Nothing to Fear?

When a game forces you into life or death circumstances and uses fear of your imminent death in its design, it’s usually labeled a survival horror.  This type and other horror games may use claustrophobic scenarios, monsters, grotesque human-like enemies, eerie ambient noises, lack of player control, or distorted images to elicit reactions ranging from sweating palms to sheer terror.  Yet, designers attempt to induce fear even in games not categorized in a horror genre: in this case, abstract concepts such as alienation or loss may be employed.  For someone living in the area, seeing the rubble and destruction of modern day Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 might be quite unsettling.  And we keep coming back for more because fear is compelling.  Downright provocative, even.  But, why?  Despite the intrigue surrounding fear as a topic, remarkably little research has been done regarding fear, especially with media and more especially with games. People like to discuss fear, but what do we really know about it?

Well, for humans, fear could be defined as a reaction composed of many parts. The first portion of a fright response is immediate and involves an uncontrolled reaction that occurs in the brain.  This reaction is what you most likely are referring to when you say a “fight or flight” response.  The second part of a fright reaction is slower and more thoughtful.  It occurs as soon as you realize that you are afraid, but it may not stop at any set time. In fact, studies have found that people report still experiencing fright decades after their initial fright incident.  In both portions of the fright response, people are reacting to some perceived threat in their environment.  In a survival horror game, that environment is mediated.  Evidence suggests that human reactions in both real and mediated environments is almost always followed by motor activity that serves to prepare an individual to respond appropriately to the danger through fight or flight.  In this capacity, fear frequently manifests both physiologically and psychologically as anxiety, distress, and increased arousal.

Beyond the survival necessities that dictate how humans respond to threats, the fear response may be shaped by any number of external factors including familial roles, education, religious affiliation, or gender appropriateness. These all combine to make what we fear, why we fear it, and why we still expose ourselves to it a complicated question to answer.

Some situations in frightening games require the player to have a level of life experience to appreciate the significance.  Case in point, Pyramidhead might be scary to a kid, but his raping of the Silent Hill nurse might take a bit more experience to understand.  Similar to film, many depictions in video games present scenarios that players may find intensely frightening in media environments and real life.  We know designers use the dark, claustrophobic environments, disturbing imagery, control manipulations, personal loss, audio, and imagery to evoke senses of terror, but games do offer additional tools to evoke fright.

In part, video games are structurally differentiated from TV and other media by being interactive.  Interactive involvement creates an experience that requires a gamer to do a diverse range of activities such as making decisions, considering circumstances, and navigating a virtual space.  Specifically, the active involvement of the gamer and the multiple points-of-view through which gameplay may be experienced may significantly alter fright reactions.  But what does this interactivity-point-of-view combo have to do with being scared?  Well, we’re not entirely sure yet.  What we are pretty sure about in terms of those items comes from aggression research.  In 2009, Marina Krcmar and Kirstie Farrar reported strong evidence that aggressive cognition is increased when presented with a third person POV.  Certainly, aggression and fear aren’t the same thing, but if they’re both increased states of arousal, it stands to reason they might have some similarity.  These studies and others investigate the role of player choice in systematic reinforcement of aggressive behavior in a mediated, interactive environment.  The interactive element of gameplay allows players some control over their experience possibly serving to moderate the severity of a fear reaction either by exacerbating it or, on the other hand, mitigating it.  Interactivity does allow gamers to pace themselves as they deem appropriate.  Essentially, as a gamer, you have the power to stop the story’s hero from crossing into the path of danger whereas the film-viewer may only wish futilely at the hero to “not go in there.”

The question remains as to what moderating impact agency may have on gamers fear experience.  Many people who played Final Fantasy VII and experienced the death of one of the central characters would admit feelings of grief and loss, but the scene comes during a cinematic event.  In this case, the emotion-evoking narrative event occurred during a non-interactive component of the gameplay experience. How would the emotional experience differ if the player were allowed to take control during that scene?

Another consideration in how much a game might scare someone is how realistically it is presented, in terms of both visuals and real-life relevance.  Although some game creators design worlds and stories that may accurately present realistic scenarios, not all do.  Furthermore, designers use graphical engines to render visual presentations in games sometimes with the intent to mimic real-life and sometimes to create artistic, surreal scapes.  However, because there is no standard graphical engine, the range of power and capability differs across engines almost as much as the creative intentions of the designers.  Consequently, the range of realism found in the medium is quite broad.  Games such as Pacman or Pong may seem quite obviously unrealistic, but even games created today for more powerful gaming systems such as LIMBO may be cartoon-like in appearance or depict real-life events that may be too displaced from realistic scenarios to ring true.  But games like LIMBO can be quite scary to some gamers, making the question of whether realism matters –at least in terms of real-world likelihood – somewhat subjective.  What we do know generally regarding the impact of realistically presented visuals is that they tend to evoke more intense experiences for people.  Very little research has been done looking at realism in terms of real-world likelihood, but what evidence there is seems to suggest that realistic depictions have less impact in the short term and more impact in the long term.  More research definitely needs to be done to make strong statements, but it seems that realism is most certainly a variable that must be considered.

Regarding graphical realism, another interesting issue that may arise in games is when characters, specifically humanoid characters, are presented in such a realistic fashion they taunt the “uncanny valley.”  In such an instance, the character reaches a stage of being close to human, but not quite fully human that’s just downright creepy.  (If you haven’t seen an example, think of the movie The Polar Express).  And sometimes, designers trying to create the most realistic experience may cross into the uncanny valley unintentionally.  In part, such effort may be made in an attempt to more effectively convey emotions and lead to empathic responses from the gamer through realistic representations.  To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a developer that has used the uncanny valley as a tactic to frighten, but perhaps it could be if people can stand the discomfort of watching.

Fear is an intriguing area to discuss, but we know remarkably little about how mediated experience changes fright.  Add in the complication of interactivity and the wide variety of presentations provided by games and you’ve got yourself a slew of provocative questions just waiting to be answered.  And then, there are so many questions about fear and games and almost as many ways to address them.  These few areas are helping to inform my own research direction, but this discussion is by no means comprehensive.  If you’re interested in fear generally (and let’s be honest, we all love talking about what scares us), I’d love to hear about it.

Nothing to Fear? by Teresa Lynch, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “Nothing to Fear?”

  1. Gabe says:

    Great overview! Thanks. has quite a few examples of uncanny valley effects in video games -- some intentional, many unintentional...


  1. | Motivate. Play. - [...] here at MP.   And, more recently, we’ve considered the potential role and implementation of fear within interactive designs.  …

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