I didn't have many real-life friends in high school. I'm pretty sure I heard my WoW name more than my real name in those days—to the point where my WoW identity and my own were inseparable. Flash forward to today. Blizzard's reclaiming old, dormant WoW names, and I'm crushed.
It should be noted that if you've used a character any time between November 13th, 2008 and now, don't worry: your character's name is safe. However, for personal reasons I abandoned and essentially blocked myself from my now-ancient WoW account at the start of that year, so it's free game for Blizzard's crack team of name-snatchers.
It's not like my character from my old glory (well, a sort of glory) days is gonna poof out of existence, but—given the circumstances—this is pretty much a forced goodbye to an identity. In WoW people didn't know me by any other name, and they could only imagine the person I actually was.
In those days I remember just being... afraid. All the time. I had no reason to be confident. Nothing to hang my hat on—no strong skills or pursuits. My mom and dad were supportive but distant, still reeling from a divorce and disagreements over how to deal with my sister and major life shake-ups and hundreds of other little things. I felt alone, something I think a lot of people that age can identify with. Paradoxically, however, I kept to myself. I didn't really talk to other kids at school. Negative feelings festered. I became sad and angry—at other people, at myself. Mainly at myself.
I wanted to be larger than life—heroic, interesting, functional—to make up for the awkward, sniveling teenager I'd become. I wanted to forge that WoW name into something I could be proud of.
But I still wanted to be me. A portion of me. The base building blocks of me reconfigured into something a little better, like a hyper-accurate Darth Vader statue made from bricks often found lodged in toddlers' stomachs.
So I came up with a name. Mustering every last bit of teenage originality I could until it physically manifested as beads of thoughtsweat on my forehead, I plunked out "Atnhan"—a slight re-arrangement of my first name. Myself, but a little different. Simple but quietly expressive of my intentions, my own little in-game easter egg. It was the deepest thing I'd thought of since I contemplated the CRUSHING FUTILITY of ROMANCE AND LIFE OR WHATEVER while listening to Fall Out Boy.
And that was it: I was off. I rolled my Tauren (read: cow person) shaman on a server called Thunderlord because people I knew from high school played there. I never worked up the courage to actually join them, but that ended up being a good thing. Nobody knew me. I could be whoever I wanted—which in practice meant being essentially still myself, but with a clean slate. Sometimes that's all you need to build confidence. People's expectations are heavy. I felt free.
If there was one thing I didn't lack for at the time, it was free, er, time. I made progress quickly and before long hit the point where WoW became a nearly full-time commitment: I joined a fairly hardcore raiding guild. We had schedules and point systems and leaders and, somewhere in there, fun. Lots and lots of fun. And I was needed, to heal, to fight, to make snarky comments, to occasionally lead. Atnhan was needed.
Multiple nights per week, even. I remember watching the premiere of the WoW South Park episode while raiding. Part of me wants to go back in time and shout "NERRRRRRRD" at my past self. The other part is just glad he was happy.
Eventually I stopped playing WoW, and for some reason I didn't carry Atnhan with me. I stopped using that handle entirely, made a clean break. I didn't really know why at the time, but in retrospect I think Atnhan was a very specific me, and when I left WoW—largely thanks to how much WoW helped me grow—I left him behind.
In that respect, maybe this isn't such a bad thing. Maybe it's just the last tug after years and years of slowly peeling away the band-aid. It's strange, though, to know that identities—the most intimate, powerful things we can have as human beings—can be destroyed or thrown back into the wild in an instant if we're not keeping tabs on them. Or, if not those identities, then at least the badges we wear to project them.
As time goes on and more and more online games and services age, fade, and even disappear, I imagine this will become more common. We'll lose our old names and maybe even our old faces, tiny flecks of ourselves dissolved by time. Internet breadcrumb trails eaten away by what now constitutes "natural causes," the online equivalent of maggots and crows.
That's kinda freeing in its own way, given that the Internet has a seemingly infinite memory for many things. Our pasts (sordid parts included) can be accessed in an instant through social media, comments, forum posts, and the like. It's almost... good to know that some of it goes away, even if people sometimes abuse that fact to make things like anonymous/mean-spirited burner accounts, etc.
But you take the good with the bad, and so too does the good get taken away with the bad. For me Atnhan represented both sides of the coin, and soon all I'll have is memories. It's bittersweet—I haven't spoken to any of my old guildmates in years; I have no idea what they're up to—but it's something.
Heck, I hear that back in the day people didn't have a massive slab of Internet to record their every living second on at all. They, like, wrote books and stuff. Maybe I should write a book. Or, more likely, I'll just be grateful for the experiences I had and the person I was at the time, warts and all. Even if somebody else ends up using my old name, I'll always have that.
Motown, Tunkashila, and many, many other names (but not people!) I've forgotten, if you're reading this I miss you all very much.