Engaging all the senses is something easier said than done in the context of your typical gaming session. While we can plan specific NPC mannerisms, locales, or even subtle clues about the environment to make them even more engaging, on more than one occasion I’ve been a victim of being caught up in the moment and leaving those languishing on the adventure table, unused. Plus, as I recently wrote in depth in Engine Publishing ’s newly announced book, Unframed , different people absorb information in different ways. Your methodology should, ideally, account for those learning styles.
So, with that said, let’s talk about using color in your games. Oh, not in the way I spoke about in the past ; no, I’m mean, let’s actually use color at your game!
Not Your Parent’s Lightbulb
You may be familiar with the Philips Hue  line of lighting products. There are some similarly-designed offerings but the Hue system is the most pervasive. As such, I’ll be referring to “Hue” throughout this article but it conceptually refers to the iLumi  and LIFX  products as well. At its core, these are nothing more than an LED light that connects wirelessly to a bridge attached to your home network. That bridge, in turn, can be controlled via a portal located locally on, say, your phone or even online through a web interface. This magic allows the LEDs to simulate some 16 million colors with various color temperatures and lumens based on the light model. The interesting part is that the API (for Hue ) is based on ZigBee  Light Link (ZBLL), so you can use a number of different apps to do interesting things or program your own activities (“recipes”).
Now, before you pass out from sticker shock—the Phillips Hue starter pack will set you back  roughly $200 and bulbs about $60—remember that these are LED lights, the latest in home lighting towards the move of depreciating incandescent light bulbs entirely . Primarily they’re more efficient in their wattage draw and because you can control them intelligently, you can make them even more energy efficient. Of course, you’re also paying a premium for the color-switching capabilities. In short, this isn’t a product for everyone and it won’t change your life, but it is pretty damn cool!
Let There Be Light
I’m no scientist or psychiatrist but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last week, so I’ll defer to the marketing materials and general consensus that light and color affects your mood . There’s a reason for the red power suit in politics , how the paint on your walls can modify your behavior , and those who are clinically depressed during certain seasons can benefit  from additional light sources. So, does it actually work?
Well, in the past few weeks I’ve been using Hue in my home office I can say yes, with a few caveats. First, the Hue lighting app does come with various light “scenes” that are used to affect mood. One is “concentrate” which uses a blue-white tone at roughly 80% of lumen capacity to bathe you in a “sharp” light. It’s difficult to explain—and I’m not sure what color temperature range it uses—but the end result is a much different feel than several hours under “relax,” a lighter, “warmer” tone that lulls you. In short, it does work, and after some time you put it out of your mind and just get used to the lighting conditions. Unfortunately the bulb’s lumen capability is lower than a typical 60-watt bulb (800 lm vs 600 lm), so unless you’re in perfect conditions—like an enclosed room with no windows—the bulbs are competing against the ambient light. One doesn’t provide enough light to be perceptible during the day and two is barely adequate. So this can get pretty pricy, pretty quickly. But then, I wouldn’t advise swapping out every bulb in your house with Hue, only those that you could benefit from its capabilities. Also, the bulbs don’t retain their settings between uses (powering off at the switch). Most people view this as a downside, I don’t, however. When you turn on a Hue bulb at the switch it’s a normal light bulb; you have to use the app to have it do something specific.
So, comfortable with the science of lighting, how can we use it in a gaming setting?
Not Flying Cars, But Close…
Okay, it’s really damn cool to use Hue. Like laughably cool and fun! You can make the room glow blood red or dim it down to the barest of lighting conditions. You can have the heat of a blazing sun bearing down upon you, or a dying white dwarf casting its blue-white spectrum. It’s just frigging cool!
As previously mentioned, since the API is open source a number of creative folks have stepped up to provide additional programming options. Just using the API and an uplink like IFTTT  you could do the following as a matter of example:
- Set an alarm for the lights to turn on or off
- Have the lights slowly ramp up to a setting or ramp down to off over a span of time
- Turn on when you enter a geo-fence
- Blink at an action, like someone tags you on Facebook
- Flash if a connected sensor in your basement detects water
- Pulse in accordance with input, such as sound
- Much, much more!
For gaming purposes there are a few as well, powered by various applications. These are just some ideas I have but haven’t had a chance to use at the gaming table, yet.
During your Star Trek game, when the ship goes to Red Alert, play the klaxon alarm and strobe the lighting red! You can also have individual lights do different things, so one bulb dims to provide passive lighting while the second one does the red strobe. When you go to auxiliary power, dim to a steady red glow.
Play in a modern game? Well, you definitely need to work a disco or dance club into your adventure! Take an app on your phone and play music in the background; the microphone will pick up the sound and strobe the lights! You can set the color range and intensity or let the app decide and rotate through colors.
Doing a musty dungeon delve? Turn your bulbs into flickering torches, casting random light and shadows across the gaming table, providing ample ambiance.
Outside in a thunderstorm? Do the inverse of the disco party above and have the light dim and pulse upwards with weather sound effects. The thunderclap makes the light intensity spike up.
Pull out your best “God voice” and have the light in the room vary in intensity with the sound of your voice. Use different colors for different speakers. So when your lawful good deity speaks it can be blue-white, when the chaotic evil deity speaks you can plug in a similarly-appropriate sinister color.
You could even simply adjust the lighting to reflect the day/night cycle in your game, providing that subtle clue as to the atmosphere.
Now many of these you could do on the fly but the best way is to pre-program in your “recipes”—as they’re called—ahead of time. Nearly all the apps support this and some, like doing specific “If-Then-Else” functions, demand it. But with a little prep in your adventure writing, you can leverage the Hue as just another option in your quiver.
Specific to the Philips Hue brand there are also some additional options: Hue Lightstrips and the Hue Bloom . The Lightstrips are exactly what they sound like and are useful for background lighting. So you could put a Lightstrip around the underside of your gaming table and keep the ambient light in the room “normal” (whatever that may be) and modify the strip to give a more subtle effect without affecting people’s ability to see. I think Lightstrip applications could be another article all on their own. They’re cool and flexible!
The Bloom isn’t as versatile and is a simple throw light to accent a wall, bookcase, or area in the room. For me, I could put it behind the GM’s seat to throw light up from behind me and use that as the effect lighting for the scene. The Bloom could be interesting for shadow creation, disabling the overhead lighting and using the Bloom to “bounce” light off the walls to illuminate the room.
Hopefully this gives you a taste of some of the potential applications of this technology at the gaming table. I won’t presume to imply that your games will become magically better, only that, amongst the myriad of tools available to us as GMs that here is another one ripe to be explored.
I’d be remiss to not acknowledge that color-blind gamers may actually find these lighting options detrimental to their enjoyment, so plan accordingly.
If anyone else uses dynamic lighting in your game please share with us below! I’ll follow up in a few months time with an update as to how it’s worked in my own games.
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