, when "normal" really was the norm. Susan, John and twenty-nine other names were more common then than any name is today.