What’s in a name?

I suppose you’ll have noticed by now the quote in the header. I confess this quote was a conveniently apropos quote that I found through a google books search when launching this blog, but has no relation to the process of creating the name by which I identify myself on the internet.

No, that’s a different tale altogether, and I am not simply indulging in narcissistic nostalgia by telling (some of) it. Names have power, especially when they’re names we choose ourselves. Listen, dear reader, and you shall hear.

It should be no surprise (I mean, really, “morbid” is half of this name) that I’m a bit of a baby goth. The colorful clothes throw it off for some people, but when it comes down to it I’m definitely sullen and I’d say emo except emo developed when I was just older than its inhabitants. Back in 2003, when I was barely a teenager and starting a blog, I wrote a poem about myself that included the line “morbid flying in warped dreams.” (Protip: don’t try to google it, it won’t really work.) When I had to think of a username that wasn’t an obvious one, I took the first two words and smashed them together to get morbidflight. It worked, and I’m eternally grateful to my creativity.

So that name, “morbidflight,” comes out of a fairly dark period of my life and more embarrassingly than that, a fairly juvenile one. I don’t claim to have matured significantly in the intervening eleven years (although I hope I have). I’m still morbid(ly) flying through warped dreams. I’m still very much morbidflight. The old blog might not exist where it used to, but it definitely exists on the web. I need a record of my past as much as I need a record of my present.

But the story is never that simple. I’ve believed for a long time that the only reason we believe in consistency of character, of personality, is that we keep the same name. And as a member of the generation that grew up with relatively easy internet access, I understand the value of pseudonymous identities. Yes, plural, identities. I have a name that I use in meatspace with few misgivings, and I’m rather attached to it. I have morbidflight for the internet, and I’m rather attached to that as well. But I’m also someone in a position of developing a professional identity in meatspace that is tightly intertwined with what I do on the interwebs. And therein lies the rub.

What is my name? What does it matter that this group of people defined only by their real-world location calls me by one moniker, while this group of people defined only by their lack of real-world location calls me by another. Why do I care so much about keeping these names, and these identities, separate? These thoughts have been going through my head for several years now, but I think the decision to write these down is in part spurred by a friend’s recent name change (yay, friend). To throw out a spate of offhand metaphors, names are records, names are identifiers, names are choices that we make and choices made for us.

I prefer to make the choice myself, controlling the relationship between my meatspace name and my cyberspace name as best I can. This is why you might see me request to delete something that has my name in it, or fail to see me claim ownership of a thing that has my name in it. I definitely don’t do this as well as I should, or as well as others would expect, but I do it in a way that works for me. It’s not an easy distinction between professional and personal identities; in my case it really feels more like a distinction between meatspace and cyberspace. But I’m professional and personal in both of those spaces—ask anyone who’s ever been at a conference with me, or anyone who I visited after getting to know online. And to complicate this further, I go by different pronunciations of my name depending on the country in which I am located and the language I am speaking. In the past year or two, I’ve even started responding to a name used only by a small group of people.

I guess it’s safe to say that I go by many names, all of which correspond to me. Even if it feels a little weird to let people call me “morbid” and leave off the “flight,” that’s a nickname. People say “morbidflight” out loud when they want my attention. Maybe it started out as a name I chose for myself, but now it’s a name that others use for me. I am accountable because I use this name consistently, and accountable because this name corresponds to a story, a telling of my life.

And that’s about what it means to be a name.


Update on Minecraft

I started playing Minecraft again when I was on vacation recently, on a server this time. I’m actually enjoying it, though my two main fears are definitely in effect when I play (the dark, and water). The first fear isn’t a big deal, especially since the dark is scary due to monsters spawning. The second is just weird, because a game with blocky, low-res graphics like Minecraft can still trigger the feeling of being underwater…which leads me to a small point: for me, the “graphics” or “visuals” of a game help me immerse myself in the game, but once I have done so by whatever means necessary, the game has strong affect. It’s not as simple as pretty art means I care more, or more pixels in the hair means I identify more with the protagonist. Rather, I can be put off by bad art, but if it doesn’t put me off, it is not the lens through which I engage with the game. (Disclaimer: it is the lens for some games. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)

Another thing about Minecraft this time is that I’m playing with people I already know on a shared server. This is just another way of engaging with them, in addition to playing League or talking on various instant messaging services or using Snapchat (I like being able to write and draw on pictures I take, even if the quality takes a hit for it; also, note the recent lack-of-privacy discussions about Snapchat before running off to download it).

I’m still pretty bad at this game, though. I just make houses and put torches in them and like…that’s it. Oh well. I fell into lava once and lost a nearly-full inventory. That upset me quite a bit, and since then I’ve been either less invested or more careful. Perma-death mechanics are one of the few things I hate in games, mostly because I don’t actually like meaningful consequences for failure.

The preponderance of “porn”

Today, I was just chilling on the internet and a friend pointed out that a trending subreddit was “things cut in half porn” (r/ThingsCutInHalfPorn). My mind instantly went to an old (2003) manga by Shintaro Kago: “The Desperate Sadness of a Cross-Section.” Yes, if you decide to look it up, you should know that Kago Shintaro is well known for his guro manga (guro = ero-guro = erotic grotesque, but guro also has a connotation of gore now in Western consumption of manga and anime and games) and it’s very absurdist and kinda freaky and okay so this one in particular involves a woman who is cut in half by some freak accident (space lasers?) and so no one loves her and she has to love herself. Yes, it’s porny.

Anyway. So this popped into my mind and I tried to find an appropriate image to reference and I thought about linking it to the aforementioned subreddit, only to find that they have an “NSFW posts are not allowed” rule. Which is kind of silly, if you think about it, because the subreddit title includes the word “porn.” It’s also part of a series of subreddits known as the “SFW Porn Network,” which presumably includes various high quality pictures of things that are safe for work. Because the internet is for porn, but apparently porn means “things that are nice to look at.”

But when did this happen? As is customary for English majors, even ex-English majors who are now in vaguely not-humanities fields (I’ll give you the humanities when you pry it from my cold dead hands), all roads lead to the OED. The OED has two definitions each for “porn” and “pornography,” and it is “porn” that I am interested in after all.

2. fig. As the second element in compounds: denoting written or visual material that emphasizes the sensuous or sensational aspects of a non-sexual subject, appealing to its audience in a manner likened to the titillating effect of pornography.

“porn, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 13 May 2014.

So. This usage dates back to 1973, apparently, when someone decided to use the phrasing “horror-porn” in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Pornography” itself only dates back to the early 19th century, and has, since the mid-20th, been used to indicate stimulating non-erotic material, though with a lower frequency than “porn.”

In my mind, I associate the full word “pornography” with a clinical or dismissive attitude, whereas “porn” connotes at least some sort of enthusiasm for the subject. I remember sharing the phrase “sky porn” with a friend like some sort of delicate chocolate; we still sometimes send each other pretty pictures of the sky. Still, something about that usage is vaguely titillating. As if we knew that the word was tainted by association, uncomfortably sensual.

I think I can’t be offended by the use of “porn” to describe things that are a treat to the senses. Even if it strikes me as funny when this usage explicitly excludes things that are often considered quintessentially pornographic.

Role-playing, interrupted

Can we construct the act of playing a MOBA as role-playing? The different construction of “role” as a set of game actions and expectations illuminates the variation in performative acts. We might argue that because most players don’t imagine themselves as a mermaid looking to save her homeland, or a man out to avenge his wife’s death, that playing a game like League of Legends does not involve role-playing. On the other hand, League explicitly constructs “role” as a set of actions, behaviors, and limitations: the “marksman” role stands out of the way of incoming damage and attempts to dole out damage to enemies, while the “tank” soaks up damage and attempts to disrupt the enemy team. A lead Riot designer, Morello, describes the working definition of role as corresponding to “the type of value they contribute to a team, or else communicates the fundamentals of their playstyle. It sets expectations for what a player’s experience will be like and what they can do for their team.”

These roles were formalized (and changed from earlier terms) in July 2013, coalescing into a set of six terms that relate to vernacular distinctions:

  • Assassin: a relatively squishy champion who focuses on eliminating a single target. Ex. Akali
  • Mage: a caster who uses spells to get ahead and mostly deals magic damage. Ex. Veigar
  • Tank: an unkillable monster who takes one for the team, repeatedly. Ex. Mundo (I love Mundo)
  • Support: a champion who can either make plays with good initiation, or make plays with disengage (and then there’s supports like Soraka who are sustain bots). Ex. Nami (I also love Nami)
  • Fighter: a champion with some brawling ability who can also deal damage. Ex. Renekton
  • Marksman: a champion still generally referred to as “AD Carry,” who deals lots of scaling damage through basic attacks. Ex. Caitlyn

See Morello’s post, linked above, for his descriptions of these roles. (I tried to summarize them in one sentence, partly to offer my own interpretation of these, but partly just because I need to practice that kind of synthesis of vernacular comments, “word of god,” and my own interpretations.)

In formalizing these terms, Riot has used them as champion filters throughout their site and the in-game client (e.g., the store, or when searching for available champions). To this end, Riot has assigned each champion a set of roles, usually a primary and a secondary role. For example, Leona is a Tank/Support. Riot has also used this set of roles as part of the new Team Builder queue, wherein players select a champion, a location, and a role, from this controlled vocabulary. In this queue, the champion and the role are not restricted in any way, although a role is suggested for the player based on the formal assignment of roles discussed above. For instance, selecting Caitlyn places a star next to the “Marksman” role in the drop-down menu, but a player may also elect to play Caitlyn as a tank.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder, listing all six roles.

The drop-down menu for selecting a role in Team Builder. Marksman is recommended for Caitlyn.

Now that we’ve established the general idea of roles in League of Legends, let’s talk about how players role-play (using my expanded definition of role-playing). To perform a role involves a combination of actions (verbs) and items (object nouns). Within the context of League, actions are things like casting spells, performing basic attacks, and moving around. Items refer mostly to the choice of items bought, but using my definition can also refer to the rune and mastery pages that add several small advantages like a small percentage of extra health, or a tiny bit of crowd-control reduction. These action and item sets also accompany an expected attitude: the marksman is supposed to be careful about positioning, build items that give massive physical damage, and take kills for themself. (Draven is perhaps the embodiment of the marksman attitude.) In contrast, a support is supposed to set up kills for the marksman, get them out of danger, and avoid taking champion or minion kills (more gold for the lane partner). Playing a support champion according to the role is often a thankless task, and Riot has attempted to rectify this: recognizing the competing actions expected of the role was step 1. Items, too, reflect the expected attitude: stacking items like Mejai’s Soulstealer reward kills but punish deaths heavily—the mage or marksman role. (n.b.: Before you say I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not suggesting you go out and build a Mejai’s on Caitlyn. Maybe try it on Kog’maw, though.)

What I’ve been calling attitude, in the previous paragraph, is actually the performance of a role. The strange thing about games like League, perhaps, is that success in the game is tied to success in this performance—according to the current meta. The “current meta” is the informal understanding of roles that most players assimilate and contribute to, a kind of invisible script. This can be frustrating to try to accommodate to, as a role player.

Screenshot of Game Lobby with Two Players

Screenshot of game lobby with two players in selected roles.

What things like Team Builder attempt to do is to generate an ad hoc script in “conversation” with players. This conversation takes the form of showing one’s hand and selecting a desired champion, position, and role, in that order. Once a player has chosen these, they go on the market, and team captains can add desired players to the team. If a player doesn’t like their team, they can leave without penalty. In this way, Team Builder makes it possible to negotiate their own roles to perform in game, rather than attempting to fit into an existing, and perhaps restrictive, script.

On a contextual theory of communication

Normally people think of communication with a transmissive view, i.e. there is a sender, a signal, and a receiver, and each part of this process can be checked for success or failure. Carey talks about this as the predominant mode in American discourse on communication, and that hasn’t changed much since he wrote in 1989 (Communication as Culture). He also talks about an alternative view, the ritual view, wherein communication acts like reciting lines of a play or of a religious service, reinforcing a community’s ideals.

But both of these views depend on a receptive audience: in the transmission view, the audience receives a new belief, and in the ritual view, the audience enforces an existing belief. I think this can be limiting, especially when we think about actual vs. imagined audiences, and if we think about art that may not be intended to encode a message but just to show something.

So what if it’s more like, communication is that which affects an intellectual context and you can walk through that mind landscape and react to it how you will? What if we throw word bombs at each other’s mind palaces? And more importantly, what would it mean to begin to analyze language/communication/representation from this perspective?

I had to reread the first chapter of Communication as Culture before I let myself write this post, and in so doing I realized that Carey approached this idea himself. Reality, for Carey, is constructed through symbolic representation (aka, communication).

…communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey 1989, 23)

There’s another part of Carey’s argument about communication: it is social, public. It doesn’t necessarily presume an audience devoted to decoding, but it does presume an audience. Our communicative acts are visible. This is less symmetric than the transmission view of sender/signal/receiver, but more personable. More human.

Although, one important caveat about the similarity between my argument and Carey’s is that I believe this is what Carey refers to as the ritual mode, while I think it’s something other than that.

Two references which prompted me to consider the question of audience and art/communication (also more reason for me to read Dewey, I guess):