The Science of Scary Games

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You walk slowly down a long dark corridor and as your heartbeat quickens. Thunk thunk thunk. Footsteps. But they are not your own. A doorway. Before you open it you look behind you. Nothing. You turn the knob slowly. The door creaks open. In front of you, light. You breathe a sigh of relief. Safe, you look back one more time.

A large zombie/monster/clown/bear is breathing down your neck.

You scream!  Then…

You laugh?

With the recent announcement that indie game designer Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s is being developed by Warner Brother’s as a film, it begs the question “what makes franchises such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Bloodborne so popular?”

In “Freddy’s” the player is subjected to a nightmare scenario of being hunted in the dark, while trying to survive to the light of morning. A unique take on the survival horror genre mixed with tower defense elements, Five Nights at Freddy’s has proven so popular that Hollywood has come calling, hoping to mine that same level of terror from the game, hoping it translates in the cineplex.  But why on earth would a game that induces you to feel scared and feel not so very good feelings be all the rage in the first place?

If you asked most people what they want out of life you’d probably get a checklist of love, chocolates, flowers, white picket fences, stability and security. But if you actually watched what people do when they are not in pursuit of those things you’d get a very different story. There are very few video games that deal with making friends, being kind, and focused on community service for the greater good.  Even LEGO games encourage you to destroy everything in sight for silver, gold and blue studs. Or you know…just for kicks. And when it comes to the horror genre of games it gets even more insidious.

The heart pumping terror. Hairs standing on the back of your neck. Goosebumps tingling across your body. The panic of being chased by a zombie/monster/clown/bear trying to kill you.

We consider this fun.

What is WRONG with you?

It turns out, perhaps not much at all.

In his essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies” none other than the Master of Horror Steven King suggests that we like to be scared because on some level we actually need it. We make appointments to experience the thrills and chills of these epic gaming horror romps such as  Dead Island, Dead Space and Dead Rising Dead because as King states “anticivilization emotions don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise.”

Yes, we like to have comfort and we like to feel secure. But we also like rollercoasters and we love to scream. We’re complex. Go figure.

Horror games are unique in entertainment because unlike books, movies, and TV, their interactive nature places the player at ground zero, front and center and allows us to be immersed in the action rather than as passive viewers.

The interactivity generates an even greater sense of terror than most movies can achieve. And we are drawn to this because it allows that part of us that we keep hidden behind suits and hugs and love letters to peek out and stretch its arms in a safe constructive environment. You can’t keep your primal self locked up forever, but it’s not ok to just let it out in a stable functioning society whenever you want either.  So…

You play a horror game, cry in terror and then call it a day. Then breathe. Ahhhhhh. Or as Stephen King states, “It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that…as long as you keep the gators fed.”

Nope. I can’t even right now.

With the advent of interactivity coupled with an increase in the ability to create even more convincing environments and scenarios to “play” in, the horror genre of gaming with its hundreds of already proven hits has surprisingly only just begun to tap the level of “scare” in you that’s just dying to break out. And yes that pun was intended.

…also because, CLOWNS.

And despite your protests to the contrary you will love it every step of the way.

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