The most obvious candidates are defining things: What is a wargame, Euro, AT, abstract, area-impulse game, dice game, and on and on and on ad nauseam. And then more nauseam.
But then you have people who periodically reflect on the argot of our hobby. Our hobby is pretty big, by the way; in case you're wondering, nobody who studies "games" or "ludism" or academic things like that considers "boardgaming" to be entirely unto itself; it's a segment of "gaming," which involves a very great many things indeed. Most customarily, it includes the entire GeekDo (remember GeekDo?) universe of boardgames, video games, and RPGs. Sometimes not RPGs. We're usually spared being lumped in with scratch-off lottery tickets and tic-tac-toe playing chickens, but not always. (Such as in math books.)
Anyway, the point is it's a big hobby we're in, even if we only participate in some of it. I mean personally, all I have are board games, video games, and RPGs, so...right.
So there are two terms that seem to draw the most attention. In both cases, there is an overwhelmingly common first alternative, and a second alternative that is considered by
The first troublesome term is "theme." I can't find it now, but Nate Straight had a post a while back pointing out that "theme" is already a term in games, for something else--common motifs players encounter in a given game. Obviously, English-language books being what they are, it's most commonly a chess term. So we have this chess term, and this other boardgame term that is competing with it, which is at best clumsy.
Meanwhile, there's a perfectly good word one could use instead of an argot term: "setting." In virtually all cases you can just remove "theme" and put in "setting" and it would at least be grammatical. Some of the clichés of our little language, like "dripping with theme," would have to be shot and then replaced with new clichés, such as "strongly evokes its setting." (I stole that from something I said on BGG, John Fogerty-style.) But everyone would understand what was meant perfectly well. It has the added advantage of being appropriate for Euros, AT, and wargames, whereas "theme" only really felt right for Euros, at least to me.
"Theme" is a term, that we use for "setting." We should just use an ordinary word, like "setting." We do not need a term.
I've been trying to say "setting" whenever possible, or some other appropriate word. I doubt I've succeeded, considering how entrenched "theme" is, but I try.
Second term: "mechanic."
It's not a terrific term, I have to admit. It's part of our argot, though, so we pretty much all sort of know what it means. Some of us think "mechanic" is a pointless thing to have in the first place, but there we have it; we think "worker placement" is such a "mechanic," and thus as a "mechanic" it is labeled.
It is objected that a "mechanic" is a person, a person who works on (say) a "mechanism." Why not a replacement term, "mechanism"?
This is a little different from theme/[anything else]. "Mechanic" can't possibly cause any confusion, although someone new to games (or new to being weird about games) might be curious about how the word is used, but I think that would be the case with "mechanism" as well. In any event, there's no game term "mechanic" that this is competing with. So there isn't the urgency; we just think it's an ugly word.
Theme: Not an obvious word
Setting: An obvious word
Mechanic: Not an obvious word
Mechanism: Not much more obvious
Instead of replacing a term with a simple word, we're trying to replace a term with a different term.
The other problem is that "mechanic" is in very general use. It didn't used to be; back in the seventies, everyone said "mechanism." But not now--mechanic took off since the mid-nineties. Ngram? Ngram.
Furthermore, the population that's saying mechanic is, beyond BGG users, that larger community of game scholars I mentioned earlier. The people who study games and gamers in a big way seem to like mechanic. It's what Wikipedia has. It's what Gamification has. It's what Game Studies uses. It's what every book I own on the subject uses.
I think we're at the point where we just have to take our language where it is on this one; the overwhelming pattern of usage today is to say "mechanic." I don't know why, but "Mechanism" isn't as good to this generation. And this could change--if you ever find yourself in the position to seriously shift the language, go ahead and start saying "mechanism."
But that's hard, man. Rob Neyer is one of the most prominent writers on baseball in America. (awkward transition) There is also a very important if controversial statistic (or statistical philosophy) called Wins Above Replacement. Abbreviation: WAR. So everybody says WAR instead of Wins Above Replacement. But not Rob Neyer, who dislikes associating something like "war" with baseball, so he says Wins+ instead. Nobody cares. Not anybody. Nobody else does it, and he has way more clout in writing-about-baseball than the "mechanism" forces have in games.
Or you could get lucky, and get a "Meeple" thing going. But that's easier with new words.
Again: This is a problem with turning one term into another. It's up against technical usage. If I decide to call the meter a "snee" and say that someone is 1.6 snees tall, I'm not going to get anywhere. I have to say meter, or else I'm not communicating. I suppose I could try to convert my fellow human beings to all say "snee," but...how likely is that? Mechanic/mechanism isn't that drastic, but it's the same principle. We have a term; it is a term for an invented concept (unlike theme); the vast majority of people use that term in place of an available alternative.
Not that I really like "mechanic" very much. But if I had to change it--hm, that's turning into a big thought. This might be another post.