The Surprising Adult Origin of One of Gaming's Most Confusing Terms
Like any industry, video games have a language all their own. Acronyms, shorthand, coded inside jokes, and abbreviations make navigating a conversation with video game professionals an absolute minefield of misunderstanding. But don’t be fooled by gamers trying to sound like the smartest person on the Zoom call. Some of these terms have humble and incredibly silly origins. The term 4X comes from a surprisingly clever marketing ploy that helped define one of the most popular genres of gaming.
4X games can best be summed up as empire building games. Think Sid Meier’s Civilization or Stellaris. Players start off weak and with little territory or resources. Through exploration, you discover new land and settle there, expanding your burgeoning empire and laying the foundations of industry and income. There’s almost always a neighboring faction who is looking to compete for the same resources and land. Many 4X games give players the choice to make peace with them and work together for mutual benefit, or conquer and obliterate your enemies. Just like real life!
The term 4X is now an industry standard. But, like so many of our greatest human achievements, it was inspired by porn. Writer Alan Emrich first coined the term in a gaming preview he’d written for Computer Gaming World. He thought rating a game “XXXX” would be eye catching to readers and he was right. However, “4E” games would be a more accurate term. The X’s stand for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit and EXterminate”. I’ll forgive his not using an Oxford comma because he gave us this term to describe one of my favorite game genres.
Emrich really did capture what makes this genre of gaming so incredibly absorbing. Exploring a new realm, never quite being sure what you’ll discover. Expanding your empire. Exploiting resources to shape a civilization or society how you see fit. Exterminating opponents and foes. All these factors make for an incredibly satisfying game play experience. Anyone who has ever tried to play “a couple turns” of Civ and then looked at the clock five hours later will understand: these games are even better than porn.