Game Worlds

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Fictional worlds in which gameplay takes place.

Many games explain the presences of game elements, possible actions, and goals through presenting the gameplay as taking place in a Game World. These are fictive worlds even if they are representing the real world since they are created and in several cases have no tangible presence. However, by relating to other fictional worlds (from literature, movies, or other games) and the real world they can help players understand the underlying structure of the game system and give meaning to the actions taking place during gameplay.


Even early abstract board games Chess, Go, and Stratego do have Game Worlds although with no detail to aspects not directly related to the gameplay (this can be seen in the ease which for example Chess can be given different themes). Other Board Games, e.g. Advanced Civilization, Advanced Squad Leader, Risk, Amun-Re, Origins: How We Became Human, Memoir '44, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic, model the Game Worlds on the real world and use this to motivate some differences in connectivity, resources, and possible actions between different parts of them. Other games, e.g. Elfenland or Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, make use of fictive worlds to base differences on how the games are set up. Other games, e.g. Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, have descriptions of Game Worlds that are part of their game components but the actual gameplay does not take place inside the worlds.

While so games require building of the Game Worlds before gameplay begins, e.g. Settlers of Catan or Mansions of Madness, others have the creation or destruction of the worlds as part of gameplay (e.g. Carcassonne and Hey! That's My Fish! respectively). Roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Storytelling System typically start with the overarching structures and many minute details of Game Worlds being specified but these are then changed or added to as part of players' actions. Live Action Roleplaying Games such as Assassin, Conspiracy for Good, and Dragonbane have to take a basis in the real world for the creation of their fictional or fantastical settings.

Already early computer games such as Space Invaders contained Game Worlds. To make them larger, at least in the sense that one could theoretically travel infinitely in one direction, the edges of their Game Worlds were linked together so movement could become unlimited. Pac-Man did this for the horizontal axis (as does Civilization series, the Europa Universalis, and the Hearts of Iron series to the spherical shape of Earth). The game Asteroids does this wrapping for both horizontal and vertical axis, making it into a toroidal topology[1].

Other computer games made use of other design solutions to make the Game Worlds appear larger than they actually are. The Game World of Doom appears to be three dimensional even though movement is two-dimensional with a height component (i.e., this cannot be directly above or below each other). By using views of areas not reachable and mentions of areas through dialogue and video, games such as the Portal series, the Dragon Age series, Super Mario series, the Half-Life series, and the Left 4 Dead series, present more parts of Game Worlds than are actually part of gameplay and can thereby give an illusion of a large world. The separation of the Game Worlds into different levels can help with this illusion as well since players can assume that travel has occurred in parts not shown.

This is not to say that Game Worlds cannot be large. The Elite series, Minecraft, Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, and the Just Cause series make use of computer-based procedural generation to create Procedurally Generated Game Worlds which players are very unlikely to fully explore in any given game session. Minecraft and Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress (and NetHack) also make use of this procedural generation to allow players new worlds when they start new game instances. Examples of Game Worlds which are large but contain much handcrafted content include the Assassin's Creed series, the Fallout series, and the Grand Theft Auto series.

Not all games have Game Worlds: Rock-paper-scissors, Contract Bridge, Poker, and No Thanks! are examples of games that have no need for Game Worlds.

Using the pattern

Designing Game Worlds consist of deciding what smaller elements (if any) they are created from, what size they are and how boundaries are handled, and what individual game elements exist in them, i.e. what Focus Loci they should be presented with; it is rare that Game Worlds and Focus Loci are not used together (see Progress Quest for an exception with a mainly implied Game World) but even rare to not have Agents in them. Inherently related to this is how players are supposed to perceive and interact with the Game Worlds. The following discussion in most cases assumes that the Game Worlds are presented visually rather than through text (see Illocutionary Interfaces for more on this), or through the Storytelling and Roleplaying of Game Masters and players. However, as long as not the real world itself does not represent the Game Worlds, the pattern implies a use of Mediated Gameplay.

Regarding what they consist of, Game Worlds can be classified first into continuous and discrete. The Movement for players in continuous Game Worlds show be seemingly fluid and continuous (at least unless closely scrutinized) with miniatures wargames such as Warhammer Fantasy Battle and LARPs such as 1942 – Noen å stole på as clear examples. In discrete Game Worlds Movement or distances are measured in larger and noticeable steps, e.g. Chess and Frag, and are often made out of Tiles. This classification is not clear cut for computer-based Game Worlds since internally the positions and the environment are expressed in digital formats, and the importance of if games such as World of Warcraft or the Starcraft series belong to one category or another may only be important for discussion regarding gameplay which for some reason have high stakes. A second categorization regarding the consistency of Game Worlds concerns the main spatial relationships between their game elements; Basic categories include: linear (or 1D), reticular, 2D and 3D. These categories are orthogonal to the continuous and discrete dichotomy, creating eight basic categories (although the reticular-continuous category is slightly troublesome).

Linear Game Worlds are those in which the movement can happen only in one or two directions, e.g. Backgammon and Ludo have linear Game Worlds. The Movement in reticular Game Worlds can happen only between connected nodes in a graph and the arrangement of different territories in Diplomacy, the Hearts of Iron series, Pandemic, and many other strategy games are examples of this. 2-dimensional Game Worlds have Movement and positions restricted to a two-dimensional plane, the board in Chess and the Civilization series being examples of this. The last category, 3-dimensional, is a simple extension of the previous one: here Movement and location is described through coordinates in the three dimensions. Games with 3D Game Worlds but limited movement in the vertical axis are common, e.g. the Just Cause series, Super Mario series, and Minecraft, while games with true 3D movement are less common (examples include Descent and the Elite series). Games that have 3D Game Worlds but where things cannot co-exist on the same vertical axis are called 2.5D. Examples include the early version of the Quake series, Viewtiful Joe, and LittleBigPlanet. Pandemonium can be classified as being 2.5D also but as an alternative a 2-dimensional plane (or varying breadth) twisting in a 3D environment. These classifications are based on how Movement and positioning is done in Game Worlds rather than on the graphical representation of them. This means that, while a computer version of Chess may be rendered in full 3D it is still has a 2D Game World.

Both reticular and 2D games are typically created through Game Boards or Maps while Maps can support Game World Exploration and Game World Navigation in 3D games. Levels, e.g. those found in Pac-Man or Super Mario games, can be used in all types of games to partition Game Worlds into smaller units.

The size of Game Worlds can influence gameplay significantly. Having large worlds is one way to create Illusion of Open Space but Invisible Walls can work as well, and for sufficiently open worlds the latter may be needed even though they are likely to break Diegetic Consistency. Regardless, game designs need to consider how to handle the edges of the Game Worlds. One way is to avoid them through using Warp Zones, as for example the Civilization series and the Hearts of Iron series do to model the spherical nature of planets. Levels, Scenes, and Transport Routes can be used to split Game Worlds into smaller chunks to either support Narration Structures or clearly let player clearly have Progress Indicators as they complete them. Game Worlds presented through Storytelling and Roleplaying can effectively be infinite in size they can be expanded as needed.

Game Worlds gain much of their gameplay characteristics from Location-Fixed Abilities such as Alarms, Bases, Props, Obstacles, Environmental Effects, Helpers, Controllers, Installations, Resource Generators, Resource Locations, Self-Service Kiosks, Switches, and Traps. These, and the actions players can otherwise do in the Game Worlds, can support Persistent Game World Changes. Invisible Walls are also theoretically possible within Game Worlds but are typically only used to create the outer border of the Game Worlds). The placement of Resource Locations for Game Items, Resources and Vehicles to mention but three types of game elements that further help define the Game Worlds and how players behave to these. The use of Game Items in Game Worlds can in turn be influenced by various modifications, e.g. making them into Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Pick-Ups, or Destructible Objects. As another step in detailing Game Worlds, the representation used for these, and their placement, can create Clues, Traces, and Environmental Storytelling. They can all be modified to be Diegetically Outstanding Features, and Landmarks such as Big Dumb Objects are game elements specifically used for this purpose, but parts of the Game Worlds themselves can become Diegetically Outstanding Features simply by changing the presentation locally. Diegetically Outstanding Features and Landmarks in Game Worlds can help with Game World Navigation but can also draw attention to Red Herrings so that players are lured towards certain areas.

Game elements in Game Worlds that can be Agents are various types of Inhabitants, including the more specific Enemies and Non-Player Characters, although some of the latter may actually be more accurately described as Helpers if they are sessile. The use of Algorithmic Agents can be used to make the worlds less predictable and more "alive". Avatars and Units also belong to this category but they are typically not placed in the Game Worlds before game instances begin; they are instead placed in them through Construction or Game Element Insertion. Ghosts are Replays of previous players' actions in the game and can because of this be seen as a form of Geospatial Game Widgets for Agents of earlier game instances.

Not everything designers may wish Game Worlds to contain or simulate can plausibly be represented directly in them since, like in the real world, many causes, states, and events are unnoticeable. This can partly be handled by abstract entities such as Abstract Player Constructs and Characters. In contrast, abstract areas of the Game Worlds, i.e. subsections of the actual space of the Game Worlds, include Arenas, Check Points, Choke Points, Flanking Routes, Galleries, Inaccessible Areas, Safe Havens, Secret Areas, Sniper Locations, Spawn Points, Strongholds, Resource Generators (since these can be immaterial besides being tangible game elements), and Vehicle Sections. Also include in this category are those parts of Game Worlds under dispute due to Area Control goals. Since not all these characteristics have natural representations, the Game Worlds may need to be changed to have Diegetically Outstanding Features to show where they are. Characters are also abstract aspects of Game Worlds, so they modulate them through how they influence actions of Agents (or the Narration Structures). Related to Safe Havens, Private Game Spaces are worth noting here. These spaces, particular to Massively Single-Player Online Games such as FarmVille and Zombie Lane and some board games (e.g. Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy), can in one sense be said to describe the whole Game Worlds for their players but since other players can be allowed to do Visits (at least in the Massively Single-Player Online Games) the spaces can in another sense be said to be parts of larger Game Worlds. Generalizing, the use of Territories can significantly focus gameplay on the Game Worlds rather than the action within them.

All the game elements, including the abstract ones, can easily be used to create Asymmetric Starting Conditions for the players. This is especially easily done when Randomness is used to place the game elements, as for example done in Drakborgen, Forbidden Island, Minecraft, or NetHack.

Game Worlds typically imply Movement or Maneuvering through them, and all the game elements mentioned above can be used to affect this, especially Vehicles. This can be given more explicit forms by adding Races or goals of Game World Exploration or Traversal but all these can also emerge from the requirements of other goals and the locations of Enemies, Resources, players' Avatars or Units, etc. Movement discretely between parts of Game Worlds can be designed through dividing them into Levels and Scenes, and through providing Quick Travel within them. One-Way Travel and Conditional Passageways can modulate this type of Movement to enforce a form of Predetermined Story Structure. Quick Returns is often used together with Quick Travel to make Game World Exploration and Traverse goals possible but avoid the Grinding travelling back can feel like. Movement between Game Worlds can arguably be designed through Visits to other players' Private Game Spaces, especially so when the effects of the Visits are not exactly shared but what is rather shared is the actions or overall efforts of the visiting players. Another type of travel between Game Worlds is that letting Player Characters in Roleplaying Games change campaigns (and Game Masters and this can happen regardless of a game's design. The however clashes with Diegetic Consistency.

There are several patterns that can be applied to control players' information about Game Worlds. The choice of First-Person Views, Third-Person Views, or God Views is a basic one about how players are supposed to get knowledge about the Game Worlds, and for the two latter the exact use of Cameras further influences players' perceptions of the Game Worlds. The first option supports the use of a Detective Structure (and can be seen as a very literal use of Line of Sight) while the second one provide a limited form of Game State Overviews since players can detect somewhat more than the Avatars or Units the view is tied to. God Views in turn offer the possibility of very good Game State Overviews but this is often countered by the use of Fog of War initially. This makes all options usually not provide players with complete access to whole Game Worlds, and this is often wanted by designers to allow the possibility of Easter Eggs, Secret Resources and to encourage Game World Exploration. The restrictions of being able to perceive Game Worlds can of course be modified through various Privileged Abilities, e.g. commanders in Battlefield 2 can get Game State Overviews through doing scans in Secondary Interface Screens that temporarily locate all enemy units. For large Game Worlds, or Levels for that matter, Mini-maps can be necessary to locate oneself in them. Vision Modes can be used to modify all these possibilities so players can alternate between seeing different types of information about the Game Worlds.

Populating Game Worlds with game elements can be done before gameplay begins through Configurable Gameplay Areas or as part of how the Game Worlds evolve. Besides the effect of players' actions (e.g. Pottering), Irreversible Events, Storytelling and Ultra-Powerful Events can lead to the content in them being changed through Construction, Crafting, Game Element Insertion, or Game Element Removal. Continuous Game Element Insertion by the game system requires Resource Generators or Spawn Points, and these are likely to become Strategic Locations. The Game Worlds themselves can change through Shrinking Game Worlds, as found for example in Forbidden Island or Greed Corp, or have the potential to expand infinitely in the Player-Constructed Worlds (or perhaps Game Master-Constructed Worlds) possible in Roleplaying Games or text-based multi-user dungeons such as Kingdoms or DragonMud.Game Servers can store all this information and let different players access different parts of the Game Worlds at the same time. By using Procedurally Generated Game Worlds, new Game Worlds can easily be created whenever players want to have variation. This is typically another way to make use of Randomness in creating Game Worlds, but allowing for players to give Explicit Random Seeds modifies this by letting players give specific seeds to recreate the same Game Worlds over and over.

Another aspect of Game Worlds is how long they should last. Arbitrary Time Limits or diegetically easier to explain Shrinking Game Worlds can both be used to destroy or end Game Worlds after a certain amount of time, and by doing so gives games Time Limited Game Instances (gameplay can continue even if the Game Worlds end by using (Game Time Manipulation - The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is an example of this). In contrast to this, Game Worlds can be Persistent Game Worlds, i.e. exist independently of players' game sessions (not to be confused with Persistent Game World Changes which make effects in the Game Worlds remain until some other diegetic effect acts upon them). This is a requirement for Drop-In/Drop-Out gameplay, and since Massively Multiplayer Online Games require this feature also a requirement these types of games. Related to this is if Game Worlds are Reconfigurable Game Worlds, which can be either before gameplay begins (e.g. Space Hulk) or during gameplay (e.g. Drachen Delta).

A final consideration is how Game Worlds maintain their states between play sessions. Unless players or Game Masters are to be burden with Excise in Self-Facilitated Games, Dedicated Game Facilitators are needed which in computer-mediated cases can be done through Game Servers.

Interface Aspects

Game Worlds can be given different presentations to different players through the use of Phasing in Multiplayer Games that have Mediated Gameplay.

Diegetic Aspects

Both Diegetic and Thematic Consistency affect how players perceive Game Worlds. Props are worth mentioning in relation to Thematic Consistency since simply having too few Props may break the Thematic Consistency of a world.

Game Worlds provide a basis for Spatial Engrossment but gameplay activities taking place "outside" the Game Worlds, e.g. Excise or manipulation of Characters or Inventories in Secondary Interface Screens, can distract from this. If Diegetic Consistency is not important, the use Alien Space Bats can allow greater freedom in the range and themes possible for both the actual environments and the game elements in them.

The use of Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences or Enforced Agent Behavior show two opposite ways of how the actions of Agents and Inhabitants of Game Worlds can be made to have Diegetic Consistency.

Narrative Aspects

Game Worlds provide a basis for Environmental Storytelling but other Narration Structures can create parts of Game Worlds that is not part of gameplay at all. By using Cutscenes and Storytelling, games can provide backstories and hints of other parts of Game Worlds that may be important to setup conflicts or simple help provide an Illusion of Open Space. Main Quests can be used to ensure that players will see particular locations of the Game Worlds if they progress in gameplay by having subquests to the Main Quests take place in these locations.


Game Worlds give players an Alternative Realities, and creates a foundation for a Diegetic Consistency, in which they can experience Engrossment through Spatial Engrossment if they need to engage in Game World Navigation, especially in games with First-Person Views. They, and all the parts the contain, can be seen as Predetermined Story Structures when there is some intentionally regarding the order and structure of how events take place in them. Those with sufficient Game State Overviews can be used to create Alignment goals and these may spontaneously arise as well in these circumstances. They also provide an invitation for Emotional Engrossment related to their Inhabitants, as well as a basis for Roleplaying them. Game Worlds limit the area on which players have to focus the attention, and typically very intuitively limits the possible Movement (Movement and Maneuvering in turn modifies how Game Worlds are experienced).

While the placement of Resources help add distinctness to Game Worlds, the rarity or ease of access to these Resources modulate how players need to consider them. Those Game Worlds which cannot completely be viewed at once by players encourage Game World Exploration and especially so if players are aware of the presence but not location of Easter Eggs and Secret Resources. Concentrations of certain game elements or the presence of uncommon ones in any areas of a Game World makes it likely that those areas become Strategic Locations. Knowing the presence of these can be Strategic Knowledge, significantly affect Player Balance, and encourage specific actions such as Camping. The size and terrain of Game Worlds, and distribution of Resources in them, greatly affect how Expansion can occur in them.

Those in which players need to move Avatars or Units very often spawn Traverse goals unless they have already been explicitly designed into the game (this might also happen in games about connecting flows of various kinds, e.g. steam in Cogs or "flooz" or goo in Pipe Mania).

When players (and Game Masters) actually create the building blocks of Game Worlds, these become Player Constructed Worlds. This can be done quite literally (e.g. Carcassonne), through many small actions (most often Pottering as found for example in FarmVille or Minecraft), through coding (e.g. DragonMud), or through Roleplaying and Storytelling (e.g. the Storytelling System or Basic Roleplaying). The types of games, and those using Game Worlds created with the help of Randomness (e.g. Minecraft), support Varied Gameplay and Replayability since game instances are very unlikely to have similar gameplay conditions.


Can Instantiate

Alternative Realities, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Diegetic Consistency, Emotional Engrossment, Environmental Storytelling, Explicit Random Seeds, Game World Exploration, Game World Navigation, Player Constructed Worlds, Predetermined Story Structures, Roleplaying, Spatial Engrossment, Traverse

with First-Person Views

Detective Structures

with Invisible Walls or Storytelling

Illusion of Open Space

Player Constructed Worlds or Randomness

Varied Gameplay, Replayability

with Self-Facilitated Games


with God Views or Third-Person Views

Game State Overviews

with Time Limits or Shrinking Game Worlds

Time Limited Game Instances

Can Modulate

Expansion, Maneuvering, Movement, Resources

Can Be Instantiated By

Game Boards, Game Masters, Game Servers, Illocutionary Interfaces, Levels, Maps, Mediated Gameplay, Procedurally Generated Game Worlds, Roleplaying, Scenes, Storytelling, Tiles

Can Be Modulated By

Abstract Player Constructs, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Agents, Alarms, Algorithmic Agents, Alien Space Bats, Area Control, Arenas, Asymmetric Starting Conditions, Avatars, Bases, Big Dumb Objects, Cameras, Characters, Check Points, Choke Points, Clues, Configurable Gameplay Areas, Construction, Conditional Passageways, Controllers, Crafting, Cutscenes, Destructible Objects, Diegetic Consistency, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Easter Eggs, Enemies, Enforced Agent Behavior, Environmental Effects, Game World Exploration, First-Person Views, Flanking Routes, Focus Loci, Fog of War, Galleries, Game Element Insertion, Game Element Removal, Game Items, Game State Indicators, Geospatial Game Widgets, Ghosts, God Views, Helpers, Illusion of Open Space, Inaccessible Areas, Inhabitants, Installations, Invisible Walls, Irreversible Events, Landmarks, Location-Fixed Abilities, Main Quests, Maps, Mini-maps, Maneuvering, Movement, Non-Player Characters, Obstacles, One-Way Travel, Persistent Game World Changes, Persistent Game Worlds, Pick-Ups, Player-Constructed Worlds, Pottering, Private Game Spaces, Props, Quick Returns, Quick Travel, Races, Randomness, Reconfigurable Game Worlds, Red Herrings, Resource Generators, Resource Locations, Resources, Safe Havens, Secondary Interface Screens, Secret Areas, Secret Resources, Self-Service Kiosks, Shrinking Game Worlds, Sniper Locations, Spawn Points, Storytelling, Strategic Locations, Strongholds, Switches, Territories, Thematic Consistency, Third-Person Views, Time Limits, Traces, Traps, Transport Routes, Traverse, Ultra-Powerful Events, Units, Vehicle Sections, Vehicles, Vision Modes, Visits, Warp Zones

Phasing in Multiplayer Games with Mediated Gameplay

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Diegetic Consistency when Invisible Walls are present


An updated version of the pattern Game World that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Wikipedia entry for Toroid.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.