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Fear and anxiety

Fear and anxiety often stand together as synonyms, however there are differences that define the way (or rather the reason) of their birth. In that post I’d like to tell about their place in video games and show their use in horrors.

Patrick Polewiak

July 15, 2015

7 Min Read

Fear and anxiety often stand together as synonyms, however there are differences that define the way (or rather the reason) of their birth. In that post I’d like to tell about their place in video games and show their use in horrors. Before I get to the point and state my conclusion however, I’ll talk about fear and anxiety separately. I will not however bring up the morbid aspect, like Freud or K. Horner did.

Fear and anxiety

Let’s begin with common parts of these two feelings. Both of them cause the same symptomes: tachycardia (faster heartbeat), sweating, shivers and trembling. Both of them are a reaction to some danger. Both can be equally strong and in extreme cases cause even death. Now, where is the border between fear and anxiety?

Let me start with fear, which is a lot simplier in it’s structure and concentrates on events and their consequences. You could say, that the fear comes from the outside and is reaction to certain events that put us in danger. For example: Esther decided to take a walk in a park in the midnight to chill a little after day-long studying. In a dark alley her path is crossed by a masked character with a shiny knife in his hand.
In that moment Esther is terrified, she is shaking, adrenaline is pumping through her veins, making her heart beat like a pneumatic drill. The girl either wants to run away or she is paralyzed.
In this case Esther is facing direct danger of getting mugged, hurt or killed which causes her to feel fear. Now, let’s switch to anxiety. We will rewind the time a little to the moment, where Esther hasn’t yet entered the alley. She sees the dark park, really dark alley with trees and bushes overgrowing it. She starts shaking, her pulse is rising and she starts to sweat. She decides to head back home. Even though she has not experienced any real danger she was scared, and that was anxiety.

Before I will explain the source of that, I’ll call upon words of K. Horney in his book „Neurotic Personality of Our Time.” A mother (let’s call her Katherine) doesn’t want to send her child to kindergarden, because of a feeling that it may get hurt there. She feels anxiety, she thinks her child may get sick, kidnapped or choke on some small toy, when the kindergarden teacher leaves the class. The panic isn’t justified, but she feels exactly what Esther felt back near the park alley, but with one difference – Katherine justifies her thoughts with nuances like „in the neighbourhood there was a strange man seen wandering near the kindergarden” or „my sister’s son got infected in kindergarden” and it won’t be easy to convince her, that she’s being irrational. Excluding the morbid aspect of this phenomenon (for more information see the earlier-mentioned book of K. Horney,) you can see it’s coming from the „inside” of us. It means that even if there is no real danger we imagine things, justify our anxiety and reassure ourselves that it is all absolutely possible. Both Katherine and Esther didn’t had any solid proof on what could’ve happened but they were scared anyway. Off course we have to keep in mind that the given examples are simple and I am not even mentioning cases of fear of leaving the house or fear of driving the car (because there are many car accidents.)

Summing up: anxiety comes from indirect threat, which isn’t exactly there or isn’t real at the given moment (as it comes from inside of our heads/from our beliefs) and fear is caused by direct danger (from the „outside” of just our heads, something that happens and we can see/experience it ourselves.)

Usage of fear and anxiety in games

With new knowledge from the examples above it will be easier to tell fear from anxiety in video games. In some situations when player is put in danger he may feel fear (of different intensity.) Some games revolve around this feeling, like in Doom 3, Dead Space 3, Afterfall. In these cases the authors throw different monsters at the player, who has to deal with them different ways (usually with weapons).

And there are no games (or there are just a few of them, like „Dear Esther” or „Gone Home”), which focus only on the element on anxiety. Eventually the feeling ends with the final confrontation with the enemy (either with the element of chase or fight). Anxiety in games, even though is a lot more effective and powerful than fear,  is often put aside in face of „jump-scares.” As Lovecraft once said „The oldest and the strongest feeling of the human kind is fear, and the oldest and the most powerful kind of fear is the fear of the uknown” and the this is a pretty good argument for my thesis right below.

Why is anxiety stronger than fear and, in combination with fear,  unbearable?

Some games perfectly maneuver between fear and anxiety. The player isn’t scared when he is ready to be scared, but in the least expected moment. One of games that mixes fear and anxiety is Dead Space, where we explore an almost-abandoned spacecraft. The authors keep building the tension using lights and sound, so the player could feel that there’s something lurking in the dark. Usually it turned out that it was nothing there – but it was these moments that were the scariest, when there was no monster but we kept speculating when will he jump out to get us.

Second example is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a creation from Thomas Grip, whom also dedicated the game to building tension and spreading anxiety, instead of simply inflicting fear. When we know, that somewhere in the dark cellars there is a monster we start feeling anxiety – not because we see the monster, but because we aren’t sure if he is there or not.

When I was watching a „let’s play” from the earlier version of Phantaruk (a game I’m currently working on) I could easily see that the players were scared the most when the enemy showed up and then disappeared (for example despawned behind the corner). Some of them even crawled back to the beggining of the game because they were feeling a little safer there. These players felt anxiety mixed with fear – the best combination.

Simple anxiety is felt by the player when he doesn’t want to go to the next location because something scary may be there. Off course it doesn’t necessarily have to, maaaaybe it’s just a little trick from the authors – but the player doesn’t know it.

Before I’ll get to the conclusion, I’ll bring up an example from „Outlast.” At some moment the player is put in a dark, really dim location, that is a little flooded. Before I entered it, I was really scared that something evil lurks there and I’ll have to run, but when something actually started chasing me, I knew how to react – I only felt the tension and need to escape and my imagination wasn’t working anymore.

Why is anxiety „stronger”?

In my opinion anxiety gives better scares than fear, because it enables our imagination and gives our brain a chance to interpret the surroundings. In case of fear we know what is happening and how should we react, but when we feel anxiety we feel helpless – we cannot do anything to protect ourselves because we don’t know what is the(and if there is any) danger. We don’t know if Esther will be mugged by some homeless man, a werewolf or some mutated monster.

Sources:  K. Horney – ‘Neurotic Personality of Our Time’, E. Fromm – ‘Autoritaet und Familie’

Images source: ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’, ‘SCP-087′, ‘Alien: Isolation’

On my website: http://patrykpolewiak.pl/2015/07/fear-and-anxiety/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/patrykpolewiak

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