Five Common Video Game Terms Everyone Should Know

Video games have come a long way since Pong.

Sure, that iconic black-and-white paddle game had impressive qualities: geometric physics, artificial intelligence, and a real-life context to anchor its abstract look. However, since the heyday of Pong and other early home consoles, designers have improved upon virtually every aspect of the video game.

Today’s players have access to thousands of PC and console games in genres like action, strategy, sports, adventure, simulation, and many more. These games range from two-dimensional 8-bit titles to jaw-dropping productions that look and feel like interactive cinema.

The following list contains five popular video game terms everyone should know. Many of these terms came about organically as players and game designers alike sought to categorize the patterns appearing in games across various genres.

Disclaimer: Because of how they came about, these terms do not represent strict categories from official sources but rather fluid classifications based on recurring conventions.

1. RPG (Role-playing Game)

Arguably the most encompassing of all game genres and one of the hardest to define, RPGs are games in which players control the actions of one or more characters, embarking on a central quest and making decisions that have the potential to alter the game’s progression to varying degrees.

RPGs are usually very immersive. They do their best to draw the player into the world of the game through compelling storylines, dynamic characters, and rich settings. They encourage exploration of the game world, rewarding — and sometimes requiring — detours from the main storyline to gain experience and level up characters.

Most role-playing games rely heavily on “stats” like health, strength, and endurance, to name a few. Part of what makes RPGs so rewarding is that as players level up these stats, they are able to explore new areas and overpower enemies they could not defeat at lower levels.

To that end, almost all role-playing games offer players the ability to customize and develop their characters, allowing them to change their armor, enhance stats, and learn or improve abilities that affect gameplay.

Most importantly, RPGs emphasize the role of the player in shaping how the game progresses. One classic feature of the RPG genre involves providing players with choices that help move the story along. These choices range from what to say during conversations to whether to let important characters live or die. The choices players make influence the progression of the game, and the most crucial ones may even determine how the game ends.

Notable entries into the role-playing genre include World of Warcraft, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

2. Open World

The term “open world” refers to any game in which players are free to roam the game world, unrestricted by pre-determined paths and able to complete objectives at their own pace. Because games with open worlds invite exploration and require a broad degree of player autonomy, the open world concept is right at home in RPGs.

Open world games supply players with large, sprawling maps meant for exploration. Although these games usually feature a main story line, players can complete the main story at their own pace. In the meantime, the open world provides them with side quests, objectives, new characters, and rewards they come across while investigating the world.

Since the open world concept aims to give players as seamless a gaming experience as possible, most open world games feature few loading screens. Although some games with semi-open worlds feature multiple unconnected regions that require players to endure loading screens when traveling between them, many newer games do not. Instead, they allow players to access buildings, vehicles, and regions without the waiting for the areas to load up, making for a much more immersive gaming experience.

Some popular open world games are Assassin’s Creed II, Fallout 4, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Grand Theft Auto V.

3. FPS (First-person Shooter)

Previously referred to as “Doom clones” after the classic game Doom, first-person shooters are weapon-heavy games that focus the action through the main character’s eyes. They allow players to see exactly what the main character sees and reveal said character’s frame only during cut scenes.

The primary element of an FPS involves the use of ranged weapons to defeat a variety of enemies. Weapons in these games may consist of realistic firearms like modern pistols and rifles or fictional ones like plasma and energy guns. These games also feature secondary weapons and support equipment like knives, grenades, crossbows, axes, and claymores.

Unlike RPGs, which emphasize questing, exploring, and character development, FPSs prioritize combat. They offer a wide array of weapon choices — each with carefully calibrated specs relating to reload time, recoil, magazine capacity, et cetera — value certain kills over others (read: headshots), and strive for realism and accuracy in combat. While most first-person shooters contain central narratives, these narratives are mostly linear, and the player’s decisions rarely affect the main storyline’s progression.

Finally, unlike games that artificially improve a character’s ability by making their attacks stronger through leveling up, first-person shooters rely on the ability of the players themselves to ensure their characters’ success. Dexterous players with quick reflexes and good aim will do better than slower players, usually regardless of their character’s level.

Popular first-person shooters include Borderlands 2, Half-life, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Halo 4.

4. Sandbox

The term “sandbox” refers to games that provide players with the tools necessary to create their own game narrative as they see fit. These games differ from campaign-driven games in that they offer players few instructions beyond teaching them basic controls and do not impose any pre-determined narratives on players, essentially leaving them to their imaginations.

As the name suggests, sandbox games give players near-total control over the major aspects of the game world, allowing them to play unrestricted by exogenous objectives, stories, or goals. Some popular city builder games, for example, allow players to decide everything from road placement and city zoning to bus and subway routes, essentially letting players loose in a “sandbox” of their own design where they can control even the topography of the land itself.

Although players often confuse the term “sandbox” with “open world” — and understandably so as there is some overlap between the two — these concepts are actually quite different. While open world games concern themselves with where players can go and when they can get there, the sandbox concept is about what players can do and how they can do it.

Some examples of sandbox games are Minecraft, Terraria, Garry’s Mod, Cities: Skylines, and Tropico 5 (Sandbox mode).

5. 4X

Gamers use the term “4X” to refer to strategy games in which players must lead an empire to victory by exploring the map, expanding their empire, exploiting resources, and exterminating competitors. These games involve a large degree of micromanaging and strategizing, as players control every aspect of their empire, including what units to build, where to expand, how to manage their resources, and whether to wage war on other players.

Due to their (usually) turn-based nature and overhead perspective, allowing players to see large swaths of the map from a “bird’s eye view,” many 4X games have a board game quality about them — and much like a few of the more complicated board games, most 4X games require large amounts of time, with even the shortest ones taking hours to complete.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of 4X games involves providing players with multiple pathways to victory. Since players must prioritize aspects of their empire’s military, economy, technology, and diplomacy, 4X games strive to provide balances that reward different types of gameplay equally, even those that do not involve waging war. For this reason, 4X games should not be confused with similar real-time strategy games like Starcraft, where the main objective is always to destroy other players.

The Civilization series — particularly Civilization V — is the undisputed king of the 4X genre, but other notable games include Endless Legend, Stellaris, Endless Space 2, and Master of Orion.

About Pablo Diaz 6 Articles
Pablo Diaz is a freelance writer based in South Florida. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Cornell University and teaches at Miami Dade College. For questions or business inquiries please visit the Contact section at the top of the page.

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