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Is DCI-P3 better than sRGB for gaming?

DCI-P3 has a color gamut at least 25% wider than sRGB.

There’s no simple answer to the question posed in the headline. A lot of that has to do with just how subjective vision is and the ways perception of color varies between individuals. But we’re here to discuss color spaces in gaming and gaming monitors. Well, that subjectivity can’t be eluded using something as simple as a QTE as there’s quite a lot of background to it so strap in.

DCI-P3 and sRGB represent color spaces or color gamut. They attempt to scientifically represent natural color as seen by the human eye for the purposes of reproducing color. That includes the monitor or TV on which you enjoy your gaming. Color space definitions arrive from many organizations and associations worldwide, but arguably the most important has to be CIE 1931. The International Commission for Lighting in 1931 formulated the modern definition of standard RGB, otherwise known as sRGB. That standard remains by far the dominant color format for Windows, Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and every other gaming platform you can think of. Game developers create graphic assets in sRGB with almost none even considering other color space definitions.

But the truth is that RGB obviously dates back to early in the previous century. The format reached its max potential with 8-bit, 16.7 million color displays, and that’s what we have in games. It’s also why all those pulsating lights on everything from case fans to gaming mice go by “RGB lighting”, since they’re limited to a 16.7 color definition.

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, or SMPTE, and a group of major movie studios created a much wider color gamut called DCI-P3 in the late 2000s. It stands for Digital Cinema Initiatives – Protocol 3 and pairs beautifully with 10-bit, 1.07 billion color displays. While sRBG emerged in the days of standard definition, DCI-P3 and its relative Rec. 2020 were created for ultra HD and HDR. We have a lot more about bit depth and color spaces if you’re interested.

sRGB and DCI-P3 don’t come close to capturing the “true” spectrum of human color perception. By most estimations and with CIE 1931 as an index, sRGB covers just over a third while DCI-P3 comes close to about half of human color sensitivity. But the technological effort to get there continues.

If you want a bottom line right now, it’s that sRGB works fine for gaming because games are created with sRGB by default. Unlike movies, TV shows, pro photography, and design, where DCI-P3 and other wide gamut formats have become the norm. However, while sRGB definitely suffices for gaming, DCI-P3 may be up your alley because it saturates colors and some people enjoy that effect. 

DCI-P3: the space of the future

Without sounding rude, sRGB is very 20th century. DCI-P3 appears on a growing number of monitors and TVs as it’s just the way things are headed. Why not show more colors and richer images if you can? Sticking to sRGB kind of comes across as lazy if you stop to think about it. But industries do have to consider wide compatibility, and because regular RGB has become so prevalent, creating games in that color space pretty much guarantees consistent results on any screen. Sadly, those results may be consistent, but they don’t look as good as they could.

You see (pun notice), DCI-P3 has a color gamut at least 25% wider than sRGB. That could make a big difference. Imagine an in-game bonfire. With sRGB that bonfire looks OK but with DCI-P3 it’s considerably closer to what a real life bonfire would look like. The same applies to any color. Pick one and with DCI-P3 it’ll appear more vivid and intense than in plain old RGB. We just got used to RGB (or standard RGB) to the point of resting on our laurels. Comfort breeds complacence and all that.

With DCI-P3, graphic artists get more room to showcase creativity. The movie, TV, and professional imagery industries figured this out years ago, but game developers seem to lag behind. So while display makers continue to add support for wide color gamut standards like DCI-P3, at the moment it’s true developers aren’t in a hurry to make use of that support.

But DCI-P3 is the future of color on your screen, there’s no doubt about that. 

Looking ahead in color and ready for what’s to come

As 4K UHD and ever-improved HDR firmly move from the previous realm of the exotic to the mainstream, DCI-P3 and similarly endowed color spaces become a necessity. RGB will soon finally feel limiting enough to prod developers in the right direction. As we write this in early 2020, we look forward to new graphics cards with drivers that reliably support more than just RGB and of course new game consoles that operate with 4K and HDR as their baseline. That advancement will compel developers to adopt wider color spaces.

That means getting a monitor with an 8-bit panel and just sRGB support right now makes little sense and offers no futureproofing. Going for 10-bit or higher panels with DCI-P3 provides the peace of mind of knowing you’re ready for when wide color gamut support becomes a must-have. Also, you can start experimenting with color spaces right now if you have a DCI-P3 monitor. Hook up your PC or console and select DCI-P3. Your monitor will then upconvert sRGB input into DCI-P3, resulting in saturated colors. You may like what you see. Some people find the effect exaggerated, others think it’s great.

With an sRGB-only display you don’t have the option of testing this out for yourself. And with price differences continuing to decrease, you should definitely go with a monitor that offers DCI-P3. It’ll also have sRGB obviously for current gaming, since DCI-P3 includes sRGB. The reverse isn’t true, leading to a very clear conclusion: go with DCI-P3 even if right now at this very moment it doesn’t do anything for your gaming. It will soon enough. 

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