Color Theory in Games – An Overview

In this blog post, we will be going over why it is important for game developers to have a good understanding of color and meanings associated with color. As we know video games are one of the most visual platforms in existence. They require 3D models, textures, sprites, or even pixel art to build a world and communicate that world’s functionality to the player.

Game Designers, Artists, and even Programmers should have a basic understanding of color usage when making games so that they can effectively communicate to the important world information to the player.

This post was written with games in mind, however, the general topics discussed in this post can be applied to (almost) any project made with Unity or for digital consumption.

What is color used for in games?

Color is one of the elements of a game that gets taken for granted until one has to think about it. In a game, color is used for more than just drawing the world. Color is used to build visual harmony (or dissonance) throughout an environment.

Without color, a player may not notice what is interactive versus what is part of the environment. The player may also not realize that instead of a friendly being next to them it is actually an enemy. Without effective color systems games wouldn’t be able to visually guide players to suggested actions and gameplay would be inhibited.

Color for Visual Appeal

Let’s face it, games can look really good. Along with unique creation techniques (such as modeling and pixel art techniques), a game’s visual designer can use color to make a game visually appealing and distinct. One post-processing technique which helps to keep a game’s visual style cohesive is color grading. Color grading can be defined as:

Color grading is the process of altering and enhancing a game’s perceived colors.

An example of using color grading to enhance the coloring of a game would be LUTs or Look Up Textures. The Unity Manual describes LUTs as:

“[A] Color Correction Lut (Lut stands for lookup texture) is an optimized way of performing color grading in a post effect.”

By utilizing color grading and other techniques to manipulate a game’s on-screen color scheme, game developers can build unique, cohesive visual styles.

Color for Signifying Faction

When we see certain colors we instantly have thoughts associated with those colors come to mind. When you see red you may start thinking about fire, stop signs, or passion. When you see blue you may have thoughts associated with relaxation or sadness.

The psychology of a color can “hint” to players an object’s faction (good versus evil). When most gamers see a red crosshair on their screen they instantly think to fire. However, if the player sees a green crosshair they know that it is a teammate and they shouldn’t fire. Combining the crosshair of a sight with a color that means danger instinctively makes a player want to shoot at the target. While using a color that’s more natural and softer signals a friendly relation to the player.

Color for Communicating Function

Game developers can also use color psychology to communicate to players what the purpose of an object is. This can range from red or green for objects that have to deal with health to using blue for objects that deal with shield or mana.

Effective color systems for games use both players’ biases towards certain colors in relation to games and the designer’s intent with an object to communicate with players.

Color for World Building and Traversal

Color may also be used to build the actual world within a game. Think of a game such as Limbo where the background of the game which the player can’t interact with is white, while objects that are interactive use dark, black shades. 

Another example is classic Super Mario Bros. The background is blue and mostly empty while the foreground and even the player’s character is orange and warmer (the complementary or opposite of blue) to show that it is in the foreground and thus immediately relevant to the player. 

By offsetting, colors with each other designer’s can help build a perceivable world for players to enjoy.

Color for Emotion Building

Our emotions or perceived “mood” can be directly affected by the colors that we see. Remember those moments in games when you saw a sunset and felt more relaxed? Or what about when you were traveling through dark, almost-black hallways waiting for something appear?

Games use color to build emotion and immerse players in an environment. By manipulating the colors in an environment developers can make it seem more mysterious (purple), colder (white/blue), radiated (dark/bright greens), or any other feeling.


Colors like sound, code, and art are vitally important within the context of a game. They can make or break a game’s visual appeal. They can help immerse players in an environment or they can even communicate to players an item’s use. By understanding how to use color for different purposes a developer can build a better communication between the game and the player.

“A good game developer understands color theory, a great game developer makes color theory work for them.”

Next Post

Color Theory in Games Part II – Color Basics

In the next blog post, we will go over Color Theory basics such as the color wheel and what warm and cool colors are. We’ll also learn about color harmony formulas for creating basic color systems.

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