Game State Indicators

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Players are given information about a certain part of the game state or other players through other means than observing a diegetic game element.

In games with complex game states if can be difficult to visualize parts of this game state, especially those concerning abstract game elements, diegetically. To present these types of information, games can either augment the presentation of game elements with extra Game State Indicators or provide dedicated areas of the interface for showing this type of information.


Wargames with complex combat rules allowing various states of the combatants often have to make use of markers to indicate their status. An example of this can be found in the game Advanced Squad Leader, but their offspring Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons often require them as well.

Many computer games, as diverse as the Civilization series, The Legend of Zelda series, the Battlefield series, and World of Warcraft, all provide players with small maps as part of their interfaces to help them navigate in their game worlds. The HUD displays[1] used in first-person shooters like the Doom, Quake, and Half-Life series display the health and ammunition status of players. Although the Half-Life series diegetically motivates this as part of the technology of a protective suit it is not affected by any events in the game world and is thereby equal to being outside the game world. Racing games such as the Mario Kart series and the Need for Speed series also makes use of HUD-like displays to show the speed and position of the vehicles in ongoing races. The Light Gem in the Thief series functions similarly, indicating to players how visible they are, and thus the risk they are in of being detected by guards.

Game State Indicators can also be used inside game environments without being diegetically explained. The jewel-shaped marker in the Sims series is a Game State Indicator shows which character is controlled by the player. World of Warcraft allows players to place raid target icons[2] on enemies to coordinate their activities.

Using the pattern

Game State Indicators are an option to Bookkeeping Tokens for providing information about the game state. They can be created through Progress Indicators or not, both depending on that they may not always indicate progression and that Progress Indicators can be designed to be diegetic. Similarly, they can be created through Outcome Indicators as outcome in gameplay is defined through changes in the game state.

When considering what information to provide with Game State Indicators, there is a difference between showing information that a player's Avatar or Units would be able to detect and those otherwise impossible to detect. The first alternative can cover problems with the interface presentation not being detailed enough (as for example the Light Gem in the Thief series showing how hidden the player's Avatar is) while the other can be used to provide Game State Overviews. Another case when diegetic presentations may be enough is when Characters are sufficiently complex, in these cases Game State Indicators can augment the presentations of Avatars. Those providing information not tied to players' diegetic Focus Loci instead offer possibilities to create Game State Overviews. Some information related to the game state may require Game State Indicators since it does not per se belong to a Game World - the most common example of this is the need to highlight selected Avatars or Units (see for example the use of the green marker Sims series and the highlighting used in the Command and Conquer series). A second common case of extra-game information needed to be shown within the game is who is controlling a certain Avatar (including if it is a human or not for games with Drop-In/Drop-Out support). This is typically solved through the use of Handles floating above Avatars, and text-based Dialogues between players are sometimes displayed this way as well (one example is World of Warcraft).

Another aspect to consider is if the Game State Indicators should exist inside the Game Worlds or as part of interfaces outside them. Geospatial Game Widgets exist inside the Game Worlds and are often Non-Diegetic Features since they do not diegetically fit in. They can be especially suitable for supporting Coordination. Examples of these include the glowing outline of the Avatars in the Left 4 Dead series and the raid target icons in World of Warcraft, the latter placeable by the player designated to be raid leader.

Examples of Game State Indicators existing outside the representations of Game Worlds include Repeat Combos, HUD Interfaces and Mini-maps, that latter which at least provides partial Game State Overviews. MUDs like Kingdoms and DragonMud as well as the interface API of World of Warcraft allow players to create their own Game State Indicators outside the diegetic representations through the use of Modifiable Game Interfaces.

Common types of information shown by Game State Indicators include Score values (e.g. through Score Tracks), Cooldown and enforced No-Ops, amount of Damage received or Health remaining, remaining number of Lives, or Budgeted Action Points, other players' progress in Collaborative Actions, time spent on an Extended Action or that remaining of a Time Limit (especially for games with Time Limited Game Instances), and the position or identity of Focus Loci in the Game World or in a Race. Game State Indicators are common for Temporary Abilities since they are either bounded by Time Limits or have a Limited Number of Uses that need to be displayed. However, Game State Indicators may also help provide Smooth Learning Curves and judge Risk/Reward situations for goals such as Capture. However, Score values may also be regarded as Progress Indicators in cases where one cannot lose points or when one is striving towards a fixed number. Similarly, in Races Game State Indicators are usually used together with Progress Indicators so players can know both the relative positions between players and how close they are to finishing the Race. Game State Indicators can more generally be used to make sure players to not miss Ephemeral Events which the game system can detect.

Game State Indicators are most easily provided in games with Dedicated Game Facilitators since they otherwise cause Excise for players and designs may function more like Bookkeeping Tokens.

Discard Piles and Drawing Stacks may unintentionally become Game State Indicators since they provide information of how many Cards or Tiles have been played or remain to be drawn until the stack is empty.

Diegetic Aspects

Providing information about the game state or Game World in non-diegetic ways of course risks breaking Diegetic Consistency, especially since they often are Non-Diegetic Features. Explaining the information diegetically can however lessen the impact of the Game State Indicators and avoid losing Narrative Engrossment if that is striven for.

Interface Aspects

Game State Indicators are interface patterns and thereby mainly related to this aspect.


Game State Indicators change Game Worlds in the sense that they allow players to perceive more of them than would otherwise be possible. This allows them to provide information about the game state that while not being diegetic can help players be informed about the game state in games with Complex Gameplay. Like most other forms of indicators, Game State Indicators provide ways for game designers to give players Direct Information about the game state. Game State Indicators are more attention grabbing than other forms of indicators since the information they usually represent can change quicker and in more ways than with other indicators, and can thereby quickly cause Tension by, for example, making players more aware of Time Limits and Time Pressure. Even so, they can modulate, or make unnecessary, the need for players to do Memorizing of gameplay details specific for individual game sessions. Game State Indicators can make for easier gameplay in games with Stealth goals when they provide information about how close to being detected players are.

Since Game State Indicators help players plan by providing them with more information, their presence can help support Exaggerated Perception of Influence when this is based on Tactical Planning. If the Game State Indicators provide information about other players' progress in some aspect of gameplay, this can create Races between the players. The increased amount of information provided by Game State Indicators can however work against Uncertainty of Information in a game.

Besides Handles, a special type of Game State Indicators is those that show Game-Based Social Statuses. These do not necessarily give information about the game state but can be important for maintaining Social Organizations within game sessions or based upon the games.


Can Instantiate

Coordination, Non-Diegetic Features, Direct Information, Game-Based Social Statuses, Game State Overviews, Races, Tension

Can Modulate

Avatars, Budgeted Action Points, Capture, Characters, Collaborative Actions, Complex Gameplay, Cooldown, Damage, Drop-In/Drop-Out, Extended Actions, Ephemeral Events, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Focus Loci, Game Worlds, Health, Limited Number of Uses, Lives, Memorizing, No-Ops, Scores, Stealth, Temporary Abilities, Time Limits, Time Limited Game Instances, Time Pressure, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Dedicated Game Facilitators, Dialogues, Discard Piles, Drawing Stacks, Geospatial Game Widgets, Handles, HUD Interfaces, Mini-maps, Modifiable Game Interfaces, Outcome Indicators, Progress Indicators, Repeat Combos, Score Tracks

Can Be Modulated By

Non-Diegetic Features

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Diegetic Consistency, Memorizing, Uncertainty of Information


A renamed version of the pattern Status Indicators that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[3].


  1. Wikipedia entry for HUD uses in computer and console games.
  2. entry for Raid target icons on Wowpedia.
  3. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.