Context: When you’re playing competitive online games, one of the most important things to learn is how to most effectively show off to the enemy. You won’t always have the time to curse them out or otherwise eloquently explain your skill to them. For this reason, different kinds of slang have been adapted to meet the needs of competitive gamers. From this, we get the gamer slang “pwn.”
Main Piece: To “pwn” someone is to, essentially, annihilate them, destroy them, or otherwise completely defeat them when it wasn’t even close. Similar slang would be “curb-stomping” or “bitch slapping.” The gist is that gamers need more ways to tell people how bad they were beaten as a part of the psychological warfare of gaming. If somebody gets angry, or “tilts,” they’ll play worse, and if they’re angry enough, they might even quit! Pwning became the go-to affirmation of dominance in gaming lobbies for much of the mid-2000s because of both its simplicity and its meme status. Informant GG shares his account of his origins in Counter Strike, a competitive first person shooter game.
GG: I first heard [pwned] (pronounced p-owned) in 2003; I was playing Counter Strike with my buddies, and one of them just goes “pwned!” and I said “what?” and he said “pistol owned!… so owned is like to dominate someone or to make someone your bitch using your skill, and pistol is like how we whipped out the pistol and shot a guy…” I don’t know the exact origins of it, but I’ve seen it everywhere from YouTube to memes, it’s all over the place.
Thoughts: In gaming culture, defeating a rival is a moment of great pride that one may be too excited to put into eloquent words. It is for this reason that I believe “pwn” arose from a need to accurately describe the feeling of dominance over an opponent, regardless of it’s roots as either a keystroke error (because p is next to o on the QWERTY keyboard) or as a combination of pistol and own. From GG’s perspective it certainly makes sense that killing an opponent with your pistol, a relatively weak weapon compared to rifles and machine guns, would warrant pwning, but the folklore aspect of pwning is more through why people used it and less of how they began to use it. In the mid-2000s, pwned became apart of internet meme culture because of its applicability to other scenarios. Anytime that something goes catastrophically wrong for someone, they’ve been pwned (See Know Your Meme). Using the term pwn also includes you in apart of the culture of the internet. Therefore, I believe that people used pwned primarily because of its attached feelings of dominance as well as its inclusion in internet culture.
Annotation: Pwned photo from Know Your Meme https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/owned-pwned