The Auditory Quandary of Gaming Today

When you turn on your TV to consume shows, movies, or games, do you prefer to keep the subtitles on even if you can, by all accounts, hear well? According to this recent and interesting video from Vox, you aren’t alone. Not that I needed Vox to reveal this – my social media feeds are full of folks talking about regular subtitle use, and a number of folks without hearing issues in my own social circle have long preferred them. In a similar vein, what about headphones? How regularly do you use them when watching TV or playing games? I must admit that the Vox video got me thinking about that, and how my own use of headphones, especially when gaming, has skyrocketed in the past few years. Honestly, I don’t know if I could game without them now.

The Vox video spoke specifically to the modern advances and challenges of sound mixing in movies, and video game sound mixers no doubt face some of the same types of trials. If you played Mass Effect from the Mass Effect Legendary Edition when it first released, for example, you might recall how extremely loud it was to travel in and warp out of a mass relay. (This was loud in the original game, but not quite as earsplitting as it was in the re-release, at least to my ears.) I remember having to turn the sound down on my headphones every time that scene played. This caused a minor uproar among fans, and BioWare kindly released a patch to fix it. Me having to fiddle with sounds, which I always do now upon starting any game – for one, turning dialogue/voices all the way up – is a relatively new habit. The same goes with console sounds generally. I don’t ever recall changing system sounds on any console pre-PS4/Xbox One/Switch, but here I am now doing it almost regularly on in PS5.

While I don’t doubt that I’m slowly losing some hearing, part of me remains in awe that there was once a time when I would play a game straight out of the box without making a single change to any audio settings whatsoever. And, at the same time, that I’d fully enjoy the game’s sounds through the speakers in my 100-pound television or ancient IBM PC. “Youth is wasted on the young,” as they say, but what I wouldn’t give for such a time again. Instead, I will adjust, re-adjust, and re-adjust again sound setting until I get the perfect mix for my imperfect ears, and yes, it will always be done through headphones, earbuds, a microphone headset, or whatever preferred device of the current moment that that readily carries audio wavelengths directly to my ears. Otherwise, how in the heck would I ever hear someone sneaking up behind me, or that great piece of background music, or any dialogue ever?!

This goes back to the use of subtitles, and I’ll admit that I somewhat stubbornly prefer to play (or watch TV) without them. I’d rather concentrate on making my ears work and closely watching a scene rather than deferring to subtitles. (This only changes when I’m recording a game for our channel; the subtitles are then on no matter what.) Of course, a lot of games have and have had subtitles anyway, so when they are there, they’re there. But, if the choice is given to turn them off, off is how I roll. Maybe this will change at some point, a point when I become sick and tired of adjusting audio settings over and over, but even that, subtitles don’t help when a game is poorly mixed to begin with. Not that I’m pointing fingers, or anything, but I sure would love it if Bethesda would get its audio act together. For the sake of my eardrums, its games are the ones I always have to tweak the most and the most frequently.

It’s no wonder that subtitles and audio issues are part of today’s gaming (and general entertainment) landscape. While the current sea of games remains vast and varied, there’s no denying the industry’s turn towards making big, dialogue-heavy, and cinematic titles, for better or worse. When I choose to play one of these games, I also make the choice to bend it to my needs, when I’m provided with choice, that is. More and more games are being built with different accessibly options when it comes to video and audio, but that’s not an across-the-board occurrence. As such, I don’t see myself giving up on my external audio devices any time soon. I guess I could make the case for “immersion” and all, but really, I just want to hear a game – the parts that I want to hear while filtering out that which I don’t – enough to enjoy it. Because there may very well come a time when the simple act of gaming may take me more work to set up than less.

What are your audio preferences when it comes to games? Do you keep the subtitles on or your headphones close by or some other combination depending on the game?

Lede image by Flickr user Mitch (CC BY-NC 2.0)

One Comment

  1. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    Though I’ve never claimed to have perfect hearing, I must admit that I’m glad I’m not alone in my opinion that it’s getting harder and harder to hear what’s coming out of my TV these days. As such, and as I discussed recently on Virtual Bastion, when gaming, you’ll never find me without the most precious peripheral of them all — a good set of headphones!


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