From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Hide and Seek: How a Colour can Change a Game

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to study games from an alternative point of view? Well, I thought so anyway. Instead of looking at games from a broad perspective I supposed that studying an insanely tiny detail could produce interesting results. Not the graphics, not the shading, and not even the colour. No, one colour in particular: red. In fact, not even the appearance of the colour, but the symbolism it expresses.

It is not my intention to discuss the way red is used in games. It’s been done before. Besides, I assume that’s not too difficult to throw a guess at: health bars (often hearts) are red, violence (blood) appears red, danger (lava, for example) is frequently portrayed in red. In short: red draws attention. What I’m wondering is not whether the literal meaning of red can change a game, because it does. I’m wondering whether the psychological meaning of red can change a game as well.

Why red? Well, it happens to be the first colour that came to mind. I can come up with some better reasons though: red’s bright, it’s attractive, and it’s a primary colour. Besides that, in women, it symbolizes love and romance; in men, it symbolizes power. (According to society’s associations anyway.) Still, red isn’t a gender-specific colour, like pink. When a game is dominated by red scenery this doesn’t mean the graphic designer happened to be male or female. Red stands for more than that. Because red signifies so much, this would be a reason for the colour to be prominently displayed in games. Is it? (Mind, the point right now is not whether we care.) I put it to the (completely unscientifically and disorganized) test.

Part 1: Heroes & Enemies
Looking at myself seemed like a good start (I’m conveniently close by after all). Does the colour red stand out in the games I play? If so, in which way? Does it present itself in cute fluffy animals, or in pools of blood? I’m a cute and fluffy pacifist so I can already determine that blood doesn’t feature much in the games I play. That says something about me though, not the colour. In any case, for the purpose of my world-changing report, I’ll try to select a personality-neutral game. I’m a pixel artist, so how about Mario?

One of the most recognizable characters in the world of games is Mario. Is it a coincidence that he is partly dressed in red?

He’s the main character in (most of) his games, he’s a man, he’s the guy that saves the (annoyingly) helpless princess. Looking back at the first paragraph it is definitely possible to conclude that red symbolizes Mario’s power and sets him apart as a main character, a hero.

In the screenshot you can see the objects that catch the eye are coloured red: health, Mario, the enemy. Even my arrows to indicate those things had to be red, because white or green just doesn’t stand out. The background is calm and quiet in blue. In the past, red has been chosen as a colour of revolution (socialism), which can be compared to Mario, who is a revolutionary kind of leader. Red is the colour of anger, which can be seen in the Piranha Plant. I can also trail off in to an explanation and comparison how red is a colour of courage and sacrifice, and how Mario and the Piranha Plant represent this, but lets’ move on for now.

Part 2: Freedom & Restriction
There’s more to the world of games than the Gameboy the Playstation. Another game I like to play is football (also known as soccer to Americans). This isn’t (always) a carefully designed game. Individual players can make surprising moves; it embodies complete freedom: you can run anywhere you wish. It’s the world computer games try to mimic, but can’t just yet. Curiously, all this movement in the game is restricted by colour.

In the photos you can see my local football team. Although incidentally the teams both dress in red (one had to change to black for contrast), this obviously doesn’t mean anything when it comes to football. Football isn’t (usually) fixed on fashion statements. However, football is about the gameplay, and there’s one thing that makes a drastically clear and crucial statement: the red card. It’s red because it stands out, yes, and because it is a warning… but also because red is a symbol of battle and a symbol of finalization. The red card violently reacts to the foul the player made: the player is forced to leave the field.

Part 3: Emotion & Entertainment
Surprisingly, I am capable of more than just googling some images. Thus, I entered the local toy store. (Unfortunately, living in a small village, that’s the only place where games are available.) The reason for this, is that I was curious whether red would be conspicuous on a wall with games. Of course I knew the answer beforehand, but, as shown above, anyone can google images to make their point, so here’s the real and unaltered proof:

Notice that the discount stickers are red too. Already having established that red draws attention, I wondered whether these game covers could mean more than that. Red has been associated with varying emotions and images for centuries. Wassily Kandinsky painted colours he heard in music: a tree would be red, if that was the emotion the music expressed. The imperial purple Roman emperors wore was in essence a shade of blood-red; a symbol for might and respect. Game boxes aren’t just red because it’s a colour that catches the eye; bright green would do the same job. The boxes are also predominantly red because the feeling they should evoke in the viewer: potential, pleasure and passion.

Perhaps choosing to look at a colour like green or turquoise provides interesting insights as well. Red is obviously a very popular and symbolic colour, not to mention rooted deep in game design history (remember, once upon a time the amount of colours in games were restricted). Personally, I enjoyed analysing such an obscurely small detail, and discovering it can make a difference.

Back to the point of caring though: yeah, if the game’s good, I’ll play it in black and white as well. However, if a colour like red can make a game better, then that’s all the more fun. Even though Mario probably wasn’t made to resemble a socialist leader, other games sometimes do utilize the symbolism of colours… and then imagine how your view on Mario would change if he became Karl Marx in your mind. Colours can add emotion and relevance to a world that’s otherwise oriented around entertainment and cold hard money. I like to think there are many layers of hidden meaning behind that world, one of which can be found in the colour red.

Born in the Netherlands and a survivor of several schools, Zenobia plans to study Ancient History & Classical Archaeology in the UK, with a special interest in Classics and other ancient languages. Since studying has kept her quite occupied she opted out of a paper round and instead found freelance jobs as a pixel artist online. Creating games means that she has also been trying very hard to learn how to play them. Besides an aspiring gamer, she is a traveler, a writer, a vegetarian and an optimist. Some of her writing has been published and she has won some tiny awards, but as they’d say in Latin ‘verba, non facta’ (words, not deeds).

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