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STORY hearing

Optimise Your Hearing: Better Focus On In-Game Sound Cues

The Ear
Hearing
Hearing Damage
The Auditory System
Hair cells

Introduction

When we’re gaming, there’s a lot more at play than just the graphics on the screen. In order to perform like a pro, a gamer has to be acutely aware of their surroundings. This includes understanding sound and how we hear, and being able to pick up on vital in-game cues, especially communication from teammates.

In this story, we’ll be looking at what good hearing can bring to gameplay, how our auditory system works, the effect unwanted noise can have on performance, and how to enhance your in-game audio experiences and exceed your potential.
.01

The Auditory System And Its Importance In Gaming

The sensory system that allows human beings to hear is called the auditory system. This consists of two main parts: the ear, which converts sound energy into neural signals, and the brain which receives and processes those signals to extract useful information. 

The auditory system is, essentially, a sensitive organ greatly dependent on thousands of hair cells. If they are missing or damaged the auditory system becomes less sensitive, thus transmitting less information to the brain and causing hearing loss. 

When it comes to gaming, the functionality of the auditory system is vital, as it not only allows a player to recognise and detect sounds, such as in-game sound cues, but identify where they are coming from, extract meaning from them and finally apply an action to them. Knowing how the auditory system works can also help players to improve hearing conditions and in that way can enhance their hearing and thus perform better.

To better understand the process, let’s follow a sound through its journey from vibrations in the air to waves of pressure that travel from the outer ear, through the ear canal and into the middle ear, where they take on a much more complicated role in the inner ear before being translated to brain waves so that we can properly understand them.

Brian Moore

Speech & hearing scientist

.02

Hearing The Signal, Cutting Through The Noise

The human auditory system evolved to process sounds relevant to survival. However, throughout evolution humans haven’t had enough time to adapt our hearing to the sounds of modern times, especially urban and industrial noise or highly amplified music. We therefore find ourselves exposed to sound environments that overload and disturb the auditory system.

Speech understanding is key in esports, as it may affect your ability to hear important sound cues and thus make the difference between winning and losing. When talking about speech understanding we distinguish between signal and noise. The signal is the meaningful information we want to interpret and the noise is interfering sounds.

Theoretically, speech understanding is related to the ratio of speech energy to noise energy, called the speech-to-noise ratio (SNR). The higher the SNR, the easier it is to understand speech.
 
Noise has negative effects on cognitive and task performance, especially for tasks that involve listening, remembering, calculating or conversing. Unfortunate effects can occur with complex, multi-facetted tasks that require prolonged attention and continuous performance, like esports. Generally, noise requires greater listening effort, resulting in more fatigue. Noise can also cause the impairment of task performance, persisting even after the noise is eliminated.

So, when it comes to performance optimisation, a player must be aware of both signals and noise while understanding how noise can be eliminated or reduced.

Brian Moore

Speech & hearing scientist

.03

The Main Causes Of Hearing Loss And Damage

In our ears we have hair cells: tiny sensory receptors responsible for picking up and sending sound information to the brain. Damage to these hair cells, either over time or at once by exposure to intense noises, is what leads to hearing damage and even loss. With fewer hair cells relaying information, the sensitivity of the auditory system decreases and the ability to transmit sound signals to the brain deteriorates. 

Damage to the outer hair cells (towards the opening of the ear) makes it more difficult to hear softer sounds - or the individual frequencies in complex sounds.

This impairs our ability to understand speech in noisy environments, or analyse and interpret complex auditory scenes. It also reduces the comfortable range of sound intensities. 

On average, we are born with about 12,000 outer hair cells and 3,500 inner hair cells. Up to 30 to 50% of outer hair cells and 85% of inner hair cells can be damaged or destroyed before changes in our hearing are detected. The damage is usually gradual and harmful effects might continue even after the noise exposure has stopped. So, by the time you notice any deterioration or loss of hearing, it may be too late to act.

Prevention of hearing loss and damage is therefore paramount in improving or maintaining one’s hearing. To do this, simply be more aware of the noises you’re exposed to, and don’t ignore early signs of damage, like temporary hearing loss or tinnitus (“ringing” in the ear).

Brian Moore

Speech & hearing scientist

.04

The Importance of Directional Hearing In Gaming

Everyday, our ears make use of something called directional hearing, that is, the ability to determine where a sound is coming from. Also known as spatial hearing, it’s something that happens automatically; we don’t even notice we’re doing it. By filtering out noise arriving from other directions, this ability is especially useful when someone shouts you from behind. Instinctively, we will turn around. This is directional hearing at work and proves a useful ability in helping us to estimate both the direction and distance of the sound source. 
Directional hearing works via a complex system that compares the intensity and timing of sounds arriving to the ears. It also helps us to perceive and interpret sounds, and speech in particular, in the presence of noise. Take for instance, in a full arena or noisy game environment. 

Research has shown that directional hearing is of the utmost importance for speech recognition in challenging acoustic environments made up of multiple competing signals, such as in a gaming setup where headsets are used. Here, directional hearing plays a key role in the gaming performance of esports players. For example, it allows gamers to intuitively direct their attention to a location in space and separate a target from competing sounds based on spatial hearing cues. In the infographic we explain the two factors at play in directional hearing when it comes to helping us localise sounds.

Brian Moore

Speech & hearing scientist

.05

How To Optimise Your Hearing For Esports

Good hearing is one of the most important player attributes in esports. Whether it’s communication with your team or listening for important in-game sound cues, your hearing abilities during gaming are key to playing at your best performance level and achieving your goals. 

Enhancing your hearing abilities can be done by preventing temporary and long-term damage and impairment, optimising listening conditions, and improving the function of the auditory system itself. To prevent temporary and permanent damage, try being more aware of the sound intensities you’re exposed to and reduce listening levels to a safe volume.

It’s also important to be aware of any bad habits that you have picked up as a player, which could have unfortunate side effects, for example: listening to loud music right before an important match. Many athletes across various sports like to indulge in loud, upbeat music prior to a competition to get them psyched up and in the right emotional state to perform. 

By wearing earphones or headsets, a esports player might be able to turn focus inwards and thus sharpen attention. However, exposure to moderately intense sounds causes an effect in the auditory system called “fatigue”, whereby we become less sensitive to softer sounds presented afterwards. And so - to maximise hearing sensitivity - it is better to avoid exposure to intense sounds altogether. 

Maintaining and improving the function of the auditory system can be done in several ways.

Brian Moore

Speech & hearing scientist