The Scent, the Smell of Gaming
Smell is said to be one of our most emotionally powerful senses, with even just a light waft of scent capable of instantaneously transporting us back through time and space to the important people, places, and times in our lives. The scent of the hallways on the first day of school, seductive aroma of your favorite home-cooked meal, the musk of your date’s hair - Smells take us there wholly, instantly, and almost unwillingly. But for all the power that this old animalistic sense holds over our brain, it is one that is seldom exploited by our entertainment media. With the exception of the occasional olfactory experiment, smell has been left almost entirely untapped by TV and cinema, and only recently has any attempt been made to incorporate this sense into the virtual worlds of video games.
Into this void of aromatic sensation, fall the scents of the actual physical game media themselves. Every gamer knows that most delicious scent – the sickly-sweet petroleum-y smell of new plastic, laced with a slight hint of acrid solder: the smell of new electronics, the smell of games. Just a whiff of this scent, be it from a recently unwrapped LittleBigPlanet Game of the Year Edition, carried by chance in the breeze, or blasted in all its air-conditioned goodness through the automatic doors of Best Buy, makes the gamer’s heart beat just a little bit faster, and shoots a spike of excitement through their stomach. It is the smell of the gateway between our world and the virtual worlds, between our daily lives and our digital dreams. It is a herald of long-promised fun, of new discoveries, of limitless adventure.
Perhaps one facet that makes the new electronics smell so compelling is its fleetness. The new electronics smell, perhaps not surprisingly, only sticks with our media for a short period (at which point, our new devices presumably become simply devices). While unable to say what precise chemicals are responsible for this aroma, a brief survey of the web seems to indicate that these scents, similarly to the phthalates of new car smell, are likely the result of chemicals being released from the new plastics, adhesives, and solder and circuit board coatings from which they are constructed. Heat is often cited as increasing the speed and intensity at which these chemicals are released and at which they begin to disperse from a new product. However this smell is caused, and whatever the cause of its decline, new electronics and new games slowly lose this intoxicating scent.
At this stage, a more mellow, calming earthy-sweet scent, spiced with just a hint of rubber and metal rises to the forefront of the gamer’s awareness: The smell of high-quality printing, glossy ink, and cardstock. This aroma lingers about the pages of instruction manuals, strategy guides, comics, collectible cards, and over the promotional fliers and brochures of the convention. While not as immediately compelling as the scent of new electronics, the smell of these printed artifacts stays with the material almost indefinitely and thus provides the sampler with a different and broader swath of memories and sensations. Rather than announcing new adventures and ripe crusades, the smell of the ink calls to mind contemplation, erudite study, and story. The smell reminds one of the dark shade of comic shops, the fraught strategy of afternoon card games, and long play sessions with your favorite strategy guide on that spot of rug in front of the TV, next to your favorite console (you know where it is).
At the end, the scents are few. In humans, decline in sense of smell can occur in old age and may be associated with the occurrence of some mental disorders. For gamers, the new game smell disappears within the first few weeks. The smell of printing and glossy inks lasts longer perhaps a year or two before becoming almost undetectable. A long drought of scent goes by, until one day, while the gamer is minding his or her own business, it strikes. Suddenly, out of nowhere, one awakes or enters a room or may even be playing when that sharp astringent alkaline odor launches its assault on the nostrils. It signifies the death of a machine, the end of the game: the smell of burning electronics. To the PC gamer, the gasping puffs belched by a dying power supply are perhaps the most pungent, but as PC and console gamers alike are well aware, PSUs are far from the only flammable component in their dream machines.
These scents provide the olfactory backdrop to our gaming journey, our digital adventure. They touch us, become part of us when our attention is diverted, at our most distracted. The smells of gaming slip in through a door we leave ajar, but once inside, they are always with us, and will continue to subtly affect us for the rest of our lives.