Color Association in Game Design

Color Association in Game Design


Color is one of the most basic visual components of a game, but what are its psychological effects? Activision's James Portnow looks at all the pretty colors and their psychological effects as it relates to game design.

We're going to start with the heady and work down to the practical, but this is far from an exact science. I invite you all to share your insights on the subject. Hopefully, with our common pool of knowledge and experience, we can begin to establish a language of color for videogames.

Color psychology breaks down because the symbolic meaning attached to color is almost always the result of cultural acclimatization. Yet it is universally acknowledged that color is one of the most fundamental ways we assimilate information from an image, thus it becomes necessary for us as game designers to create our own form of cultural reference for our players. The move from the primitive intuitive system we use now to something more formalized would allow us to convey greater quantities of information at greater speeds with greater redundancy. As attention spans decrease and the complexity of our games increase, it will be necessary to utilize every tool available to streamline communication.

Color as the Product of Culture

Black & White Mourning Colors

The starkest example of cultural influence on the way we view color is probably the difference between the mourning colors found in many Eastern cultures and those found in Western cultures. In many Eastern cultures, white is considered the color of mourning and is often used to represent death, whereas in the West we tend to use black.

In Islamic cultures, green often has very positive associations, whereas in the United States we tend to associate certain greens with greed. Why? Simply because our money is green.

The one consistent finding of psychological studies on color is that its effects are contextual. Given that that is the case, we can create our own context (i.e. videogames) and then use color to covey meaning within that context.

Preservation of Artistic Expression

Once color begins to be used as a means of communication, one might fear that artistic expression would be compromised. In response I would simply ask you this: do words lose their artistry because they are meant to communicate? Do moving pictures lose their art because we use them to convey meaning?

Rhetoric aside though, I have two points to make on this topic: first, the artistic possibilities of color choice are not reduced by adding the language of metaphor to color, and second, this language will probably be used in very specific and well-understood contexts (for example I don't think "go" whenever I see green, but I understand the context in which it has that meaning and can intuitively understand when it is being used as such).

What We Know So Far

Ok, so at this point you probably want something practical out of all of this. Let me hit you with this one then: we already have a very primitive color language in games. This may be obvious, but think about red and green.

First, let's consider red. Think about any game where you can take damage. We usually indicate taking damage by flashing the screen red or placing a red haze in front of the camera. Consider for a moment the last time you first saw such a flash or a haze in a game. You didn't need to be told what it meant; you knew because you understood that within the context of videogaming red is usually the danger/damage/warning color.

Now imagine if you were to make the flash light blue or green. Somehow that inherently makes no sense to us. We've had these associations for so long that we actually feel like taking a different tack is illogical...and it is, because it would be like arbitrarily redefining a word. If I were to tell you that "cat" now refers to a four-wheeled vehicle powered by a combustion engine your mind would recoil and you would reject such a suggestion.

But one can argue that this is true for red because red is the color of blood, or the color of fire, or some other innate and primitive thing. In part this may be true, but let's look at green. Green is consistently used in games to imply "friendly" or "ally". This is a use specific to games. One can tie it psychologically to the greenness of nature or culturally to green lights, but the fact still remains that green bounding or a green name in a game almost certainly means one thing: not hostile (1).

Friendly Radiation red enemy

best friend My Friend's Enemy

1. Brief Anecdote: I recently worked on a game that involved the player attacking targets that were far enough away to be indistinct. The play testers kept complaining about not being able to tell friend from foe. So, without changing any of the instructions we gave to the play testers, we added a faint green glow to friendly targets. Without exception and without asking questions, the play testers had no problem distinguishing from then on.

So Where Do We Use It?

For the most part, using color as a way to communicate meaning will come into play in the broad UI rather than the actual game art itself, though many games have done a brilliant job integrating the two.

For those of you who are interested, I would recommend looking at Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. There they use palette choice not only to drive the mood (i.e. to convey emotional meaning) but also to delineate gamespaces (thereby conveying logical meaning).

Private Language

The greatest danger in developing a system like this is the possibility of developing a private language, a secret cant that only those in the know will understand. We must be wary of sacrificing accessibility for information content. Almost every science does this (law and medicine are excellent examples) but sciences aren't meant to have mass appeal. We can't end up developing a new method of conveying meaning only to have it enable us to be more exclusive than before.

This can be avoided though. First we must take our cues from the ordinary and the everyday. We must root our meaning in things which our users encounter on a daily basis (greying out is a good example as that was common in computer UI before it became prevalent in games). Second we can use color to reinforce meaning conveyed in other ways (this has the added benefit of teaching the interactor the "meaning" of the color schema). Third, much in the way film audiences have become accustomed to the language of film simply due to exposure, so too will our audience become accustomed to such a language as games become a societal constant (though this is something we cannot rely on).

Conclusion

As our art form matures we need to develop new tools to use to keep expanding what we can do. Color is only one of many such tools, but it is a powerful one. With any luck this article has at least sparked thoughts on how it can be used and what it means to actively develop such a tool.

Please share your thoughts, experiences and anecdotes. I ask only that you try and reference where you can.

As always, I'm reachable at jportnow@gmail.com.
 
 

imgAbout the Guest Author, James Portnow
James is a Game Designer for Activision, the lead design columnist for Next-Gen, a COLOURlover and a romantic who still believes that games are capable of making people cry.
 

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Apartment Therapy: Fall Colors Contest

Apartment Therapy: Fall Colors Contest


Our friends over at ApartmentTherapy.com are putting their third annual fall colors contest to see who has the most color loving home. Win Up To $2500 from a total of $7500 in prizes to be awarded! - Thanks to subsomatic for reminding us.

How colorful is your home?

Apartment Therapy: Fall Colors Contest

WHAT: Our Fall Colors Contest is a contest for all color lovers. We're looking for the boldest, most beautiful, most colorful home in the world.

WHY: Color is a powerful part of interior design, and the cheapest way to change a room, but few feel comfortable using it. To inspire confidence, we're going to share all of the best color homes, tips and sources, worldwide.

I've Got Color! - Fall Colors Contest 2007

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Pink for October to Support Breast Cancer Awareness

Pink for October to Support Breast Cancer Awareness


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and along with Pink for October we're encouraging creative people to turn their websites pink for the month. The aim is to raise awareness of breast cancer and support those organizations making a difference to find a cure and support those living with breast cancer.

Psychologically, pink has been judged the 'sweetest' color
- Vargas 1986:144

To celebrate this event I'm going to take a look at the colour pink and consider the cultural and psychological meaning associated with it. I will also be taking a look at some effective uses of pink for websites and a selection of pink based colour palettes to provide a bit of inspiration if you are turning your site pink for October.

When Did it Become Pink for a Girl.

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Pink in many cultures has come to mean girl. It's been attached to the logic that says 'pink for a girl and blue for a boy'. The exact historical occurrence of this seems to point to after World War II. These 2 quotes shed some light on the history of the link between pink standing for a girl.

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The New Colors of U.S. Money

The New Colors of U.S. Money


For as long as all of us can remember, the US dollar has been synonymous with the color green. But as of 2004 the US government has been redesigning our paper money and adding splashes color. The new $5 bill was just introduced and might be considered the most colorful piece of US currency ever produced.

While the redesigned $10, $20 & $50 all have colorful designs the new $5 blends from purple to gray with shining yellow stars... not to mention the giant purple 5 on the back.

The New $5 Bill

US New Color Currency
US New Color Currency

Color: The most noticeable difference in the redesigned $5 bill is the addition of light purple in the center of the bill, which blends into gray near the edges. Small yellow "05"s are printed to the left of the portrait on the front of the bill and to the right of the Lincoln Memorial vignette on the back.

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And the Emmy Award Goes to… Color!

And the Emmy Award Goes to… Color!


The festivities began outside the 59th Annual Emmy Awards Sunday night with the photographers, stylist and critics checking out who was wearing who and what styles were in... A hot trend this year was vibrant color. Vivid hues of Fuscia, Electric-Blue, Deep Navy, Canary Yellow, Royal Purple, Crimson... (Elegant whites were there too)

Kate Walsh & Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Emmys Colors
Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Minnie Driver & America Ferrera

Emmys Colors
Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Katherine Heigl & Christina Aguilera

Emmys Colors
Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Marcia Cross - Beautiful Natural Colors

Emmys Colors
I personally thought Marica Cross looked amazing. The turquoise accent color she wore in her earrings and bracelet really worked well with the rest of her natural palette. Her red hair looked gorgeous with her skin tone and the light colored dress worked well to let the natural elements shine. No spray tans or glitzy jewels needed here... just a beautiful woman well accented by light and natural colors.
 

For More Emmy Red Carpet Pictures:

Style.com
E Online
Fashion.About

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An Entire Alphabet of Scarlet Letters

An Entire Alphabet of Scarlet Letters


Is it preposterous to wonder whether letters of the alphabet have an inherent color?  As I conduct ongoing research for One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, I can’t help but ask myself why it is that letters are so often described as having a rosy hue.  Most readers will recall the infamous red “A” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, but as Steven Heller pointed out, “The Scarlet Letter is not the only scarlet letter” (The Education of an Illustrator).  Nor are scarlet letters solely brands of shame, sin, or doom.  A “red letter day” is a holiday, or at least a memorable or happy day (the phrase likely dating from 1549, when Saint’s days were marked in red in the Book of Common Prayer).  Can there be a natural wavelength that writers instinctively pick up on?  Virginia Woolf’s eyes seemed keen enough to detect infrared all the way to Z: “After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance” (To the Lighthouse).

Biblical allusions associate the color scarlet with sins of the body, and by coloring their letters red, authors seem to flesh them out and add a spark of life.  Take, for example, this description by Brian Moynahan: “[W]hen I came to read [the psalms], they seemed written in letters of fire or of scarlet” (The Faith: A History of Christianity).  Nathaniel Hawthorne also mentioned a burning quality to his scarlet letter: “[Placing it to my breast,] I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron” (The Scarlet Letter).  Sparkling red letters can even burn the imagination: “In my head a scarlet letter blazed,” says Betty Fussell (My Kitchen Wars).  Whether or not the context involves physical branding with a red-hot iron (examples would be rather too gruesome for inclusion here), blood imagery often figures in. As John Lawton wrote, “She rubbed the [handkerchief’s embroidered] scarlet letter between finger and thumb, felt the crispness of dried blood” (Bluffing Mr. Churchill).  George C. Chesbro dramatically combines both blood and fire imagery in his depiction of an alphabet volcano “spewing what appeared to be incomplete, fractured sentences and clustered gobs of words that were half submerged in a river of blood red lava” (The Language of Cannibals).  And consider this more serene example by poet Madeline Defrees, who seems to agree that scarlet letters are written by nature herself and in turn read by nature as well: “And who, / when scarlet letters / flutter in air from sumac and maple, / will be there to / receive them? Only a sigh / on the wind in the land of bending willow” (“Almanac,” Blue Dusk: New and Selected Poems, 1951-2001).

Most often, scarlet letters have a dazzling quality which you can’t help but notice.  Here’s one example by Wilkie Collins: “[B]elow the small print appeared a perfect galaxy of fancifully shaped scarlet letters, which fascinated all eyes” (Hide and Seek).  Groucho Marx recalled being fascinated by similar red letters: “In large, scarlet letters [the handbills] said, ‘Would you like to communicate with your loved ones even though they are no longer in the flesh?’” (Memoirs of a Mangy Lover).  It is as if the letters of Groucho’s handbill had a rosy flesh of their own, and enough charge to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.  Here’s another example of a dazzling red letter, by Ian Rankin: “There was a big letter X marking the spot [for a parachute jump].  It was made from two lengths of shiny red material, weighted down with stones” (Resurrection Men: An Inspector Rebus Novel).  Michael McCollum sums up nicely the impact of scarlet letters: “The [comet collision] display froze, save for a single blinking word etched in scarlet letters: Impact!” (Thunderstrike!) Red letters have impact, alright!

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Textile Arts New Fall Colors

Textile Arts New Fall Colors


While stumbling around the web I came across a fabric shop that had some great fabric designs. I thought the simple but colorful patterns in their Fall 2007 collection would lend well to some inspired palettes...

TEXTTILE ARTS has the finest in retro, mid-century modern and contemporary Scandinavian design from MARIMEKKO and for the first time in the US, LJUNGBERGS.

From fabric and wall hanging kits to umbrellas and handbags, if you want colorful modern design you have come to the right place.

Elephants

Textile Colors Fall: Elephants
Yellow Elephants   Pink Elephants

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Flower Color Theory: White, Red, Pink and Green

Flower Color Theory: White, Red, Pink and Green


Throughout history flowers, and their colors, have been used to convey sadness, happiness, friendship, love and even dislike. Ever been given a dead black rose? If so, you know exactly the emotions that can come packed in a single flower. It's really no wonder that we are all so drawn to flowers.

Flowers and color are synonymous. Just do a quick palette search here at COLOURlovers containing the word "flower" and you will instantly be shown a multitude of beautiful palettes whose colors can only be replicated in nature. There is no other product that conveys so much feeling based on its color alone. They are sexy, intriguing, and universal and perfect for any occasion.

White Flowers

White Flowers
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Traditionally white flowers, the symbol of tranquility, peace and elegance are used for sympathy offerings and weddings. Their stately appearance lends itself to many types of floral applications. It may seem odd that white flowers are used for both celebration and mourning but really, while sympathy flowers convey grief, they also celebrate life and cherished memories.

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September Light Events: Great Balls of Color!

September Light Events: Great Balls of Color!


From the 10,000 colorful orbs in Italy to 1,000 illuminated helium balloons in England... September seems to be a month filled with wonderfully colorful events. Lights, Color, Beautiful!
 
 

Massimo Silenzio: Circo Massimo - Rome

“Maximum silence” is an installation of lights and colours between history and the future created by Giancarlo Neri and produced thank to cooperation and support from ENEL, and produced by Zètema Progetto Cultura in cooperation with Hfilms. 10.000 luminous globes, placed directly on the ground, slowly changing colours and fading in the magic setting of the Circus Maximus. The luminous installation will be on show until September 11th.

[VIA - NOT-COT]

Massimo Silenzio: Circo Massimo - Rome
img By duegnazio

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Apple’s iPod Colors Growing Up

Apple’s iPod Colors Growing Up


At the Apple Special Event this week, they announced several new products and updates... One update I found very interesting was change in colors for the new iPod Nano and Shuffle... Away have gone the bright pop colors and welcomed in are more mature, rich colors. Apple has been a dominating force in the digital music scene with iTunes & iPod...

Are they now making an effort to dominate the rest of the "older" market?

Music can be a very youthful industry. In most Mass-Market Genres: Pop, Rap, R&B, Etc. the most popular artists usually have a expiration date around 30 years old. Apple has done a great job tapping the young and creative crowd to create a very loyal and early adopting fan base. The buying power of these young early adopters has fueled amazing growth of the digital music industry and with an already great market share, it looks like Apple is using some more mass-appealing colors to reach out to the rest of the market.

Old iPod Nano Colors

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