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In my experience, there are two contrasting camps when it comes to horror games. One camp - let's call it Camp Rational - wants nothing to do with them. They might have tried a horror game in the past, or they might have never dipped their toes into the darkness. Perhaps they are a connoisseur of slasher movies from the '80s, or perhaps they indulge in the eerie slow-burn of a ghost story just before bed. Yet, horror games are a no-go. No, thank you.
The other camp is Camp Ridiculous. People here dive into horror games with abandon. A bizarre behaviour, given how these games literally put you in the mud and blood stained shoes of a squealing teenager from one of those aforementioned slasher movies. Good graphics might see the gore and viscera glisten and gleam with ooze, but even a game with an intense atmosphere is enough for our hearts to leap out of our chests. The active role that the player takes in such a horrible experience is one that can't be reconciled by Camp Rational. Why would anyone seek out something that subjects their real selves to these horrors... for fun?
As a member of Camp Ridiculous, I can't speak for everyone here, and I'm certain that there's a whole range of reasons. Mine is that it's a sort of catharsis - a challenge to overcome, a big yell to the universe that shouts "TRY ME." Absolutely, I am not having a good time when a Xenomorph is stalking me through a ruined space station. But, making it to the other side and finally letting out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding, it's a feeling of achievement and reinvigoration. Keen to learn more, I spoke to a handful of academics on the positive mental wellbeing impacts of the games that want to haunt your nightmares.
Mathias Clasen, associate professor of literature and media at Aarhus University, told me why exploring horror is so appealing to us. "First and foremost it's the emotional stimulation," he said. "People who like horror want to be frightened. But it's more than that... There's also the pleasure of being absorbed in a dramatic narrative, and of engaging with interesting characters. There's also a pleasure in stress-testing yourself. How much dread can I handle? How do I respond to a jump-scare? And then there's the whole social dimension. Most people watch horror movies with others and many play scary games with others, either in person or online." Actually, playing something like Phasmophobia with friends is categorised as a "recreational fear," and appears to aid social bonds between groups.
Horror games come in all shapes and sizes, and naturally, not everything will appeal to everyone. Oxenfree, for example, doesn't have the fidelity of Resident Evil 7 - the former trades on a Disney-ish art style and a side-scrolling perspective, whereas the latter is a detailed first-person experience and keeps you trapped in a decrepit homestead. Both of these games scared me in spite of their obvious differences. So, what's going on here?
"The emotion of fear is universal because it's part of our biological heritage," explained Mathias, adding that almost all horror games tap into "the basic scenario of predation". We might be unrecognisable compared to early humans, but their experiences built us into the people we are now.
"Horror games set up such confrontations and use scare tactics that exploit human nature, such as dark environments and/or environments that are difficult to navigate, acousmatic sounds (where you don't see the source of the sound, so your fear system goes into red alert), sudden noises to create startles, and so on," he continued. "That stuff works, no matter where you're born and in which culture you grew up."
When our ancestors huddled in a dark cave for shelter and met a sabre-toothed tiger who was hiding in the shadows, those who lived to tell the tale passed on those fears to their children, and their children's children, and so on. Now, when we play Outlast and our camcorder has run out of battery, our heart starts to race as we start believing that something could be waiting for us in the dark. Alternatively, there are a handful of horror games that pull the ol' switcheroo on us - something like you were the villain all along or you've been complicit in terrible actions.
Tanya Krzywinska, professor of digital games at Falmouth University, finds these examples especially fascinating. "Games are always representation but some games - games that I'd call 'weird games' do however try to break the frame of that representation, trying to shift mode from fiction to at least a hint that it was 'real all along,'" she said.
"The ego might seem to be besieged in the act of play but it is in fact engaged in a defensive process of bolstering itself against fear, chaos and irrationality," Tanya continued. "Horror often evokes those 'anti-human' things, yet is in fact very often in the pay of the job that representational does in terms of symbolising and translating that which is beyond our control. Games might also enable the ego to apprehend how it is we regularly project our own monstrosities outside ourselves instead of engaging with the dissonance that our own monstrosities create for the ego."
In other words, horror games are very good at offering us examples of what we are not. I am not an axe-wielding murderer, I am not a shambling zombie salivating for brains, I am not an enormous spider with legs that would spear a person straight through the middle.
It seems silly when we say it like that, but centring us as the "good guys" in these situations has a psychological consequence. We find ourselves feeling more secure in our identities in these contrasts. Therefore, if we're playing a character who's a little more morally grey, so to speak, then it also manifests an opportunity to examine our own compass. Frictional Games is a studio that does this very well with its series, Amnesia. Players must torture other characters in order to achieve their ends and escape the nightmare they're living through. The game doesn't give you much of an option in whether you do or don't carry out these crimes, but your own personal reaction is a conduit of psychological growth. Perhaps you feel like the actions are justified if they'll ensure that you end the terror that arrived from another world. Perhaps you believe that the playable character doesn't deserve their redemption at the end of it - they're just as bad as the baddie. Bringing these quandaries from the outside in results in a realisation of your own limits and a greater appreciation of your personality (no judgement here, by the way).
In fact, Mathias and a team of other researchers recently conducted a study about horror aficionados and their response to the pandemic. It turned out that those who like "prepper" genres (think an apocalypse, alien invasion, zombie outbreak) showed higher psychological resilience and preparedness as they are accustomed to "regulating their own fear." Fair dos. However, I was wondering about the effect that differing genres of horror games have on the player, and where better to explore this than in the Resident Evil games, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.
Resident Evil has been through some overhauls since the 1990s, and Village is promising a lot of very interesting divergences from the formula of the series. "There's a huge difference between playing a survival horror game, in which you're basically hunted prey, and an action horror game, in which you can enjoy kicking some serious ass in addition to being hunted by monsters," answered Mathias. "But common to the franchise is that those games are very good at drawing players into the simulated world and using tried-and-true scare tactics to frighten players while also rewarding them to keep them coming back for more."
Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, a postdoctoral researcher who specialises in the psychology of heroes versus villains in popular culture, continued this thread by diving into character-directed versus self-directed fear for me. Character-directed fear prompts the player to concern themselves with the avatar's "wellbeing." Alternatively, the player worries about the impact that this experience will have on the character, rather than the impact it is having on themselves. The number of commonalities that you have with the character helps this come about - e.g. I hate dying in the Tomb Raider games because I see myself in Lara. Self-directed fear is more frequently found in games of the survival horror genre that use first person perspectives. Ergo, self-directed fear isn't fear for your self, per se - it's the fear of witnessing what horrific thing is just around the corner. "It is rather rare that horror games have managed to build genuinely relatable, 'rounded' characters for whom you actually care," explained Jens, describing the journey that Ellie, Joel, and Abby take in The Last of Us.
So, we knew that playing video games is good for you, but it's especially surprising that the unpleasant ones with gore, jumpscares, and treacherous moral grounds offer psychological boons. In the middle of a pandemic, where uncertainty is the only certainty, it's interesting to see that these genres provide a transformation where the irrational reality is moderated by the rational irreality of the horror experience. 2021 is looking enticing for thrillseekers, too, with Resident Evil Village, Dying Light 2, Returnal, Quantum Error, and In Sound Mind all filling out an already promising schedule. Of course, the team at GAMINGbible can vouch for the excellent Little Nightmares 2 and eerie indie Mundaun as affecting horror experiences that aren't ones to miss. With these psychological findings in mind, these are definitely two titles that have earned a spot on my list.
Featured Image Credit: Lalesh Aldarwish via Pexels, Capcom
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