Colour within Game Design: Colours with Meaning

Colour is a very powerful thing. From a young age we are taught to associate colours with certain feelings, thoughts and meanings, even subconsciously. In games, designers use these associations to connect with the player and communicate with them subconsciously telling them that i.e. their health is getting low. By choosing to colour health green when the players health is between 75% – 100% in the health meter, and slowly changing to red when the health decreases from 75%, this will tell the player that when their health level is green this is ‘good’ and when it’s red that this is bad.

Colour can be used in the following areas of games: menus, the Heads Up Display (HUD), font and in the game window.

Colours with Meaning

Green

When people see green they immediately think ‘Go’ or of something positive.  That is because green is used everyday in traffic systems and checking something off of a list i.e. the tick colour will most likely be green.

So a positive association with the colour green has been built up by us so whenever we see the colour green used we immediately think that whatever is being highlighted by that colour, be it either a word or icon, will be depicting positive information. 

Game designers quite often use green in games to depict a safe amount of health for the character via the HUD like in Lost Planet: Extreme Condition.

Red

When red is used it can mean two different and opposite things.  To some it would immediately signify danger, a warning or something negative but when used in the shape of a heart can symbolise love and passion.   Again this is to do with traffic lights, but also various road signs (in the UK) are outlined in red.

But of course, red is also used to colour heart shapes and signifies love.

In game design red can also be used in the HUD to depict a dangerously low amount of health for the character (when used in a health meter that changes from green to red) but can also be used as the entire colour of the health bar.  The reason for this I think, is because when you think of health you think of blood and blood is red so it is an appropriate colour for the health meter as shown in Fable.

White

White is seen as a pure, serene and tranquil colour and it provokes a sense of calm from many.  In games white is used in many ways.  It is usually used to make icons, objects or text stand out against the environment or a dark background to draw the player’s attention to something significant or important.  This is depicted in the Fable screenshot below.

Black

The colour black is mostly seen in a negative light as it’s usually associated with darkness, scary, evil and death.  Black is considered the opposite to white and is considered the ‘bad force’ in constant struggle with ‘good forces’.  In game design this colour and alot of other dark colours are used a lot to create enclosed environments and make them feel more dreary and create a sense of fear within the player.

The colour black is also used quite often with the colour white to display text.  As they are the opposites of the scale, one reflects the most light and the other absorbs the most.  So by putting black text on the top of a white background or white text on a black background helps the player by making the text visibly clearer (this will be further discussed in a later article).

Grey

Just like black grey is associated with dull, drained and lifeless feelings.  Greys are now being used more often in death sequences of games when the player dies.  So the colour in the game window represents life and being alive whereas when you die the window is drained of colour like in Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto IV (this will be discussed further in a later article).

The PS3 title Heavy Rain uses greys and dark colours to create a dreary environment shown in the screenshot below.  Immediately you get the sense of a cold, damp and unpleasant environment.

Yellow

Like red, yellow also has a double meaning with some people.  To some yellow is associated with brightness, the summer and warmth.  Also because it reflects light more than other colours it is generally used as a text colour against black backgrounds.

Yellow is also associated with warnings like biohazard signs. As the amber light on traffic lights suggests to pedestrians to be wary that the lights are soon about to change to green and they need to be clear of the road.

Games like the popular World of Warcraft use the warning association with the colour yellow by using it to tinge plagued and diseased areas to highlight to a player that this area is not completely safe to be in.

Pink

Pink has also been used more in games over the past ten years.   Pink has mostly been associated with fun and baby girls but recently more people especially men have been adopting more pink products.  Games companies have even used this colour to their advantage by colouring their consoles in a variety of shades of pink to help widen their market and sell their products to young girls who previously would not have touched consoles.  So pink is definitely having a bigger impact on the world.

Within actual games pink, like white has been used to make certain objects stand out to players and show that they are not a part of the norm.  In Halo 2 and 3 pink (and other exotic colours) are used to signify aliens weapons like the Needler.

Colour can be a very powerful thing when used correctly especially when implemented games. So make sure that when you use colours in your games you think about the meanings associated with them.

All the information contained within this post has been gathered from research carried out and my own opinions. If you wish to see references for this articles please contact me.

2 Comments on Colour within Game Design: Colours with Meaning

  1. Very interesting article! When you mentioned colour being used in health bars it reminded me that in some games colour is negating the need for a health bar entirely. For example in Uncharted, as you take on damage colour is slowly drained from the entire game world and restored if you recover. I like the Halo example…as you play the game you can always tell what’s alien and what isn’t be it environments,weapons or vehicles simply by the colour scheme.

  2. Nice brief and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you for your information.

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