'Tron' inspires name change

Video game designer Todd Hartley became 'Tronster' for the love of the movie

December 15, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

The Parkville boy's parents had deemed him too young for "Tron" when it played in theaters in 1982. But he loved it when he saw it several years later on a neighbor's VHS tape.

Soon, he wanted to join the new frontier of electronic bulletin boards. To post, he had to pick a moniker.

"A lot of people chose aliases like Dark Knight or Thunder Hawk," he said recently. "I logged on for a week as Tron."

By the end of the week he realized there were seven or eight people in Baltimore alone using Tron. He wanted a different name that could include 'Tron' in eight characters or less.

"My 11-year-old self came up with Tronster," he said.

The nickname stuck. For the past eight years it's been his legal first name, too.

Tronster (formerly Todd) Hartley, 34, now designs video games for Firaxis Games in Sparks. But he speaks fondly and vividly of bygone video games like "Discs of Tron."

Hartley learned his digital basics at the Gilman School in the third grade, then mastered advanced skills at the Friends School's summer computer camp. When he was a kid, the most advanced gaming fun around was playing Donkey Kong or Street Fighter at an arcade.

"During family vacations on the beach, I would look for arcades on the boardwalk. Even fast-food restaurants, bars and pizza parlors had arcade games. The tabletop versions of them were called 'cocktail cabinets' because they worked well inside of bars. I still want to get one for my kitchen."

The movie "Tron" scored a direct hit on Hartley's fantasy zone. That's partly because "the hero was a computer programmer who was shot into a computer, and not only a programmer, but a programmer who made video games."

But it's mostly because the movie's vision of a computer world exerted a seductive pull. "'Tron' established a fantasy version of what it looks like inside computers," said Hartley, "and it went beyond my expectations, with 'light-cycles,' tanks, all these magical components of a diverse world."

After he earned his B.A. in computer science from Ohio Wesleyan, he went to work for Sylvan Learning Center. Everyone in his professional team used nicknames. "One guy had ' Moby Disc.' You did it for the camaraderie." Todd's was, as ever, Tronster.

He always signed his work products as Tronster. But after a conference call with Microsoft, his manager told him that he couldn't do business under a nickname; Human Resources agreed. "Then a colleague pulled me aside and said, 'Five million women a year change their name. It's not that big a deal.'" In 2002 he made "Tronster" official.

He says he'll wear his moniker with special pride this season. "Tron Legacy" has exceeded every one of my expectations," he wrote in an e-mail. "There was more emotion, more action, and a script that seemed more accessible to the audience as a whole. The 2 hours flew by; I look forward to seeing it many more times starting 12:01 a.m. Friday."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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