Why are Horror Games fun?
Horror games, on the surface really shouldn’t be something we enjoy, yet a whole portion of an industry has arrived to deliver us twisted and horrific interactive experiences. As horror games get more and more scary, particularly with VR horrors making the most of the technology, why do we find horror games fun, and not the horrific experience they really should be?
The psychology of fear
Psychology sure is strange. Who would have thought that something as negative as fear could lead to a $700 million turnover at the box office? Yet that’s exactly what films like It (2017) managed, incidentally becoming the highest grossing horror movie of all time in the process. Horror is a weird genre in general, not just in gaming. It’s all down to the psychology of how some of us perceive horror.
The National Institute of Mental Health breaks down elements which we may commonly refer to as fear, calling them Negative Valence Systems. The key ones to consider are as follows:
Acute Threat: Something which may immediately be a threat, and requires immediate psychological action in order to keep yourself alive.
Potential Threat: A negative, potentially harmful stimulus that is distant, but still could cause a threat.
Sustained Threat: Long exposure to a threat, or potential of a threat which has lasting psychological implications.
When assessing these types of threat in terms of horror games, we can see that many have become masterful in tapping into both Acute and Potential threats, both of which would have served to protect our tree shrew-like ancestors on a daily basis, and, whilst they certainly have a place today, our relative threat levels are generally lower.
So, why are we talking about all the nasty stuff? The things which would make you not want to watch a horror movie or play a horror game, because to a large extent they’re the things that do make you want to endure the horror.
Compared to our ancestors, the world is comparatively safe. In many countries like the UK, we’re a top predator - although i’m certain given half a chance a badger would nibble on your toes. With no natural predators ourselves, and the biggest threats to our lives being bacterial, viral, or other humans, we have a fight or flight mechanism which exists with very little real reason to test it. And that’s where horror comes in, it provides a space to dust off the system which kept our ancestors alive. There’s something very primal about fear and our perception of it, and that’s a part of horror movies and games.
The Immersion/ non immersion factor
The reason for this is firstly that we all know that what’s on the screen isn’t real. No matter how realistic the graphics, how convincing the voice acting, we’re always diffused from what’s going on; we know that Pyramid Head isn’t going to jump out of the screen and swing his great knife at you (not a euphemism - or maybe it is, Silent Hill 2 was very good at symbolism). We also have a high level of control of the situation, both in game or out of game. We can simply run away from the threat, or if that fails we can simply turn off the console and go for a jog or something. Because we’re playing in knowledge of this, we’ve essentially created a psychological safespace where we can see our limits, and experience that which in real life would have our brains spewing adrenaline, and working up an unpleasant coating of cold sweat.
Conversely though, it’s the immersion of video games that, I feel, takes them a step above horror movies. When we watch a film, our stakes in it are relatively low - the film will continue to play even if we don’t look at the screen and all the nasties will be gone. A game will remain in the same situation, or even take you back to an earlier point should your character die, meaning that not only is your own input required to complete the game, but you’re denied the reward of having beaten the threat.
The more life-like the emersion the more it can trigger our primitive brain, whilst stimulating our rational brain too. This is why VR horror games are probably a step up from the third person survival horrors of the past; you’re directly in the game at all times.
Horror is an emotional genre, whether we anticipate it or not. Fear is something that we can all empathise with because it’s one of the most visceral feelings we can experience. In a film, when you see the ‘last teen standing’ who’s running away from the knife wielding psychopath, we can empathise with their situation (even if we are secretly hoping to see a bit of the old ultra violence). In a horror game, to some extent we are the character. Even in a linear game, we still control their actions and it’s our fault if they bite the dust; sorry Joel stealth killing clickers just really isn’t my skill. In empathising with the characters in the game, their payoff is our pay off. If they get to survive, then that’s great - until the sequel comes about that is.
Whilst we do hope for a positive outcome, I just wanted to ask quickly, would you actually want to survive the horror game or move yourself? Let me know.
Excitation transfer theory
If you like playing horror games, if it gets your pulse racing and your eyes widened, then you may be subject to excitation transfer theory. The theory goes that if you experience something with a high level of emotional charge, then it can have an impact on how you feel after the event itself has finished. So, when you emerge from a late night session of playing Silent Hill 2, all your primitive instincts are firing away, that emotion is carried on and transferred into other positive things you may do afterwards, heightening that experience as well.
There’s a reason that a lot of Twitch streamers and Youtubers play so many horror games. It’s the same reason why horror films without interaction aren’t as scary as horror games, it’s an extra layer of removal from the fear-inducing stimulus. It gives us an ultimate control which playing the game yourself denies; we could just look away or skip ahead and the nasty bit will be gone. The Youtuber or Twitch streamer though has a diminished amount of control in comparison. They may want to skip ahead in the game, but that’s not an option, and with a captive audience they’re in a position where carrying on regardless is possibly the only option. As an audience with a diffused sense of fear, we may delight in seeing the way a streamer reacts to it for exactly the reason that we are diffused from the situation - it means that a minor jump scare for us can provoke a much larger response from the streamer themselves, which is entertaining because we can ignore the uneven playing field and feel a little bit braver in ourselves.
Do you like horror games? What's your favourite, and how did you feel playing it? Let me know!