Confused about a gaming term? Fear not! Just check the following glossary of common gaming terms that commonly pop up throughout the newsletter:


Genre of sandbox strategy games, usually turn-based, where the player’s objective is to lead a nation, planetary federation, political faction, or other “macro”-scale society/organization to victory over all opponents. Stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate.”

Examples: Civilization, Master of Orion, Stellaris


Descriptor that refers to large-scope, blockbuster games with astronomically high budgets and even higher production value. Usually developed and published by the handful of studios/publishers that can afford making them.

Due to the high cost of making these games, the risk inherent to all commercial creative output, and the fact that the largest studios tend to be publicly-traded companies facing intense shareholder pressure for results, AAA games tend to stick to what’s proven and “safe.”

As such, AAA studios rarely take creative risks—sequels and remakes abound in the AAA space, and developers rididly adhere to established genres and their conventions, leading some players to deride AAA titles as derivative, bland, and formulaic games under a veneer of flashy, hyper-realistic graphics.

(However, whenever AAA games do take creative risks that succeed and pay off, their innovative mechanics and big-budget polish combine to create near-unrivaled gameplay experiences)

Examples: Call of Duty [franchise], The Elder Scrolls [franchise], Grand Theft Auto [franchise], The Legend of Zelda [franchise]

Compare/Contrast with “Indie Games.”


Short for “Action Roleplaying Game,” a subgenre of RPGs which feature real-time (instead of turn-based) combat.

Examples: Diablo [franchise], Hades, Minecraft Dungeons


The questionable game design choice of making the player traverse back through levels or areas they’ve already cleared in order to look for an upgrade, collectible, or plot token they missed (or worse, that the developers intentionally placed so as to artificially inflate play times).

Boss Fight

In-game battle against an antagonist that’s stronger, smarter, or otherwise more challenging than ordinary enemies. Boss fights tend to mark the ends of chapters, levels, and even—in the case of the “Final Boss Fight”—the entire game.

Sometimes, weaker “boss” enemies appear halfway through a level; such encounters are called “Mini-Boss Fights.”


Short for “video game console.” Dedicated hardware for playing games on, as opposed to PCs and mobile devices which can perform other functions like reading Substack newsletters. Can only run games designed to run on that particular console, but are more affordable than building a custom gaming PC, and are comparatively easy to set up and use. This has led to immature PC gamers constantly sneering at console gamers as “filthy casuals” and “not REAL gamers.”

Examples: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One


Short for “game developer,” often shortened further to “game dev” or just “dev.” Can refer to either an individual or an organization that makes video games (although “game studio” should be used for the latter, to avoid confusion).

Often used interchangeably with “programmer” or “engineer,” but in a gaming context, one does not need to work with code to be a game developer—designers, artists, writers, composers, game designers, narrative designers, producers, project managers, and animators are all game developer roles that require minimal coding (or none at all).

Engine / Game Engine

Every game is built on an “engine,” a technical term for the information/coding structure that games are built on, and then run from.

To use a housing analogy, the engine is both the game’s foundation and the raw materials from which it’s built. To use a car analogy, it’s literally the engine. Or to use an even simpler analogy, think of the engine as a cup, and the game as the water that’s poured into the cup. The engine is the vessel that gives the game its structure, form, and development parameters.

Environmental Storytelling

Narrative/Game Design practice of delivering a game’s story and lore through its setting, instead of through lengthy cutscenes or novel-length text exposition. Considered a best practice as it’s among the least intrusive narrative techniques for games, and it doesn’t limit player agency. However, it’s very hard to pull off successfully.


Competitive multiplayer gaming on a professional or semi-professional level. Earned the moniker not because gaming is “active” in the way traditional sports are. Instead, competitive gaming is called “eSports” because it has leagues, teams, rules, and referees; are broadcast, complete with live commentators; and elite players can supplement their price money with very lucrative sponsorships.

You know, just like in “real” sports.

Fail State

The technical term for the player losing the game (more colloquially known as “dying” or getting a “game over”).


Short for “First-Person Shooter.” Quite possibly the most popular and vilified video game genre in existence. Gameplay involves the player assuming the point-of-view (POV) of the player character, whose objective is to fire ranged weapons (usually guns) at their opponents until fulfilling the requisite victory conditions.


Genre of (usually mobile) games that are basically glorified slot machines involve spending in-game tokens or real-world money for the chance to acquire in-game items or collectibles that confer some sort of aesthetic value or gameplay advantage to the player. Decried by gamers and government regulators alike for nurturing a whole new generation of gambling addicts.

See “Loot Box.”


Overly fancy and overly geeky* term for “fan theory.”



Short for “Hit Point(s).” In an RPG, HP is used to measure a character’s health, or life (indeed, some games refer to HP as either “Health Points” or “Life,” but such changes are, with very few exceptions, merely cosmetic in nature).

As an example, the player’s character may start out with 20 HP, or 20 Hit Points. Every time the character takes damage, it loses HP (so a monster bite might remove 6 HP, leaving the player at 14 HP). Conversely, healing items like first-aid kits can restore HP (after the monster bite, the player can use a first-aid kit to restore 6HP, putting the player back at 20 HP). As characters get stronger and level up, they’ll often raise their Maximum HP—the cap on how much HP a character can have—along with it (say, from 20 HP to 23 HP).

If a character’s HP drops to 0, the character dies (though they can be “revived” by certain items or magic). If all characters under the player’s control reach 0 HP, that’s a “Game Over.”

Indie Game / Developer / Studio / Publisher / Scene

“Indie” refers to the independent publishing scene—this is the gaming industry outside of the major, AAA studios and publishers. So an “indie” game refers to a game made by an “indie” developer. Indie studios are almost always either solo developers, or teams of (on average) 5-10 people.

Indie studios lack the mammoth budgets of their AAA counterparts, so not only are they just one failed game away from closure, but their games rarely match up to AAA games’ massive scopes or hyper-realistic graphics. They make up for this, however, by being more willing to take creative risks and innovate.

Often, these risks don’t pan out—and detractors decry having to wade through a sea of shovelware in order to find those few diamonds in the rough.

Nevertheless, in only its decade and change of existence, the indie scene has become the driving force behind the medium’s creative growth and evolution. Indie developers discover, develop, and pioneer innovations in gameplay, narrative, and aesthetics—and the rest of the industry quickly follows suit.

Examples: Celeste [game], Terry Cavanaugh [developer], Inkle [studio], Annapurna Interactive [publisher]

Compare/contrast with “AAA.”


Short for “intellectual property,” which is legalese for “creative work that by copyright/trademark ‘belongs’ to the owner of said work.” Most of the time, the creator is the one with the rights to her intellectual property, though these rights can be bought, sold, and traded just like more tangible forms of property.


An RPG developed in Japan, or by a Japanese studio.

See: RPG

Loot Box

Gameplay mechanic (particularly prevalent in mobile games) that involves spending in-game tokens or real-world money for the chance to acquire in-game items or collectibles that confer some sort of aesthetic value or gameplay advantage to the player. Decried by gamers and government regulators alike for nurturing a whole new generation of gambling addicts.

See “Gacha,” “Microtransaction(s.)


Video game genre, the hallmarks of which include 2D platforming gameplay, an emphasis on exploration and character growth, huge worlds that necessitate extensive backtracking, tons of combat, and insane difficulty levels. The word itself is a portmaneu of “Metroid” and “Castlevania,” the franchises that birthed and pioneered the genre.

Examples: Metroid, Castlevania, Hollow Knight


Items, powerups, or other enhancements sold in-game for a nominal fee (often as low as $0.99). Can be a perfectly fine way for developers to make money off a free-to-play game, but often veers into predatory territory by gating content, essential powerups, or even playtime behind microtransactions.

See “Gacha,” “Loot Box.”


Short for “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game,” a video game genre characterized by RPGs set in massive open worlds in which players interact in real-time over the internet. Eventually shortened to “MMO” (“Massively Multiplayer Online”) after the emergence of games that weren’t technically RPGs but still checked off all the other boxes.

Examples: World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XIV, Sea of Thieves


Short for “Nintendo Entertainment System,” Nintendo’s 1985 home console that single-handedly saved video games from the 1983 Atari crash, and cemented Japanese dominance of the console gaming industry for the next two decades. Home to classics like the original Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

For people of a certain age, when prompted to think of a video game console or device, chances are they’re thinking of this one.


Short for “Non-Playable Character,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a character in a game (most prevalent in RPGs) that the player doesn’t control. Whether only characters the player never controls count as NPCs, or if playable characters (PCs) the player isn’t using at the moment also count, is a debate generally not worth getting into.

Compare/Contrast with “PC


Short for:

  1. “Personal Computer,” a personal computing device, almost always one that runs the Microsoft Windows operating system.

    This distinction’s even more pronounced in the gaming world, as most games (especially big-budget, resource-intensive, AAA titles) are made exclusively for Windows, and ports to other operating systems (including macOS and Linux) are relatively uncommon. For this, and many other reasons, Windows PCs have cornered the PC gaming market since its earliest days.

  2. “Player Character,” the character(s) that the player controls. Or, if there’s a rotating cast of PCs, the characters the player controls at the time. Unless you count all potentially playable characters as PCs, regardless of when the player controls it. A debate generally not worth getting into.

    Compare/Contrast with “NPC


Gameplay condition under which if the player character "dies,” the player loses ALL progress and must restart, from scratch, with a brand-new character.


Video game genre characterized by the player moving the player character from start to finish by obtaining powerups, fighting/evading enemies, and jumping onto and off of floating platforms on the way. Hence the term “platformer.”

Examples: Super Mario Bros. [franchise], Donkey Kong Country [Franchise]

Point-And-Click Adventure

Video game genre consisting of narrative-driven games that emphasize puzzles, exploration, dialogue, and storytelling over action and combat. Named for the player inputs of moving the cursor around the screen and clicking on points of interest (thus, “pointing and clicking” with their mouse). Sharply declined in popularity from their heyday in the 80s and 90s, but have enjoyed on-and-off revivals in the late 00s and 2010s.

Examples: Monkey Island [franchise], Grim Fandango, The Last Door


“Porting” is tech talk for modifying software written for one operating environment so it will run in another. For example, when someone takes an app designed for Windows PCs and thinkers with the code so it can run on a Mac. For a gaming example, when someone changes a game originally released only for PlayStation so that it also works on Xbox.

Unlike a remake or a remaster, little to no part of the game itself is changed in a port; at most, it might get a few tweaks to make its gameplay more palatable to modern sensibilities (see “Quality of Life Update”), but more often than not, a port’s only changes are those necessary for it to run on the system it’s being ported to.

A great option for publishers who want to cash in on one of their IP’s nostalgia, but don’t want to expend the effort or resources to make a full remaster. Contrary to popular belief, however, it’s not nearly as straightforward as it sounds.

Procedural Generation

Technical term for the process of generating in-game content automatically via algorithms, instead of manually programming it into the game.


Company that funds, polishes, releases, and markets video games. Usually, a video game developer or studio will create a game (or at least a viable prototype) and pitch it to a publisher to “take it over the finish line” in exchange for a cut of the game’s sales revenue or profits. Some developers have enough resources to develop and publish their games in-house


To retry a game after “dying” (see: Fail State). From the word “spawn,” as the player character will usually “revive” in the same spot each time, much like young salmon spawn in the same spot that their ancestors did.


Random Number Generator. Basically, the digital equivalent of rolling dice.


Video game genre centered around “permadeath”—meaning, if your character dies, you lose all progress and have to start again from scratch. Naturally, these games tend to be challenging, tedious, and grindy—which caters to a very specific type of player. (Some of these games allow the player to retain some progress; the more forvigin a game is in this regard, the more it becomes a “Roguelite” than a proper “Roguelike”)

Examples: Slay the Spire, Hades, The Binding of Isaac

See “Permadeath.”


Roleplaying Game. A tabletop or video game where players assume the mantle of a character and take an active role in the story. This genre is one of gaming’s most varied and diverse, spanning practically the entire mechanical, narrative, and aesthetic spectrums known to the medium. Even games outside the genre will often include RPG elements.

Examples: Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy [franchise], Disco Elysium



Real-Time Strategy. A genre of sandbox strategy games which involve the player building and commanding an army or faction with the objective of defeating her opponent(s), with gameplay taking place in “real time” (ie, no taking turns; the clock keeps moving as players make their moves).

Examples: Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires

Save / Save Game / Saving Your Game

The act of recording the player’s progress in a game. Before turning a game off, it’s good practice to save your game. That way, when you turn the game back on, you’ll resume at the point where you last saved, instead of at the very beginning. It’s also a good idea to save right before a major boss fight or difficult area, for the same reason.

If you’ve ever “saved” a document using Microsoft Word, then you already understand the concept.


Short for “Super Nintendo Entertainment System,” Nintendo’s 1990 follow-up to its iconic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). For gamers of a particular age group, this was the definitive gaming console—and to many, it still is. Home to classics like Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, and way too many more to list.


Speedrunning is the act of completing a game as quickly as possible. Someone who speedruns a game is called a “speedrunner,” and individual instances of speedrunning are called “speedruns.”

Speedrunners compete with each other to set and break world records. Especially for more iconic or challenging games, a record-breaking speedrun confers MASSIVE amounts of geek cred to the speedrunner, and at the highest levels, can even come with a cash prize. As such, speedrunners are experts at sniffing out glitches they can exploit to log faster times. And unfortunately, but also unsurprisingly, underhanded tactics like cheating, sabotage, and other subterfuge are not uncommon in speedrunning.

On the brighter side, since speedrunning represents the pinnacle of gaming skill, record-breaking runs are surprisingly captivating to watch (much like professional sports are for athletics), and speedrunners often stream their attempts at breaking records to raise money for charity and other noble causes.


“Streaming” is the act of recording gameplay and broadcasting it (usually live) over the internet, usually with live commentary and back-and-forth dialogue between the streamer and spectators via in-stream text chat.

“Quality of Life” Update

An update to a remake, remaster, or port of an older game to make it more accessible and engaging for today’s players. Gaming tastes change, and sometimes the game needs to change in order to meet modern expectations.

These are generally fairly minor changes (changing the control scheme, adjusting the difficulty level, and allowing players to skip through long cutscenes) that may sound trivial, but often make a big difference in the player’s experience and overall enjoyment of the game. Hence the term “quality of life.”

Walking Simulator

Once-derisive term for environmental storytelling-driven adventure games. Labeled as such because a bunch of entitled manchildren who keep giving the hobby a bad name some gamers took issue with these games’ lack of combat, fail states, traditional video game “challenge,” and even (in some cases) established gameplay conventions.

Has since been somewhat reclaimed by gamers who enjoy these games as a more neutral descriptor of the genre.

Examples: Firewatch, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch