Game Therapy: Why We (Don’t) Play Horror Games, Part 1

You’ve been looking at the new games coming out and one title stands out to you. The cover is mostly dark with unsettling hues of brown and green, the title is in an intimidating typeface. The tagline promises your demise. You’ve been hearing about this game a lot. It’s supposed to be really scary.

For some this is the end of their consideration of the game, and it stays on the shelf. For others they might pick it up.

You might think back to the last horror game you played. It was a rush. Beating that game actually felt pretty good. Like, really good. The challenge and fear felt so real. Of course you knew the danger was fake, but something about the atmosphere of the game felt genuinely chilling, and the story, filled with insane and violent characters, got into your head a bit. It made you do some emotional gymnastics to understand them. Being stalked by these characters felt so dangerous, terrifying, like they were really staring at you, hunting you as you turned each corner.

Horror

First, let’s consider the common answers for: Why Do People Play Horror Games?….

For some it seems so strange to push yourself to experience panic, dread, and disgust for entertainment. Here are some common reasons we hear:

 

1. When you ask people who enjoy playing horror games they will usually say it’s because it’s an adrenaline rush. The rush of facing an enemy is short-lived, but even as we’re walking through quiet hallways and inspecting locked rooms adrenaline runs through our veins.

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This moment in Red Barrel Studio’s Outlast (2013) can send a sharp rush of panic through our limbs and make our stomach jump. Our minds, lulled by the virtual environment into believing the threats on our screens, tell us to panic and run (or fight). This rush is something some enjoy and something others prefer to avoid. But why? Credit: Ghost’s Guides
Frights in good horror games aren’t simple jump-scares or a horrifically modeled villain. The horror of an intense chase scene is built on the hours of sustained dread we felt while exploring disconcerting surroundings.

 

Most developers work hard to create unsettling and panic-inducing experiences. They meticulously create specifically tailored game environments dedicated to delivering a relentless feed of immersive detail. This level of immersion and production effort is something mindful players appreciate and creates an overall more “enjoyable”, or intense, playing experience.

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Capcom’s Resident Evil 7 created hyper-realistic objects and meticulously cluttered environments to blur the lines between the realism of walking through a simply old, messy house and the horror when you look close enough to realize what are on those plates. The effect of balancing realism and horror is unsettling and intrusive.

2. Another major reason we play horror games is to fulfill a morbid curiosity. Our days are usually peaceful and our society is more orderly than not. We have social rules and laws that are designed to keep panic at bay. But when we play horror games we are thrust into a den of insanity, depravity, and violence.

Many horror games, such as Red Barrel Studio’s Outlast games include horrific sequences in which we are invited to observe what happens or has happened to NPC’s in the environments. This is to up the stakes, to remind us we’re in danger, but also to give a show.

We all crave, on some level, to see how death and pain are dealt with by others. We are curious about morbid topics when they don’t involve us in real life. Morbid curiosity is all about removing our real selves (and our games selves who sometimes witness things from behind windows or from lockers or simply come across the remnants of a past horror) from having to, for the moment, panic about our own mortality.

 

3. The final reason discussed here is that we are curious to see ourselves at the gate of our own mortality. We live with less violence and near-death experiences in our lives than our prehistoric ancestors. Somewhere in our oldest genes, we might wonder: If presented a situation that tested our survival skills, what could we accomplish? Would we have the skill, wit, or composure to survive or……..?

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Moments before the Xenomorph’s victory. Credit: digitallydownloaded,net.

So, the next question is: What can we use horror games for?

This question seems odd. After all, we have just identified some (but, of course, not all) reasons why horror games are popular, what more is there to do?

We can think back on these reasons and ask ourselves: When we invest our time into a horror game, for these reasons, what are we actually gaining? What are we learning from these motivations to play?

This question can be used for any genre and any form of art.
We don’t usually think about this question. We play or watch whatever we want to, but we’re not really used to asking “Why am I watching/playing this?”

We consume media or art for two reasons:
To challenge our minds.
To manage our moods.

We can use horror games by looking at our decisions to either play or avoid horror games. By monitoring how horror makes us feel we can shed some light on what we currently need and don’t need from art in our lives right now.

If You Avoid Horror Games What Do You Need and What Don’t You Need From Art Right Now?

Generally, society assumes that people who avoid horror games are timid. In a negative way. If we are these kinds of players, we might say we don’w want the imagery, the panic, the fear or that we simply don’t like being scared. We might get defensive about it. We know our courage is being judged. Are we “weak” or “childlike”?

If we understand that games are exercises we give ourselves to learn more about something we feel we are missing in our life, we can see that the answer is “No“.

Instead, we are simply not missing horror in our lives.
We might not need horror, because, to varying degrees, we experience horror outside of games or movies. Of course, we’re not being randomly chased by chainsaw-wielding murderers or are regularly locked in dysfunctional insane asylums.
We might be struggling, whether we are aware of it or not, with higher levels of anxiety or stress. The Angsty Nerd wrote her own account of how horror negatively affects her anxiety concerns.
We might instead feel, during quiet moments over coffee or while shampooing our hair, acutely or even painfully aware of our own mortality and of the mortality of our loved ones.
Although it is different for everyone, we might fear giving our minds terrible and gory images, knowing it will haunt us later and inspire exhausted, too-familiar dread over death, danger, illness, or pain. We may already give multiple hours of our days to anxious thoughts over these topics.
We feel we must be very careful with our thoughts so we can avoid the pain of runaway thought spirals that characterize anxiety or panic.
Outlast-2-5
What a player might feel while playing Outlast 2 as they are running from murderous NPC’s in a cornfield is something that others, suffering from anxiety or stress disorders, might feel when they are quietly sitting at their desk at work or while they listen to the radio while driving home. These people are not missing adrenaline rushes or the opportunities to contemplate death, they may already have enough of these things. Credit: pcinvasion
If you have ever experienced a personal tragedy, you might have found yourself avoiding horror movies and games. If you have recently experienced the death of a loved one, the depiction of such easy and decorative death in the horror games you once loved may suddenly feel disrespectful and gratuitous. In this case, you have personally experienced something that horror games and movies are more like training exercises for.

 

If we are someone who avoids horror, we might be plagued by fear on a daily or hourly basis. We are not afraid of cults or serial killers, instead we are afraid of our thoughts and imaginations. We might have panics throughout the day. We have no shortage of adrenaline.

We might experience dread at the thought of interacting with “insane” characters since we are profoundly alert to our own mental health or the health of those around us.

We have an imbalance in our lives that has laced our mundane activities with elements of horror.

Being exposed to more horror might be considered useful for some, for those who are confrontational and prefer to desensitize themselves by inviting an onslaught of terror. This is a form of exposure therapy. There are definite psychological benefits of facing fears in safe environments. By building our resilience through exposure, we could accomplish some “Fright mastery” as discussed by The Psychology of Games. There are many accounts of people with anxiety disorders facing fears and using horror games or movies to actually treat their anxiety.

 

However, many people, especially those with severe anxiety that hinders daily life, crave a different path to balance.

 

Instead, for those of us dealing with excessive panic and fright in our lives, we can look to other genres to soothe us and invite us to quietly contemplate and untangle our thoughts and fears.
animal crossing
Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf offers the player a slower, gentler, safer gaming environment which requires commitment. These kinds of games may not challenge us to confront our fears, but offer us oases from particularly intense anxiety disorders and break up negative thought spirals. These games remind us how to be calm and help us sharpen skills necessary for overcoming anxiety such as: patience, self-expression, and self-compassion. credit: safarwallpaper
When anxiety has grown noticeably burdensome it is a good idea to spend some time with ourselves, when we feel safe, to investigate what we are truly afraid of when we avoid specific types of horror. What are we afraid of feeling or seeing? What topics do we want to avoid; death, isolation, pain, illness, etc?
The world is not split up between those who can “handle” horror games and those who need Nintendo titles, instead it is a spectrum. These are the two extremes. Many of us will enjoy a thrilling game about sci-fi horror (even if we have anxiety conditions) while feeling particularly squeamish around gore.  Some of us might avoid actually playing horror, but quite enjoy watching others on YouTube play hideously grotesque games. Each player is unique and has different tastes and different associations with different sub-genres of horror. It is up to the mindful player to investigate their associations to discover more about the unique relationship between horror games their personal fears or traumas.
For those of us that prefer to avoid horror games entirely, we might investigate this more mindfully to find that, instead, we prefer or need games that remind us how to be calm, how hard life is, or the importance of treating ourselves with compassion.

Thank you for reading! There will be a Part 2 of this article that explores what horror fans might gain from playing horror and how they can use their favorite genre to learn more about themselves.
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