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Dictionary of Video Game Theory



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A Dictionary of Video Game Theory



This dictionary of video game theory is a companion to my book, Half-Real. With the dictionary, I hope to provide a resource for students, researchers, teachers, and game players looking for terminological clarifications and pointers to further reading. A list of works cited can be found at the bottom of the page.

The dictionary is not intended to be encyclopedic, but takes its starting point from the issues discussed in the book. The Trianglesign indicates an issue that is elaborated in Half-Real.

If there is any term that you would like to see listed in the dictionary, please send me a .

Jesper Juul, Copenhagen, November 2005.



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Abstract game

An abstract game has rules, but no fictional world. Many traditional non-electronic games are abstract, but very few video games are abstract.

Half-Real, chapter 4.

Aesthetic index

"The aesthetic index of a puzzle, as it may be called, seems to be inversely proportional to the complexity of its solution or to the obviousness of the pattern, trap, or trick it hides." (Danesi 2002, 227.)
The aesthetic index primarily describes the enjoyment of a puzzle. Emergence can be seen as providing experiences that are similar to the ones a designed puzzle can give.

Half-Real, chapter 3.

Aesthetic goal

In game design, the method of designing a game with a specific player experience in mind. (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek 2004.)
See fun.

Affinity between games and computers

Games and computers have historically demonstrated an affinity, whereby traditional games have found a new home on computers, and where the computer allows new game forms to appear.
See transmediality.

Half-Real, chapter 2.


In Caillois' classification of games, agon describes games of contest (Caillois 1961).


In Caillois' classification of games, alea refers to games of chance (Caillois 1961).

Ant farming

"‘Ant-farming’ is when you design with a gods-eye view in mind - it’s when you throw around concepts which are ‘interesting’ or ‘provide fascinating social dynamics’ or ‘would really feel like a virtual world’ - but fail the basic ‘fun’ test. This is when the designers are designing a game that’s more fun to observe than to actually live in." (Schubert 2004)
See fun.


The player's experience of emotional attachment to the outcome of a game. Attachment is the prerequisite for the joy of winning and the sadness of losing.

Half-Real, chapter 2.

Back story

Story or fiction that provides a background for a game, rather than being part of the gameplay.


In game design, the tweaking of different units, actions, and properties so that they match, as to provide a game with no dominant strategies, insuring interesting choices.
See Rouse 2001 chapter 23, Rollings & Adams 2003 chapter 8.

Caillois' classification

Caillois (1961) posits four categories of games: Agon (contest), alea (chance), ilinx (vertigo), and mimicry (make-believe). Additionally, Caillois describes games as being placed on a scale from ludus (rule-based) to paidea (free-form). It is unclear to what extent Caillois' categories ultimately include or exclude each other, and some of the general claims made about their possible combination are at odds with most contemporary games: Caillois claims that "... games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe." (1961, 8-9). This claim is contradicted by most commercial board games, almost all video games, and generally all rule-based games that include a fictional element.

Half-Real, chapter 1.


Cheating can be described as willfully breaking the rules of a game.
See exploit.


When players learn or improve their playing a game by learning not to process the individual pieces or states of the game, but rather thinking in terms of high-level chunks (collections of pieces and states) instead. (Newell & Rosenbloom 1981, 42)

"The master [of chess] has acquired an immense memory for chess positions, organized as a collection of chunks. His ability for immediate perception and sort-term memory of chess positions depends directly on how many chunks are used to encode a position. [...] By implication, master players must spend an immense amount of time with the game, in order to acquire the large number of chunks; this seems to be well supported by historical data." (Newell & Rosenbloom 1981, 50)

See learning, repertoire, information reduction.

Half-Real, chapter 3.


See cut-scene.

Computer game

Game played using computer power. Some times used to mean games played on a personal computer as opposed to on consoles.
See video game.


Dedicated device for playing video games, a console is generally connected to a television.


Cinematic, non-interactive part of a game, conveying the game's backstory or fiction. In a cut-scene, the game's play time is disconnected from its fictional time. (Half-Real, chapter 3.) Cut-scenes are controversial in that they are non-playable parts of a game, but they have also been defended for providing context for the playing of the game (Klevjer 2002).

Dominant strategy

Strategy that is always better than all other strategies. Dominant strategies are generally considered flaws in a game design.
See balancing, degenerate strategy.

Degenerate strategy

According to Salen & Zimmerman (2004, p.271), "A degenerate strategy is a way of playing a game that takes advantage of a weakness in the game design, so that the play strategy guarantees success."
See balancing, dominant strategy, game design.


The actual behavior of a game, resulting from its basic rules. See mechanics, emergence, gameplay. (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek 2004).


In an examination of the real and virtual economy of EverQuest, Castronova (2001) concluded that "The nominal hourly wage is about USD 3.42 per hour, and the labors of the people produce a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria. A unit of Norrath's currency is traded on exchange markets at USD 0.0107, higher than the Yen and the Lira."


Game type where variation appears by the interaction between elements in the game. Emergence games often surprise players and even the designers of the game. The opposite of progression games (Half-Real, chapter 3).
See emergent gameplay.

Emergent gameplay

Commonly used to mean gameplay that was not anticipated by the game designer, though this is a problematic definition.

  • Smith (2001) describes emergent gameplay as the "future of game design" and advocates game design that allows the player to solve tasks in unique, personal ways.
  • Emergent gameplay can be described as either an aspect of the game itself, a subjective experience of the player, or an interaction between the player and the game. (Half-Real, chapter 3.)


When playing a game that is not purely random, a player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome of the game.

Half-Real, chapter 2.

Event time

See fictional time.


Mostly used about multi-player games, an exploit can be defined as a case where a player knowingly uses a flaw in a game to gain an unfair advantage. In many concrete cases, it can be difficult to distinguish between cheats, exploits, and players who optimize their strategies for playing.


Any kind of imagined world. Most video games invite the player to imagine some kind of fictional world in which the game takes place. Note that a fiction does not need to be a story, and that video games are generally fictions, but not stories. (Half-Real, chapter 4).
See Pavel 1986, Ryan 1992.
See narrative, fictional world.

Fictional time

The time passing in the fictional world of a game during game play, a projection of the real play time.

Half-Real, chapter 4.

Fictional world

An imagined world. The term is derived from the concept of possible worlds. "collections of states of affairs, distinct from the statements describing those states". (Pavel 1986, 50). A game cues a player into imagining a fictional world by many different means, such as text, spoken words, paintings, imagination, and game rules. (Half-Real, chapter 4.) Strictly speaking, all fictional worlds are incomplete: many aspects of the world are not described and left to the user's imagination.
See Pavel 1986, Ryan 1992.

Half-Real, chapter 4.


The concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) describes an optimal mental state where a person is complete occupied with a task that matches the person's skills, being neither too hard (leading to anxiety) or easy (leading to boredom). Flow has seven traits:

  1. A challenging Activity That Requires Skills
  2. The Merging of Action and Awareness
  3. Clear Goals and Feedback
  4. Concentration on the Task at Hand
  5. The Paradox of Control
  6. The loss of Self-Consciousness
  7. The Transformation of Time


Acronym for First Person Shooter. General term for 3D action games seen from a first person perspective, usually involving firearms.


While fun is an elusive concept, the most popular school of thought claims that video game fun comes primarily from the enjoyment of problem solving.

  • Sid Meier claims that "A [good] game is a series of interesting choices" (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38).
  • Koster (2005) claims that fun arises from trying to understand the pattern of a game.
  • The idea of fun as a result of problem solving is also present in the concepts of interesting choices and aesthetic index.

A second school of thought describes video games as a combination of a number of different types of fun, where different games emphasize different types of fun.

  • Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek (2004) list 8 types of fun: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression, and Submission.
  • Garneau (2001) list 14 forms of fun: Beauty, Immersion, Intellectual Problem Solving, Competition, Social Interaction, Comedy, Thrill of Danger, Physical Activity, Love, Creation, Power, Discovery, Advancement and Completion, Application of an Ability.
  • Concerning game design, Shelley (2001) emphasizes that "The Player Should Have the Fun, Not the Designer, Programmer, or Computer".

See ant farming, aesthetic goal.


It has been said that what we call games have nothing in common (Wittgenstein 1958, segment 66), but many definitions and descriptions of games have been proposed.

  • Neumann and Morgenstern (1953, p.49) distinguish between a game (such as poker) and the play of the game (a specific session of poker).
  • Huizinga (1950, 15): "a free activity standing quite consciously outside ”ordinary” life as being ”not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means."
  • Caillois (1961, 10-11): " [...] an activity which is essentially: Free (voluntary), separate [in time and space], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe."
  • Bernard Suits (1978,34): "To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity."
  • Avedon & Sutton-Smith (1971, 7): "At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome."
  • Crawford (1982, chapter 2): "I perceive four common factors: representation ["a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality"], interaction, conflict, and safety ["the results of a game are always less harsh than the situations the game models"]."
  • Salen & Zimmerman (2004, 96): A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.
  • Half-Real, chapter 2: "A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable."

See play.
Salen & Zimmerman (2004) compare different game definitions.

Half-Real, chapter 2.

Game design

According to Salen & Zimmerman: "The focus of a game designer is designing game play, conceiving and designing rules and structures that result in an experience for players." (2004, p.1)

Game mode

Some games let players chose between different game types. Many contemporary video games contain a single player "story mode" as well as a multiplayer mode.

Game state

A game can be seen as a state machine, a system that at any time is in a given state, and which has laws for how it will react to a given input. In a board game, the state of the game is stored in pieces on the board. In a video game, the state of the game is kept in the RAM of the computer.
See transmediality.

Half-Real, chapter 2.

Game theory

Economical and mathematical theory of games pioneered by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. (1944, 1953) Primarily deals with the study of strategies in a variety of different situations, and not with games as such.


"A game’s gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes, i.e., how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes." (Rouse 2001, xviii)
Gameplay can be seen as independent of graphics or fiction, but fiction plays a large role in helping players understand the game. (Half-Real, chapter 5.)


What the player of a game has to strive for. A goal is an assignment of value to the possible outcomes of a game. The goal refers to the game as an activity, not to the game as an object. (Half-Real, chapter 2.)
Additionally, some games enforce goals, while other games have optional goals. (Juul 2006)


The duality in video games of a real set of rules governing how the game is played and a fictional world that the player imagines.

Half-Real, chapter 5.


In Caillois' classification of games, ilinx describes games centered around vertigo. (Caillois 1961.)

Information reduction

The process where user improves performance at a task by learning to ignore irrelevant information (Haider & Frensch 1996). In video games, related to the tendency of players to ignore fiction in some games. (Half-Real, chapter 4.)
See Retaux & Rouchier (2002).
See learning, chunking.

Interesting choices

According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice. (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.)
See fun.

Iterative game design

Salen & Zimmerman advocate iterative design as a method of designing games based on playing the game in early prototypes (2004, p.11-13). Shelley advocates "design by playing". (2001).
See game design.


All games except games of pure chance involve player learning.
See repertoire, chunking, information reduction.
See Gee (2003)

Half-Real, chapter 3.

Level design

Design of the physical layout (and its game design related aspects) in a game.


To lose means that the game ends with the outcome that in relation to the player was assigned a negative value.
See also win.


The study of games. Also: The study of games as a unique field, especially as distinct from narrative).
See Frasca 1999.


According to Caillois (1961), games can be found on a scale between the rule-based (ludus) and the free-form (paidea).

Magic circle

Johan Huizinga uses magic circle as one of the ways in which a game is delineated from what is outside the game (1950).
See Salen & Zimmerman 2004, p. 92.


Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek (2004) distinguish between mechanics (the rules of the game), the dynamics (the emergent behavior of these rules), and aesthetics (the user experience).
See fun.


In Caillois' classification (1961), games of make-believe.
See fiction.


Acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Generally speaking, a multiplayer persistent game where players control a character that develops skills over time. Prominent examples include EverQuest and World of Warcraft.
Sometimes called MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game.)

Multi player

Game for more than one player.


In a traditional sense, a narrative is the presentation of a story (a fixed sequence of events) by way of a discourse (Chatman 1978). In contemporary theory, narrative is often used in a much broader sense.

  • Murray asserts that computers are "A new medium for storytelling" (1997, p.11).
  • Eskelinen writes that "Luckily, outside theory, people are usually excellent at distinguishing between narrative situations and gaming situations: if I throw a ball at you, I don't expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories." (2004, p.36)

Half-Real, chapter 4 discusses the relation between games and narratives and compares different definitions of narrative.


The study of storytelling. Also: The study of games as story systems (for example, Murray 1997).
See Chatman 1978.

Negotiable consequences

Games are characterized by the fact that the activity in itself is mostly harmless, but that the outcome of the game can be negotiated to lead more serious consequences (such as the exchange of money). (Half-Real, chapter 2)


The outcome is the final state of the game. The outcome of a game is quantifiable, meaning that it is meant to be clear whether the outcome was one or another; who won the game (Salen & Zimmerman 2004, 96). Games set in persistent worlds do not necessarily have an outcome. It is the valorization of the potential outcomes of a game that gives a game a goal and lets the players win or lose. (Half-Real, chapter 2.)


A free-form game. (Caillois 1961).
See Caillois' classification.

Persistent game

A game that keeps its state, even when players are not playing. Can also be considered a game that continues indefinitely; a game with no final state.


Salen & Zimmerman define play as "Play is free movement within a more rigid structure". (2004, p. 304)
Sutton-Smith lists 7 rhetorics of play: The rhetoric of play as progress, the rhetoric of play as fate, the rhetoric of play as power, the rhetoric of play as identity, the rhetoric of play as the imaginary, the rhetoric of the self, and the rhetoric of play as frivolous. (1997, p.9-12.)
See game.

Play mechanics

See mechanics.

Play time

The real time spent by the player playing the game. The real-time play time of the player is projected onto the fictional time that passes in the fiction of a game. (Half-Real, chapter 4.)
See time.


A human interacting with a game. In video games player generally means a human player. A game played against the computer is considered a single player game.


Many game development methods call for extensive testing of a game on users during all phases of game development. (Fulton 2002, Davis, Steury & Pagulayan 2005.)
See iterative game design.


Game type where variation happens by introducing new elements and features as the player progresses in the game. The opposite of emergence games. Adventure games are generally progression games, as they have to be completed by performing exactly the actions that the game design dictates. (Half-Real, chapter 3.)


At a given time, a player has a repertoire of skills for playing a given game. When improving their performance at a game, players expand and refine their repertoire (Half-Real, chapter 3.)
See learning.

Reward schedule

From psychology, the positive feedback given to the player during the playing of a game.


Simple game where two players simultaneously show their hands, having chosen either rock (which beats scissors), paper (which beats rock), or scissors (which beats paper). The best-known example of triangularity.


Acronym for Real Time Strategy game. Strategy game where players can move pieces continuously.
Compare to turn-based game.


All games have rules:

  • Salen & Zimmerman describe rules as limiting player action (2004, 138).
  • Half-Real, chapter 3 argues that rules specify limitations and affordances.
  • Piaget (1941) examines how groups of boys developed the rules of a game of marbles over time.
  • Neumann & Morgenstern emphasize the distinction between the rules of a game (which are obligatory) and the strategies the player plays with (which are not) (1953, 49).
  • Hughes examines how girls playing four square will bend the rules in order to deal with other considerations, mainly social (1991).
  • Rules can be said to explain the affinity between games and computers.

Half-Real, chapter 3.


Game (or game mode) that lets the player experiment with its mechanics, regardless of the game's goal, if any.


According to Frasca (2001), "Simulation is act of modeling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A's original behavior". According to Aarseth (2004), "The computer game is the art of simulation."

Single player

Game for one player.


See narrative.

Story mode

Many video games contain a story mode, where the player has to complete specific tasks or levels in order to go through a pre-defined story. (Often told using cut-scenes.)


A set of principles that a player uses to play a game.
See economic game theory.
Compare rules.


The simplification that a game makes when simulating an activity. For example, the fact that cars do not run out of gas in Grand Theft Auto III. (Half-Real chapter 5.)

Subversive play

Subversive play is play against the intention or authority of the game design/game designer. (Flanagan 2005). The concept presupposes games that have a dominant authority that players can revolt against.
See emergent gameplay.


Time in video games consists of the real play time used to play the game and the fictional time passing in the fictional game world. The fictional time can be either a projection of the player's actions or created by way of cut-scenes.

Half-Real, chapter 3.


Games are a transmedial phenomenon, meaning that a game can be implemented in different game "media": Chess can be played on a board, on a computer, or blind. Soccer can be played as a physical sport or as a video game. Computer chess is an implementation of chess (everything that can be done in normal chess can be done on the computer and vice versa), but computer soccer is an adaptation (only selected aspects of the sport is included in the video game). (Half-Real, chapter 2.)


Crawford's term for game design where between three units or moves neither is the strongest (A beats B, B beats C, C beats A). Rock-papers-scissors is triangular. (1982)

  • Neumann & Morgenstern describes such non-fixed relations as intransitive (1953, 39, 52).
  • Smith (2003) proposes a general principle for creating intransitive relations and interesting choices in "orthogonal unit differentiation" whereby units and moves are valued on several different non-overlapping axes.

Turn-based game

Game where players take turns performing actions.
See RTS.


Early part of a game focused on teaching players basic skills. Some games contain an explicitly labeled "tutorial" part, while other games incorporate tutorial material in basic gameplay.
Gee (2004) analyzes the tutorials of Rise of Nations.
See learning.


In a game, the different possible outcomes are assigned different values. This is a prerequisite for winning or losing. A game with no valorization is sometimes called a simulation or a sandbox. (Half-Real, chapter 2.)

Video game

Generally speaking, a game played using computer power and a video display. Can be computer, cell phone, or console game. Sometimes used to describe console-based games only. (Half-Real, preface.)
See computer game.


To win means that the game ends with the outcome that was assigned a positive value to the player; the goal.
See also lose.



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Works cited

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  • Avedon, E.M. and Brian Sutton-Smith. The Study of Games. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1971.
  • Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. New York: Schocken Books, 1961.
  • Castronova, Edward. "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier". CESifo Working Paper Series No. 618. 2001.
  • Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
  • Danesi, Marcel. The Puzzle Instinct. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002.
  • Davis, John P., Keith Steury, and Randy Pagulayan. "A survey method for assessing perceptions of a game: The consumer playtest in game design". Game Studies vol. 5, issue 1, 2005.
  • Eskelinen, Markku. "Towards Computer Game Studies". In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, 36-44. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.
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  • —. "SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation". 2001.
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  • Ryan, Marie-Laure. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • —. "Possible Worlds in Recent Literary Theory". Style 26, no. 4 (1992): 528-553.
  • Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman,. Rules of Play - Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.
  • Schubert, Damien."Academics and Ant-Farming". Blog post, December 13th 2004.
  • Shelley, Bruce. " Guidelines for Developing Successful Games". Gamasutra, August 15th 2001.
  • Smith, Harvey. "The Future of Game Design: Moving Beyond Deus Ex and Other Dated Paradigms." IGDA 2001.

    —. "Systemic level design for emergent gameplay." Paper presented at the Game Developers' Conference, San José, March 20-24, 2002.

    —.Smith, Harvey. "Orthogonal Unit Differentiation". Paper presented at the Game Developers' Conference, San José, March 4-8, 2003.
  • Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.
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  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, [1958] 2001.

How to cite the dictionary


  • "Game." From Half-Real: A Dictionary of Video Game Theory. (Accessed