Seeing Red: How Color Affects Player Choices in Virtual Reality

Compelling VR Story

Sometimes I don’t think modern gamers realize how lucky they are when it comes to color in games.

Leaving aside the grayscale adventures of the original Gameboy, even color consoles from back in the days of pixelated artwork had pretty strict limitations when it came to how many colors they could actually display on screen at any one time.

The NES, for example, was incapable of displaying sprites containing more than three colors—this is why so many games characters of the time had big black outlines, to help them stand out from the scenery. Mario’s signature mustache was actually created as an easy way to provide detail in a simple, three-color image.

Super Mario Bros 3 limited color choices
NES games like Super Mario Bros 3 had very limited color options. Source

In modern games, these roadblocks don’t apply—it’s almost strange for developers to think of having to limit their creations’ colors to account for hardware restrictions. This, I think, is actually a bit of a shame. In modern games, a lot less thought needs to go into what colors appear on-screen: if it looks good, game artists can do it, and they don’t need to think too hard about what their color choices will do to a game environment.

But in virtual reality, with a game environment that needs to convey emotion within a scene without breaking the immersion of the player wearing the headset, choosing the right colors can be crucial to getting the right message across. Colors have meaning to a player, and the proper use of them in a setting where the player is fully immersed in a game can affect the choices a player makes and they way they react to a plot point.

Colors and Behavior

It may be difficult to believe that differences in simple colors around us can make an impact on our behavior, but such effects have actually been seen by psychologists who study how our brains interpret different images.

According to color psychology, blues and greens evoke feelings of relaxation and calmness, while reds and yellows are often better at getting people’s attention and encouraging action and excitement.

Blue street lights lower crime rates
According to some reports, blue street lights lead to lower crime rates. Source

This affects plenty of areas of our daily lives—studies have found that patients often feel that red pills are more effective than blue pills, solely based on their action-oriented color. Similarly, the city of Glasgow in Scotland has reported seeing a drop in crime figures by changing its streetlights to a blue hue that purportedly lowers aggression.

While there’s a lot of study that’s required to learn just how much colors can affect behavior, and a lot of room for varying opinions and results, there’s a strong case for the argument that priming people with certain colors in their environment can push them to thinking and acting in a certain way.

Color Behavior in Virtual Reality

Color psychology, and the emotions connected to different colors, wash over into video games to a certain extent. As in real life, a player that sees a lot of red will naturally be drawn to give it more attention. This is why big red buttons are so prevalent as mechanics in video game puzzle solving—it’s hard to ignore them.

Color in video games: Red button in Portal
Experience has taught players that big red buttons need to be pushed. Source

But the level to which players are absorbed by the environments they play in when they’re experiencing their games through a screen means that often, players don’t get the same visceral instinctive response to colors in environments as they would do in real life: between the barrier of the screen and the unchanging colors in the room around the player, the impact of colors in games is diminished somewhat.

Not so in VR. Players using virtual reality headsets see the world around them as if it were real life, and this opens up a lot of doors for game developers to make video game environments that can affect the player as strongly as a scene might do in real life. There’s a big difference between seeing a character run through a cool, green field on a computer screen, and actually seeing it before your own eyes.

Making the Best VR Color Choices

To take advantage of the possibilities for color in a virtual reality setting, it’s important for game designers to think about what they’re wanting their players to experience, and then provide the kind of color scheme that fits with the mood.

Games like Loading Human are examples of how a simple change to a color palette can completely change how players view the tension within a scene, and when moves like this are made in VR, they’re even more powerful.

vr locations and movement in Virtual Reality game Loading Human

Virtual Reality game Loading Human
There’s a big difference between the colors used in  warm, welcoming environments and gray, sterile laboratories.

The game starts off with the player surrounded in a warm environment, surrounded by colors that create an atmosphere of comfort—in addition to oranges and browns, the loft apartment is sprinkled with green plants and blue water, giving it a sense of life without overpowering the color palette.

Later on in the game, though, the player enters a laboratory setting, which is almost devoid of natural colors—everything is gray and black, with artificial blue and purple lights creating an uninviting, cold atmosphere that contributes to the player feeling tense and worried. Thanks to the use of colors, the player instinctively picks up on whether or not environments are friendly.

Shrewd Color Choices Are Back in Fashion

If a game designer is smart, colors can be used in virtual reality to create an even more meaningful and satisfying experience.

So just as game developers thirty years ago had to think very hard about the colors they chose to display on-screen, modern VR developers should similarly think about every aspect of their color palette in order to give players an immersive experience that’s also emotionally powerful.

At least VR designers have more than three colors to work with while doing so.

To experience the immersive, richly-colored virtual reality environment of Loading Human, preorder your copy today.


David Bridgham

Producer, Gamer, Musician, Sports Car Enthusiast, Slow Jogger.

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