Sometimes you’ll try to play a video game on your TV and it just feels wrong. Your button presses aren’t responsive enough and, before you know it, you’re staring at a “game over” screen. You may not know it, but even older TVs have an easy fix for this.
Allow me to introduce you to “Game Mode.” It’s a setting that has existed in TVs for many years, from that old, barely HD set you’ve carried with you since your dorm room days to that shiny, new 4K display you just got on a holiday sale. And turning it on could fix all of your problems.
But before we fix problems, we have to diagnose them. Game Mode primarily exists to address something called “input lag,” so it’s time for a bit of education if you don’t know what that is.
What is input lag?
Have you ever played a video game and felt like your character was moving through molasses? When you press a button to swing a sword, shoot a gun, or just open a door, is there a noticeable amount of time between the button press and the action playing out on screen? If so, congratulations! You’re experiencing input lag, one of the very worst things that can happen in a video game.
To be clear, a tiny amount of input lag is going to exist as long as modern game consoles rely on wireless controllers. It takes time to wirelessly send a signal, after all. But if everything works correctly, the delay will be too small for a large majority of players to even notice. Most contemporary games are pretty forgiving with their timing windows for this reason, and both the PS5 and Xbox Series X claim to have less input latency than their predecessors.
If you’re experiencing seriously noticeable delays whenever you press buttons, it’s possible that your TV is responsible, not the console or controller. That’s where Game Mode comes in.
What does Game Mode do to fix that?
Image: rocket league / screenshot
Some TV manufacturers have support pages on their websites to outline what, exactly, Game Mode does on their displays. Let’s look at Roku, which doesn’t make TVs but partners with companies that do, like TCL for an example.
A simple description of Game Mode is that it turns off some inessential visual bells and whistles to reduce the time between your button presses and actions playing out on screen.
Let’s get slightly less simple for a minute. You see, many TVs employ all sorts of processing effects to punch up the picture quality beyond what the source — be it cable TV, a Blu-Ray disc, or a streaming service — provides. Some of these are just rotten and should be turned off immediately whether you play video games or not, like motion smoothing. That’s the one that makes every show and movie you watch look unnaturally smooth like a soap opera.
Other effects, like noise reduction, can make old shows or movies look less grainy. That’s another one you should arguably turn off altogether, but hey, maybe you like it that way. Regardless, all of these things can introduce a few milliseconds of latency that you might not notice if you’re just watching TV, but you’ll definitely notice if you play games.
Turning on your TV’s Game Mode will disable these non-essential processing effects to cut down on unnecessary lag. The end result is a picture that might look a little less polished or refined because the TV isn’t doing anything fancy to it, but will almost certainly feel significantly more responsive. In gaming, that’s what matters most.
Are there any reasons I shouldn’t turn on Game Mode?
In as few words as possible: No.
In some more words: Probably not, unless you’re fine with the way games look and feel on your TV when Game Mode isn’t enabled. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. If you’ve been gaming without Game Mode for years and you don’t have any problems with that, by all means, keep doing what you’ve been doing.
But I would suggest at least trying it. I know that when I finally bit the bullet and gave Game Mode a shot, games felt noticeably better without looking noticeably worse. The same might (and likely will) happen for you. After all, if you don’t like it, you can just turn it off. Just don’t blame me if your performance lags behind the competition because of latency.