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Horror is a huge part of the gaming medium with standout titles such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil, classic series that have been cemented in gaming history. Games can be much more immersive and terrifying than movies at times, as you actually have to participate and you can’t do so hiding behind a pillow.
If they are so terrifying though, why are they selling so well and why do we go back and play them time after time?
We sat down with Sociologist and fear expert Margee Kerr to find out.
We all have different fears from the fear of disfigured monsters to fear of darkness or the unknown.
Games have learnt to adapt to those fears for example games like Resident Evil with the disfigured monsters known as revenants.
Then you have games where you can hardly see like Outlast.
You also have games nowadays implementing strong eerie soundtracks at just the right moments to get your heart racing and blood pumping.
Now we even have state of the art graphics, VR and motion capture which adds to the realism and immersion of horror.
Why Do We Enjoy Playing Scary Video Games and Being Frightened?
According to research we often feel an initial jolt of excitement when we get our first scare.
It’s also worth noting that older children and adults are often more scared by real situations that they may have experienced themselves.
Margee Kerr a sociologist specialising in fear touched on this saying: “Not only do our fears vary by time and place but the very experience of it depends on context, culture, and our own personal histories.”
Some people think we seek it out as we genuinely find it appealing whilst others do it for the excitement and heart raising horror whilst some argue that it could just be down to societal pressure.
On why many of us like experiencing the terror of video game horror Margee said: “There are a lot of reasons why we enjoy thrilling and scary activities. Thrilling and scary activities activate our fight or flight response.
“Our arousal system is activated and triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that influence our brains and our bodies. But it’s up to us to interpret this response as enjoyable and not actually threatening—the context is key.
“As our research shows, when people make it through a safe yet scary activity it can lead to feeling confidence, like we have challenged our fears and overcome. Even though the threat is not real, the feeling of pushing yourself in the context of uncertainty and making it through is a reward in itself.
“For many people engaging with scary but safe material offers an opportunity to ‘get out of their head’ for a while. Our thoughts can (if don’t try to shut down the threat response) just take a break and we can enjoy being fully in our bodies.
“When you’re on a rollercoaster or in a haunted house or playing a scary game you’re not thinking about your bills, your classes, your relationships or your future.
“You’re in the moment, and even better afterwards you feel like you really did overcome a challenge or fear so you feel more confident about the real, not scary fun threats that await you in the future.”
It seems that many people like to play horror games to in fact master and overcome their fears and to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in doing so.
Many people also seem to enjoy the sense of intense feeling of relief they feel after the initial scare.
From research people tend to have different key reasons for wanting to play horror games.
So, What Happens to Our Body When We Experience Fear?
Often when we get scared or anxious we feel our heartbeat rise, we may get hot and our breathing may become more laboured.
However, research has found there is much more to it when we experience fear.
Margee Kerr explains it in more detail saying: “The threat response is universal, but the exact nature of it varies within and between people.
“When we are startled or scared our sympathetic nervous system pushes into “go” mode preparing our body.
“First, non-essential functions are put on hold so our body’s resources can focus on being strong and fast.
“Our metabolism kicks into high gear and starts to burn sugar while our heart starts beating faster to carry the resources to our muscles.
“Endorphins kick in, blocking our pain receptors so even if we do get hurt, we’re not going to feel it, and a whole host of hormones and neurotransmitters circulate, this can lead to feeling energized, or grounded in our bodies.
“The experience of feeling fully embodied and in the moment, not thinking about the future or the past, in the context of safety can be enjoyable.”
Are Some People More Attracted to Horror Than Others?
A lot of us have that one friend who is an absolute horror junkie, they can’t get enough of it whilst others steer clear of it altogether.
But if some of us avoid horror like the plague why would others actively seek it out?
Well according to Margee: “Research has shown that some people are more thrill seeking than others, and connected that to different genetic expressions, but it’s likely the interaction of genes and environment with personal history that sets someone on the path of being a horror fan.
“There’re also different elements that some people may like or dislike, for example someone may not like the content in some horror movies like blood or violence, but they do like the startles and characters in a haunted house, so the content, the delivery, and how a person feels in their body can influence what they like.
“There are also folks who have had a bad experience with scary content and associate all things scary with negativity (your basic fear conditioning).”
Fear and Horror Games
Teresa Lynch and Nicole Martins from Indiana University recently conducted a study looking at college students experiences with horror games.
They found 53% of the people they surveyed had tried playing horror games but had been frightened by them.
Among finding that horror games produce our fright responses by targeting our defence system they also found that they in some cases it caused disrupted sleep and increased fearfulness after playing.
The research also found people were most scared by survival horror like Slender: The Eight Pages and also listed game features such as darkness, the unknown and disfigured humans.
Whilst some people question how we can be scared by something we know is clearly not real and can’t exist, research suggests that as creatures such as zombies nowadays are realistically rendered in games in such a way that still evokes strong emotions from players.
Games are immersive, they put people in direct control of characters whom they can emphasise with and thus feel and resonate with their fear.
You have to be the person who opens that door or scurries away through dark corridors.
This, accompanied by a strong soundtrack and realistic visuals can make the experience all the scarier.
With this strong immersion players are often fully committed to the horror game they are playing and forget about the outside world for a moment.
It seems that many people play horror for the high of being scared but also overcoming that fear and feeling a sense of relief but also the accomplishment of finishing it just like finishing a hard, frustrating game like Dark Souls.
The research that has been conducted however, is only the tip of the iceberg and there’s sure to be more studies yielding interesting results about the psychology of horror games in the future.
Fancy giving yourself a scare? You can check out steams offerings on horror games here.