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What Makes Horror Games Scary?

Why we fear the fake.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

You'll probably never happen across a person raving about a survival horror game by saying how hyperactive their amygdala was, and how their rostral anterior cingulate cortex was powerless to dampen the emotional stimuli.

Nevertheless, modern science tells us that's precisely what's going on inside our domes when we see or experience something scary. And as we've seen over the past two decades, game designers can use these phenomena to wrap us around their little finger.

The key to the horror experience is that our brains -- amazing though they may be – can often only barely tell the difference between media and reality.

"The physiological reaction to frightening stimuli is pretty much the same whether it's real or [in the media]," says Dr Andrew Weaver. He's an assistant professor at Indiana University whose research focuses on the psychology of media consumption.

"As audience members we're pretty good at engaging in suspension of disbelief. At some level we can choose to essentially forget that what we're watching or playing isn't real so that we can become fully transported into the story.

"If we do become immersed in a story, then the empathetic bonds we create with the characters will cause us to feel the fear they experience - much the same way we would in real life."

Television, movies and videogames are relatively new inventions. From an evolutionary perspective, our ape-like brains haven't gotten used to seeing things on screens yet. This is true for all forms of media, but are games better at manipulating the mind than other mediums? Is the controller enhancing or inhibiting our ability to be frightened?

"Having control over the situation mitigates some of the fear, because you can usually win or turn off the game," says Dr Jamie Madigan, psychologist and author of the Psychology of Video Games blog.

"But a lot of times fear is born out of empathy for other characters, and making choices about how you interact with other characters has been shown to increase empathy."

Rouse's The Suffering wasn't exactly known for Kubrickian subtlety.

Richard Rouse III, lead designer on the 2004 Xbox horror game The Suffering, says other forms of media have specific strengths over games - but that games have strengths of their own.

"The kind of creeping dread you feel in a good Lovecraft story is different than the startling scares and disturbing imagery of film horror like Psycho or Ringu, just as the more tense horror you experience playing Silent Hill or Left 4 Dead is unique to games," he observes.

"I think games have the definite advantage in terms of immersion and raw tension, because in a well done narrative game the player starts feeling like it's them in the world and starts feeling threatened themselves. Other mediums simply can't deliver that type of horror in the same way."

Much has been made about the psychological implications of the avatar becoming an extension of the player's "self", and this issue is particularly relevant to the survival horror genre. Game designers seem to be particularly skilled at instilling fear in the player, more than they are at generating emotions like joy and sadness.

"It's not that games can't explore those emotions at all," says Rouse, "it's just that game-delivered emotion is fundamentally different than what film or literature can provide. Designers need to recognise that difference and play to the strengths of their medium. So too with fear."

But this doesn't answer the question of why the horror genre exists in the first place. Why do so many of us seek out experiences that will scare the hell out of us?