The Life and Death of ‘Pwned,’ the Word That Defined 2000s Gaming

Since the dawn of the 21st century, many of the most notable examples of gaming slang have remained remarkably consistent. Terms that were initially novel in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s like “deathmatch,” “headshot,” and “clan” have kept their relevance, even as the entire cultural landscape of video games has shifted around them. But while new turns of phrase rise as old ones fall — “tilting” replaces “raging,” and so forth — there’s one particular word that once encapsulated the entire gaming world, only to fall into utter disuse. I’m talking, of course, about “pwn.”

When I first started using gaming forums like GameSpot and GameFAQs in the early 2000s, the word “pwned” was absolutely ubiquitous — I probably ran into it a half-dozen times or more per day. It came in many permutations, often coded with “leet-speak” (1337), another mostly-forgotten vestige of early-aughts culture: “pwnage,” “pwn3d,” “p0wned,” the list goes on. Though most gamers first used it to refer to utter domination of an in-game opponent, it soon became shorthand for any situation where the speaker triumphed over another person, no matter how minor the victory. Like a lot of slang terms with short half-lives, like “uber,” “fly,” and “groovy,” its versatility was its main strength; it could worm its way into any context or conversation.


Contested Origins

Despite the popularity of the word, its origins are surprisingly controversial. While most agree that it derives from a misspelling of the extant term “owned,” the exact circumstances of its coining have been disputed by Wikipedia editors and Urban Dictionary aficionados for years now. One anecdote claims that virtual chess players first came up with it while they were working on an AI to play against — when one would “out-program” the others, he would call himself the king and the others his pawns, hence “pawning” them. (Similarly far-fetched stories abound across the Internet, each resting the crux of their argument on the similarities between “pwn” and “pawn,” but none offer any particular evidence to back up their colorful assertions). 

Other sources describe a more mundane beginning: a user — or perhaps a Blizzard employee — who made a particularly popular Warcraft III map accidentally misspelled “owned,” since the two keys are right next to each other, and the term quickly caught on in the community. While this story sounds a bit more plausible — at least to me — I couldn’t find any details to back it up, just the same vague story copy-pasted across several websites. As with many minor internet arguments, different factions have managed to sneak their preferred narrative onto the word’s Wikipedia page, only to have it later scrubbed off. But regardless of the exact circumstances of its creation, it seems pretty clear that someone, somewhere accidentally pressed “P” instead of “O” when they were playing video games, their friends thought it was funny, and it eventually stuck.

Though it’s hard to trace the exact rise and fall of a word like “pwn,” according to Google Trends, search interest in the word peaked around 2008, dropping off dramatically afterwards. People do still use the word online in its original meaning — just search for it on your preferred social media site — but, in truth, its popularity simply ebbed away in time. Such is the fate of most jargon, of course. The smattering of gaming slang that survives the test of the years has one thing in common: specificity.

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Pwned? In My Game? It’s More Likely Than You Think

From the functional (“grab that 1-Up”)  to the detestable (the unfortunate practice of “teabagging”), long-lived gaming terms describe things that did not exist prior to the invention of video games, and have continued to exert influence in gaming culture even years (or decades) later. This is especially the case with nomenclature that developers themselves embrace, like “deathmatch” or “walking simulator.” While today’s players might refer to wins as “dubs” and declare “gg clap” at the end of a one-sided match, it seems unlikely that these terms will survive beyond our current era. However, I suspect more tailored labels like “battle pass” are here to stay. 

Yet even as everyday players stopped “pwning” their friends at the turn of the last decade, the word still lives on, albeit in a slightly different form. As early as 1989, the terms “own” and “pwn” have been used by online hackers to refer to the act of gaining unauthorized access to a system, also known as “rooting.” Twitter accounts like “Pwn All The Things” provide commentary on cybersecurity issues every day, and notable websites like “Have I Been Pwned?” allow users to see if they’re a victim of a data breach.

Much like other examples of durable slang, this more specific definition of “pwnage” seems to have quite a bit of staying power. Since this community is likely the source of the term to begin with, it only seems appropriate that they get to master its meaning once again. When it comes to games, the heady days of epic pwnage are now nothing more than memories.