I've seen that in games like MMORPGs and the Diablo series, where the player has an "arsenal" of several characters, people refer to their characters as "toons".

What is the origin of this term?

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    I'd guess the thought process was something like character -> cartoon character -> cartoon -> toon. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 20:56
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    I suggested that the term was popularized by Toontown Online but others noted that the earliest usage of the term predated this MMO.
    – agent86
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 22:27
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    @agent86 Yeah, I've heard reference to this in Everquest. Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 0:29
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    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. ansible.wikia.com/wiki/Toon
    – Zoredache
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 1:25
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    @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.
    – Amy B
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 1:46

6 Answers 6


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?
    – user1978
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 7:32
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    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.
    – Amy B
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 14:38
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    @Shinrai WoW was released in late 2004. Toon was in use before that.
    – Amy B
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 15:09
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    I feel like there is a lot of assumptions with this answer, mostly related about players trying to have some sort of disconnect from their character by using the word 'toon'. Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 16:14

"Toon" for your game characters absolutely started in The Realm Online. It was one of the earliest graphical MMORPGs out, the characters actually looked like cartoons and people there called them "toons" because of that. Sadly it carried on to other games out of habit.

I was a text MUD player from 1990 (the entire Internet at the time was all text) and on through as the graphical games started to come out. I never once heard the word "toon" used to describe ones character until The Realm Online came out. They looked like Cartoons, people started calling them toons, and unfortunately it stuck and was carried along by various people.


The first use of the word Toon that I know of is from Orson Scott Card's short story Ender's Game (not to be confused with his 1985 book of the same title), published in Analog Magazine in August of 1977. In Ender's Game, Toon was actually [I believe] short for Platoon, and was used to identify the various Battle Groups and their leaders.


I first heard it used in MMO's circa 2006 in Fiesta Online, a MMORPG published by Outspark. The game was very cartoony, so at the time I made the assumption that the term Toon stood for Cartoon.


I have never played WoW, so can't say if it originated there, but to this day I use the term universally as an identifier for any given character in any non Pen and Paper RPG I play. As for Pen and Paper RPG's, I still use the term Character.


The "origin" of the name isn't paramount in this instance. What makes the usage of the name important is the game that made it so popular. None of the games mentioned so far have come close to being the real reason people use the term "toon" to this day.

I have been in this industry for many years. I am generation-X, the generation that invented the internet. I WROTE Multi-User Dungeons. I have been playing multiplayer, with focus on as massive as technologically possible, since they were conceived. That said..

The term "toon" was made popular by a game called "ToonTown Online". The game was developed and marketed starting in 2003, primarily by Disney, and every commercial included multiple usages of the term "toon". I remember the gravely commercial announcer saying things like "Create your very toon", "play with hundreds of other toons", "your toon your story".

The "origin" of the term "absolutely" came from the "carTOON" industry and decades of generations of people calling the characters in WB and Disney cartoons "toons". But, the regular USAGE of the term as a replacement for the term "character" or "avatar" in gaming started with the game "ToonTown".

It was actually a pretty popular game, lasting for ten years. What made the term popular was the commercialized marketing tactics used regularly by the Disney machine. The commercials were designed to make you "remember" simple terms that were "familiar" but not exactly the same. This gives the customer a feeling of getting something.. you guessed it.. both familiar AND new.

NO ONE used the term before this outside a very minuscule subset of gamers in niche games that no one cared about then and no one remembers now.

"Toon" for your game characters absolutely started in The Realm Online. It was one of the earliest graphical MMORPGs out, the characters actually looked like cartoons and people there called them "toons" because of that. Sadly it carried on to other games out of habit.

No one today uses the term "toon" because of the game "The Realm Online". That's like people saying they call all colas "coke" because it historically had cocaine in it at one time. Malarkey.

  • Ok Gen-Xer. I didn't attribute The Realm Online as "the cause", only as the oldest usage that I could find. I take umbrage with your description of Anarchy Online, Ultima Online and Diablo 2 as "niche games that no one cared about and no one remembers now". Diablo 2 is so fondly remembered it was rereleased on the Switch. There can be more than one cause of the usage. Here's two. Increasing disconnection between player and character. Ease of typing.
    – Amy B
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 14:51

Because your characters are on your computer screen much like a cartoon character is on the television. Chartoon character to Cartoon to Toon


It goes back to the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", released in 1988. Check the IMDB listing first sentence: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096438/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

  • Cartoon is different than the characters you control.
    – Frank
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 20:21
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    The accepted answer makes mention of the same movie, to a better extent. Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 20:59

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