In the world of PC peripherals, RGB lighting is ubiquitous. The gentle, kaleidoscope glow of a keyboard in a dimly-lit room is so synonymous with gaming; it's almost become a caricature.
But, despite that, it’s often unclear why consumers - and specifically gamers - desire, enjoy and prefer RGB lighting on their gear to the alternative. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to trace where and when the trend first began nor find the rationale for it.
So what’s the deal? Why do so many gamers and gaming brands salivate over the idea of embedding RGB LED bulbs on their mice, keyboards, headsets and even speakers?
According to Dr Marcus Carter, Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures at The University of Sydney, the answer is borne out of both practicality on the part of manufacturers and a sense of pride on the part of consumers.
Speaking to PC World, he says that part of the answer lies in the history around the development and evolution of LED bulbs as a technology.
“LEDs first became available in the 1960’s in red, then green, then orange/yellow, and it took until the mid 1990’s until blue LEDs were possible. When you can make blue, you can make any colour, and this is why the invention of the Blue LED won a Nobel prize in 2014.”
“So, in the 1990’s as custom computer electronics was emerging, blue, as the new colour on the block, became the most popular. Blue has also always been associated with sci-fi, and representations of the future because it is a colour that is rare in organic matter.”
The other half of the story here is that the aesthetics of PC gaming ‘battlestations’ often reflect the relationship between gaming and the materiality of computing.
In a talk given at DIGRAAA 2015 called The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Wall-Mounted, Water-Cooled and LED-Colored Battlestation, Carter and colleagues drew on parallels between the culture around computers and car culture. They made the argument that “battlestations are not just sites of media consumption, but expressions of a culture of creative and vernacular production. “
“Like custom cars, the long hours of labor involved in constructing a battlestation serve to demonstrate technical prowess and cultural capital within a masculine subculture that finds pleasure in intimate and performative technology relations.”
Still, Carter says, “that doesn’t really give us an answer for why RGBs are popular now.”
“Maybe because RGBs are customizable to any colour, and thus to fit any overall room/machine aesthetic? It's still a flex, because it's more expensive than a single RGB colour, but I’m sure that’s not the whole story. Maybe an evolutionary psychologist would argue it's because we like flashy shiny things!”
For another perspective on this, we reached out to Dr. Jane Gavan, a senior lecturer at the Sydney College of the Arts, who specialises in how light is used in design, art, and product innovation contexts.
According to her research on daylight fluorescent colour in commercial applications, “these colours are often used to mark out the owner as being a person who owns more than one version of something. A luminous keyboard has a certain status appeal.”
“You see lots of gamers buying these keyboards, it has formed part of the identity of that cultural group.”
As well as signifying something novel, new or cutting edge, Gavan also speculates that there could be “some imperceptible improvement for gamers who use these keyboards.”
“Although most gamers are touch typing,the ability to program keys could potentially optimise performance, as the eye sees colour so much faster than we see text.”
When looking at the glitzy battlestations of modern PC gaming, it’s also very easy to think about the shared imagery between gaming and gambling. After all, the stereotype of a gamer sitting alone in a bedroom lit by RGB lighting isn’t that far from the portrait of a slot machine addict sitting in a casino or RSL.
Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury, Co-Director of the University of Sydney Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic says that “there is some evidence that lights and sounds impact gambling – in that it makes the games more attractive, entertaining, and entrancing to the point that it can be immersive, or that it creates a type of conditioned response such that there is a positive reaction to the machines which may lengthen a gambling session.”
“However, lights and sounds are interrelated with other aspects of gambling products, which likely play a stronger role in any conditioned learning response such as intermittent reinforcement schedules.”
It’s important to note that current evidence suggests that these resemblances between the two hobbies don’t necessarily play much of a role when it comes to how addictive they can be.
According to Gainsbury, “It would be a stretch to say that the lights in isolation play a huge role in addictive behaviours. But, lights and sounds heighten enjoyment and positive association with the products.”
From the perspective of RGB accessory maker Logitech, the argument for why go RGB over the alternatives comes down to giving customers the ability to express themselves.
Speaking to PC World, Logitech Australia's Cluster Category Manager of Logitech G, Astro and Blue Microphones Daniel Hall says that “first and foremost, it’s about customisation.”
“The advantage [of RGB] being that rather than just being set to one color from the factory, you get 16.8 million colors to choose from, so it’s really up to your own imagination. Then, through software, you can then specify those colors per key, in zones or per game or application. I think a lot of people tend to do it to express themselves.”
Hall describes the difference between the Logitech G413 gaming keyboard - which featured single-color LED backlighting - and the almost identical Logitech G512 gaming keyboard - which featured full-RGB backlighting as “night and day.”
According to him, “It really showed it is what consumers are wanting. They are looking for that full customisation, either for the aesthetics or for the functionality.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that RGB lighting has been so steadily adopted by the gaming influencers and streamers. Hall says that “ it plays a big part in that personalisation and expression of who they are as a person.”
“Influencers are 100% looking for that customisation in RGB lighting. You’ll see that a lot of influencers nowadays - game streamers specifically - have RGB of all sorts in their scene. Not only on their peripherals but behind them you’ll see they have RGB strip lighting or RGB panels so that people can see it on their stream.”
Asked whether the technology behind RGB keyboards has much room for improvement or evolution, Hall says yes.
“Nothing is never perfect.”
He cites Logitech’s G560 speakers as one path forward, with RGB lighting finding a life beyond just mice, keyboards and other obvious places. Another possibility he suggests is that new technologies like OLED could create new creative possibilities that grow beyond the limits of traditional LED bulbs.
Razer’s director of marketing and development for software, Kushal Tandon told us much of the same story.
The gaming accessory brand first publicly announced its Chroma RGB lighting ecosystem at Gamescom 2014. Prior to that, Razer products were either lit in Blue or green accents.
“Today, an overwhelming majority of our products that are sold are Chroma RGB enabled and it is the most requested for feature within all our hardware categories. Customers like Chroma RGB due to the personalization capabilities it brings across all devices. Our research shows that a majority of gamers prefer to have all of their devices in sync with unified lighting effects.”
Another detail that Razer say emerged through their research into the relationship that consumers with RGB lighting is the notion of a smart desktop.
“Our research shows that gamers also want their PC to be the central hub to control everything around them. With Razer Synapse IOT and Razer Chroma RGB we’ve been able to give them the ability to control every device in and around their setup to communicate and interact with each other in real time.”
Tandon also cites the ambitions of developers as another factor behind the popularity of RGB lighting ecosystems like Chroma.
“Game developers wanted their games to be more immersive in order to stand out, and with Razer Chroma we enabled a way for these developers to bring the game beyond the screen and into the entire room.”
Even if you’re someone who doesn't care about RGB lighting, the enduring popularity of the feature gives credence to the notion that creativity is an inherently human trait.
As simple and obvious as it might seem and sound, most gamers probably like RGB lighting because it gives them a say. The opportunity to turn something mass produced into an object that looks more unique or bespoke.
RGB lighting allows a gaming keyboard to be more than just the function it serves.