This page = your guide to gaming symbols.
If you’re here we’ll take it as a sign you’re ready to learn a bit more about symbols in gaming. They come in a range of different forms, and as a language you’re likely already familiar with, whether you know it or not. From the classics to the greats, we’ve covered all the bases here. And, we can give you the rundown on how to create your own iconic designs!
What are symbols in video games?
That instrument that goes ‘clang’? A symbol is really any mark or drawing that is meant to represent an idea. Numbers and letters are technically symbols, but so are logos, flags, etc. Some people dedicated their careers to studying how we use symbols – Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code, for example.
A complex cipher. While an experienced gamer might take for granted that learning symbols is part of starting most new games, it’s unsurprising it represents a barrier for entry into the genre for some. Examples of where we might see symbols in gaming include.
- Hotkeys – spells and skills are often represented with icons.
- Attributes – not always, but can be represented by icons.
- Factions – often given their own symbol, used on uniforms, banners etc.
- Status effects – in many games buffs and debuffs are represented with icons next to health bars or somewhere else.
- Items – while a drawing of an item may not always act as a symbol, often they do represent meanings that aren’t literal (not many potions in the real world will actually undo damage from a stab wound).
- Logos – games themselves are often reduced to easily recognisable symbols.
More than meets the eye; like other forms of art, gaming uses symbols as shorthand visual representations of ideas. David Myers (2006) discusses how the use of symbols when playing games relates to how we play together as human beings. He also points out that the way symbols are used in gaming can affect the way we learn and create meaning based on visual cues. Myers also points out that symbols don’t have a fixed meaning in gaming and we can end up having individual understanding of gaming symbols.
Iconic video game symbols
Below are a few examples of commonly used symbols that most gamers (and probably non-gamers too) could easily guess the meaning of:
💪 – Strength or toughness attribute, or something equivalent
🛡 – Literally a shield, but also defences, or defensiveness
⚔️ – Fighter, combat, attack, hostile
🏹 – Literally archery, but also ranged combat, accuracy, sometimes dexterity
❤️ – Health, lives, love and affection
🏆 – Victory, success, achievement
💀 – Death, undead, curse, poison
🔍 – Clue, inspect, investigate, enlarge
💎 – Currency, treasure, rarity
So, that’s common sense right? Yes, that’s the point! Using universal symbols to represent concepts in gaming is part of how they’re designed to be player-friendly. Plus, it’s hard to create entirely new meanings for established symbols (many of which predate gaming altogether).
Famous video game symbols
InkbotDesign provides their top 10 list of gaming logos. These are what they consider the most prolific (wide-spread) and easily recognisable among consoles, developers, game titles etc. While logos are a grey area, often containing text (sometimes exclusively), most don’t have meaning outside the aspect of the game industry they’re representing. Also, the stylised and recognisable designs of these texts pushes them into the realm of the symbolic.
Creative Bloq and Line25 both offer alternative contender lineups for best logo. While there’s know way of objectively rating logos, the common denominators across these lists give us an idea of those the experts agree most deserve the top spots. These include:
What makes the best video game symbols?
A good symbol will be one that is:
- Easy to understand
- Visually appealing
- Representative of your style or brand
You’re aiming for something that, when looked at, instantly conveys what it is and what game it is part of/related to.
Tips for designing gaming symbols
- Be original – you want something that’s unmistakably recognisable as part of your game. You don’t want to be confused with 100s of other generic examples within the industry. But also;
- Consider convention too – you don’t want to copy, or be generic, but using conventional iconography as a starting point makes sense. If people expect a heart to represent life and you give them a baby, you’re being original, but also nonsensical. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
- Keep it simple – the more complex a design, the harder it will be to recognise. Moreover, intricate designs don’t scale down well, and big icons are intrusive.
- Start from the centre – a clear centrepoint than a design draws you into helps grab attention and helps an icon be memorable.
- Make it clear – there’s no point having a very clever design if it takes 10 minutes for the penny to drop, or if you have to explain it. A good icon should be obvious in what it represents.
- Be consistent – giving every single icon in your game a unique style might sound like a good way to distinguish them, but it’s far more aesthetically pleasing to keep a common theme going. The theme of your icons will contribute to a cohesive overall style for your game, which will then be more recognisable as a result.
How to design your own gaming symbols
Once you’re ready to get to it, there’s a few steps you need to take to reach you finished icon design:
- Find the right design tool – Venngage has a list of the best icon makers to check out.
- Get your guidelines handy – this can mean your company’s brand guidelines or else any style guidelines you have for the game you are working on.
- Consider your audience – most games are supposed to be fairly universal in terms of player demographics (although this isn’t always true), but the genre of game you’re designing will affect the audience you want to appeal to. E.g. don’t create cute fuzzy icons for a blood-drenched horror.
- Line up potential fonts, graphics, colour schemes etc. – once you’re clear what you’re doing, you need to start figuring out what components you want to make up your symbol.
- Mock up and iterate – play around with combinations of different elements. Try your design across a range of colour schemes. Pick favourites and then pit them against each other in an icon battle royale to find a clear winner.
- Finalise and adapt – tweak your winning design as needed and make sure you’ve got a range of sizes and scalable options for different resolutions, platforms etc.
If you’re looking for a playground to throw finished icons into as part of your game’s prototyping stage, SpaceDraft can help. Our tool lets you upload custom icons (we call ‘em pins) and simulate your game easily and affordably.
Check out an example here:
Where to find examples or stock symbols
If you need a starting point for inspiration, or placeholders to shuffle around before you design your own icons, there are places you can find stock icons:
- Free icons! – Gist, StyleMix, and DesignBombs all have lists of sites that offer free icons for you to utilise.
- A more premium service… The Modern Entrepreneur gives a good rundown of premium icon sites to peruse.
- Tried and true – you might not know it, but classic image sourcing websites like Shutterstock and GettyImages also offer icons alongside classic stock imagery.
What are game rating symbols?
U for unsuitable? Game rating symbols come on the packaging of a game or alongside a game listed on the game platform(s) it’s sold on. They indicate what age range the content of the game is suitable for. Unfortunately, these ratings are not standardised across countries. He’s a few example national ratings:
There are movements to standardise these ratings, but since censorship is highly political and specific for each country, it’s no easy task to try and find common ground.
Is there really illuminati symbolism in video games? 🔺👁️
Get your foil hats ready! The answer both will and won’t surprise you. Yes, illuminati symbolism does appear in video games, for the sinister purpose of (drum roll)… representing the illuminati when referenced in gaming.
You can find them referenced in card games, slot machines, and unsurprisingly, in video gaming too. FragHero has a convenient video on 8 examples where the illuminati are secretly in control of a video game world. It’s no surprise that the world’s best-known (and therefore ironically least secret) secret society makes for great subject matter when designing games.
The truth probably isn’t out there… While some might argue that the fact they are referenced in gaming is proof they do exist in some meaningful way, it’s unlikely that a shadow society is infiltrating a wider variety of game development companies to sow their symbols into video games like a trail of breadcrumbs. Again, we can turn to the Da Vinci code as a relevant example of compelling fiction.