4 min read

Video (screencast): The Many Meanings of “Theme”

I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings. These meanings are not even close to the same things. If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear).


Text of the slides is below.  Keep in mind, there's more to the presentation than this text!


Dr. Lewis Pulsipher


Rendered useless . . .

I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings

If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear)

These meanings are not even close to the same things.  Which is why I don’t use the word any more, it’s confusing rather than meaningful

This happens periodically with certain words as the language changes

For example, “bi-annual” is useless

So is “literal”


. . . by too many different meanings

I’m going to these meanings for “theme” and suggest alternatives

Here’s a list of different meanings:

“Theme” as model

“Theme” as a guide to action or “context”

“Theme” as an atmosphere/canvas/decoration

“Theme” as a gloss – or even less

If I’m talking about theme as model, and you’re talking about theme as atmosphere/decoration, we’ll never understand each other


Theme as model

The game is an attempt to model a situation

There’s a strong connection, in what the players do and what happens, between the game and some reality (even if it’s a fictional reality)

I call this “correspondence” (or “analogousness,” but that’s an ugly word, from analogy)

Keep in mind, models always simplify the reality

Most historical wargames fit this meaning of “theme” – how could they not?

Though some conquest games, like Risk, are pretty far removed from any history and any reality – is Risk even a poor model?


Might not be a GOOD model . . .

Keep in mind, the model may not be a good one

For example, World of Tanks, an otherwise fine game, has lots of “nuts and bolts” for war buffs, but the actual play has very little to do with actual warfare

It’s a model, but a poor one

The same can be said about most shooters (WoT is really an arcade third person team shooter)

World of Warships, same thing


Mechanics not lending themselves to models

Some common game mechanics, having next to nothing to do with real life, do not lend themselves to theme as model or even theme as context

For example, worker placement: something almost never found in real life

It may exist, but I’ve not seen a worker placement game that was anything but abstract

Swapping roles from turn to turn is another

Drafting is also rare in real life (outside of American pro sports player drafts)


Video games

Respawning in video games is anti-model, for sure!

It’s far too easy to hit something with a long-range weapon, too

In RTS, the base-building style doesn’t match any real or fictional reality I know

And so forth: in some ways, taken altogether video games are worse models than tabletop


Theme as guide to action or “context,” via a story

The “theme” is a story that provides a context to help players play the game

This requires some resemblance between game and reality, but does not require it to be a model

(Where one ends and the other begins is hard to say)

At some point, this merges into theme as atmosphere/decoration


Theme as atmosphere/canvas/decoration

The “theme” provides an atmosphere, a feeling, for what is largely an abstract game

What the player does has virtually nothing to do with the supposed situation/story

What happens in the game has little to do with the proposed situation/story

“Decoration” might be the clearest word to use, as much of this comes from appearance without substance

If you can take an existing game and change the so-called “theme”, you have this version of theme, or even less


Theme as a gloss – or even less than that

Gloss – something tacked onto a game after it has been designed and tested

While this may be an attempt to provide context, for the most part it’s a marketing ploy

Think about how people buy games in stores

They pick it up and look at the back cover

The back cover tells them a story that may have nothing to do with the game

In fact, the back cover rarely discusses gameplay


With all these meanings . . .

If you use the word “theme” without one of the other words I’ve proposed, you likely confuse the reader/listener

When people talk about games, much of the confusion comes from semantics

Let’s try not to contribute to the confusion

Just Say No to using the word “theme”


No doubt there are other meanings out there, but these seem to be the principle ones


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