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I've seen that in games where a player has an "arsenal" of several characters and each time he plays with one of them, like MMORPGs and the Diablo series, people refer to their characters as "toons". What is the source for this term?

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I'd guess the thought process was something like character -> cartoon character -> cartoon -> toon. – Matthew Read Jul 16 '12 at 20:56
@MatthewRead and what a thought process it was! – kotekzot Jul 16 '12 at 22:17
@agent86 Yeah, I've heard reference to this in Everquest. – Raven Dreamer Jul 17 '12 at 0:29
I haven't seen this before but it sounds like a term from Enders Game. Toon is battle school slang that means something like squad or platoon. – Zoredache Jul 17 '12 at 1:25
@Zoredache while the timing is right for Ender's Game (1985), the meaning is totally different. "Toon" in MMO games refers to a singular character, not a group or organization. – David B Jul 17 '12 at 1:46
up vote 23 down vote accepted

Much of this is my opinion and recollection, but as a gamer for 25 years (MMO-gamer since Everquest) maybe I know a thing or two.

Character vs Toon

"Character" is the word old RPG players have used to describe their avatar. MOO's, MUD's, D&D, Champions, and many other pen-and-paper systems. Role-playing has an important concept of separation of "player knowledge" and "character knowledge" - what you know vs what your character should know.

Many RPG players cringe when the word "Toon" is used to mean "character". "My character" implies a connection with my identity (or at least something my identity participates in), while "my toon" is something possessed, disconnected from me. More on that later.

Pre-MMO History of Toon

  • Toon (1984, pen and paper rpg)
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, movie)
  • Tiny Toon Adventures (1990, cartoon show) - note, different spelling than "Looney Tunes"

While these examples don't authoritatively show the origin of the word Toon, they do establish that the word was in use prior to the existence of MMORPGs.

The Question:

How did Toon come to be used to describe characters?

  • The Realm Online (1996)
  • Diablo (1996)
  • Ultima Online (1997)
  • Everquest (1999)
  • Diablo 2 (2000)
  • Runescape (2001)
  • ToonTown (2003)

While ToonTown's characters are, in fact, toons, the term has been used in earlier games. My recollection is that the term mainly was used in out-of-game character/account real-money trades. The word "Toon" provides a solid disconnection between the player and what he made, allowing him to sell it without regret.

Also, consider the character systems of Diablo 1 and 2. You pick your class and then the character's appearance and gender are determined from that. If you are a male gamer playing an Amazon or a Sorceress, calling that character a "Toon" can be a signal to others that you don't identify as that gender. Once again, there is a separation from identity.

Still, these games all pre-date the rise of the term around 2006. I attribute the rise of the term "Toon" during this period as not belonging to a single game or experience, but instead to the increasing disconnection between player and character identity. This can be due to many MMO players playing second or third games - how many character connections can a player create or sustain?

This can be due to games becoming more action-oriented (vs role-play centred), there is more focus on what actions this mechanism or "Toon" is capable of, instead of what the character would do/say/feel.

The Realm Online

This game was released by Sierra in 1996. It features animated cartoon-like characters. The oldest usage of "Toon" I have identified so far comes from this game (see reference below). Because the game lacked a two-way trade system, scamming was a common occurrence. It seems reasonable to me that the characters created for the sole purpose of scamming would not be called "character", but would instead be labeled "toon".

References (more to come as I have time):

  • neologasm (2006): "Playing a toon instead of an avatar implies detachment".
  • Diablo 2 (2004): "gotten this toon killed 5 times"
  • Anarchy Online forums (2003) : "roll a new toon" - this is a fascinating mixture of words: "Roll" is from pen-and-paper games where dice are rolled to determine stats, while "toon" is opposed to pen-and-paper - nothing is animated there.
  • Anarchy Online forums (2002) "I have a few toons"
  • The Realm Online (2000) "Hacker + Cheater Toons are buried here."
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Those are a lot of assumptions that in my opinion don't really give a definitive answer to the question. Could you add some sources? – dbemerlin Jul 17 '12 at 7:32
While I've played these games and have observed the change in player's use of the term, I don't use it myself. My gf does and she says: "It means cartoon, I say it because it's shorter than character." I guess that's more definitive but less fun than my answer. – David B Jul 17 '12 at 11:22
I always just thought it was because of the visual style of WoW, personally...that game seemed to really be the first to use it extensively. To this day I've never heard an MMO player who didn't spend a lot of time on WoW use the term (although to be fair, a large percentage of MMO players today have spent a lot of time on WoW). I've also never heard it used on a game of around the same age or older. – Shinrai Jul 17 '12 at 14:38
@Shinrai WoW was released in late 2004. Toon was in use before that. – David B Jul 17 '12 at 15:09
Toon has never been used in the RuneScape community to describe another character. Usually, they're a challenge or otherwise devoted character described in terms of their purpose, for example 'staking pure' or 'barrows pure'. – corsiKa Oct 13 '14 at 0:06

It goes back to the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", released in 1988. Check the IMDB listing first sentence:

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Cartoon is different than the characters you control. – Frank Apr 12 '14 at 20:21
The accepted answer makes mention of the same movie, to a better extent. – Doktoro Reichard Apr 12 '14 at 20:59

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