Video Games’ Forgotten Terminology From the Early Days of Gaming

    An older person recently told me that they listened to their grand-kids talk about video games and it all sounded like a second language to them. Sure enough, gamers have their own series of terms and vocabulary that is indeed unique to their hobby or profession, some of which has leaked out into the mainstream vernacular as gaming has expanded more and more into mainstream pop culture.

    But just like with any other language, some terms and phrases have fallen out of favor over the years. Long before people complained about lag or thought the term ‘leet’ sounded even remotely cool, other phrases were commonly used throughout the world of video games. Some of these terms fell out of favor as gaming itself changed, while others simply evolved over time or just fell off the face of the earth for no apparent reason.

    This week, I’m going to take a look back at some of the terms that were common in the first decade or so that I was gaming. While this is far from all of the old terms that younger gamers might not be familiar with, they are some of the most notable that have fallen out of common use over time.


    To understand much of the rest of this article, this is where I have to start. Through the 70s, 80s, and most of the 1990s, the term “gamer” was rarely used. People who enjoyed video games were more commonly referred to as “players”, which is why you’ll still catch me using that term in a lot of my written work today. While the “gamer” term did appear on the cover of the famous first issue of Electronic Games Magazine in 1981, it was buried under the term “player” then and going forward.

    The term simply began on arcade control panels and screens, most of which would refer to people as “Player 1” and “Player 2”. People just went with it. Evidence of this can be seen in a ton of old books and game magazines, all of which I still believe any serious video game fan should go back and read through. Nintendo was big on the term at the peak of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo Power magazine. Even the early days of G4TV saw the term “player” used in a number of commercial bumpers and ICONS documentary shorts.

    While I’ve never been able to truly spot the point in which “gamer” became the more common and popular term, I’ve always suspected it would take part around the same time as “player” became popular for other uses.


    Asteroid Arcade Machine

    Flip (also Turn Over)

    Back when high scores were the focal point of almost all video games, players were always testing the limits of the hottest games. To “flip” or “turn over” the game meant to reach the point where the score went back to 0, much like a car odometer would flip or turn over after a certain point. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, Galaga, and Defender were among the games most commonly spoken of in this regard. The term was used in pinball as well.

    Which term was used more often seems to be regionally based. In the South, we said ‘flip’ but most old video game books and magazines use the term “turn over”, showing it was in use on both coasts. Some regions also seemed to use the term “roll over” but fewer instances of that one seem to show up in old paper than the other terminology shows.


    This is one of those terms that simply seemed to phase out due to how games have changed. Most early video game hits had a single screen that would change once a player completed it. “Board” referred to each of these single screens, as in “he just reached the Elevators Board” or “Man, did you see how close Phil came to completing that board?” Sometimes “rack” would also be used, but that is used to refer to other things more often these days.

    As technology improved, games that went from single board to single board became less and less common. Games side scrolled and eventually became immersive in all directions. Some of the alternate words such as ‘stage’ and ‘level’ still slip in to use from time to time, as they are more open-ended.


    Super Mario Bros



    This one came around for a short while when the 8-bit Nintendo was at its peak. With more and more games containing specific endings, “cross-country” play would mean sacrificing high scores and power-ups in order to complete the game as quickly as possible, usually while competing against another player trying to do the same thing at the same time.

    Today, this is very commonly called speedrunning, and it’s become the most popular way to compete on retro video games.

    Smart Bomb

    Basically, a limited in-game item that allowed you to destroy everything that was on the screen at that particular time. While such weapons appeared in a variety of games under a variety of names, the smart bomb term stuck around for them for a very long time due to the wildly popular Defender arcade game, which was one of the first to use it.


    Pong Doubles



    Just like in tennis, which is appropriate since it first seemed to become commonly used in video gaming thanks to the release of Pong Doubles by Atari.

    Basically, the term was used any time more than one player played a game at a single time. Most early video games only allowed for one player at a time, so two-player games would see people alternate turns, usually as one player lost a life. It wasn’t uncommon in 1980s arcades to find yourself wanting to play a the same game at the same time as someone else. The common thing to do at that time was to ask “Hey, do you want to play doubles?”

    The term continued into the days where games like Joust and Mario Bros. allowed for two players to play at the same time, a feature that became more and more common at both the arcade and at home. Once games started to phase into three and four players at a time, though, the term sort of blended into the background.

    Of course, people today think of this sort of thing as multi-player, even if it’s still just two gamers at a time.


    Bill Carlton Score Split Screen Pac Man



    Yes, this term is well-known these days for any situation where multiple people play the same game on the same screen at the same time. Once upon a time, though, it was mostly used for one mythical creature: the end of Pac-Man.

    As Pac-Man got white-hot, in came reports of people reaching a point in the game where it messed up and ended play. Early on, this was thought to be a random malfunction but as more and more people reached the 256th stage, it became known as a particular point in the game. Recent research has turned up dozens and dozens of newspaper reports of players reaching this level all over the country in 1981 and 1982.

    Since half the level messes up, people came to call it the Pac-Man “split screen”.

    Some of the remaining Pac-Man diehards still use the term, but thanks to the old King of Kong semi-documentary film, it is known today more commonly as a “kill screen” – a stage in classic retro games where something in the game code freaks out and makes it impossible for the player to continue. Some of the other titles containing kill screens include Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, some versions of Dig Dug and Galaga on certain difficulty settings. Since they don’t react in the same way as Pac-Man, the “kill screen” term is now considered a better wide use phrase while “split screen” covers more modern-day games.

    Game Over

    No, this term is still known, I’m just using it here to break into the final part of this article.

    This piece hardly covers all of the old terms and phrases that have changed or dropped out of sight over the years, and this trend will continue to happen as video games continue to move forward. We’ve seen the same happen with other once-new technology based experiences. Nobody says “looking at television” anymore nor do they call it “the tube” these days. Say your phone is “ringing off the hook” to a younger person and see if they understand.

    Who knows, in 30 more years gamers might not know what “framerate” means nor would they still call a “boss” enemy a boss. Anything can happen in video gaming except predicting the future.


    Patrick Scott Patterson
    Patrick Scott Patterson is a 36 year veteran of the video game world. His philosophy states that the past of our industry and culture must be preserved in order to understand where we are and where it is all going.


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