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Fear and love: dig deeper into the potential reasons why players like horror games

For a horror game, it is not enough to simply just stack horror elements to achieve success.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

September 18, 2023

6 Min Read

Horror games, a game genre that has been popular since long ago, is still a favorite game category among many gamers today. The feeling of spine-chilling, trembling after turning off the lights brings us thrilling and exciting excitement.

It's truly a love-hate relationship. When we're not playing, there's a curiosity that makes us want to explore in horror games, but once we start playing, sometimes we feel really scared throughout the whole experience. What is the motivation behind players immersing themselves in these games?

What happens inside our bodies when playing horror games?

Getting on an emotional roller coaster.

Horror games give shocking or frightening experience to the audience through narrative techniques. Players experience anxiety, accompanied by a series of physical reactions such as trembling, jumping, covering their eyes, and an increased heart rate, generating a feeling of fear. In the face of scares, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, triggering the fight or flee response and an increase in adrenaline. However, people generally do not immediately get away from danger. At this point, the brain assesses the surrounding environment and, upon realizing that there is no direct danger, the emotions relax, providing a sense of release.

This is, to some extend, similar to riding a roller coaster, where one experiences a range of emotions such as anxiety and tension. Then, stimulated by adrenaline, a series of physiological reactions occur, including accelerated blood flow, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and focused attention on self-protection. The brain and body prepare to respond with greater strength and speed to perceived threats. After evaluating that there is no real life-threatening situation, dopamine and endorphins are released, providing a stimulating pleasure and emotional release.

Imagine when you are trying to escape in the world of Resident Evil, your health bar is almost gone, and you have very few supplies left; to make matters worse, there is a menacing monster behind you, eager to kill you. At this moment, you just want to run into the nearest safe room and breathe a sigh of relief. The design of these safe rooms and the overwhelming sense of relief they bring are actually a key element that attracts people to horror games. After experiencing a surge of adrenaline and successfully escaping danger, with the release of dopamine, the player's tense emotions are relieved, muscles relax.

Dolf Zillmann's excitation transfer theory explains this cycle of tension and relief. Because horror games can effectively evoke fear and unease among players, the subsequent relief and excitement are amplified when the fear is overcome. This is also why many games include the design of safe rooms, not only to provide players with a refuge to avoid harm but also to enhance their emotions and strengthen the overall experience.

How to awaken the players' inner fear

Since our physical features determine that when we face fear, we naturally experience stimulation or pleasure after the feeling of terror, how does a game create “proper horror”?

In modern horror games, the atmosphere and immersion are elements they strive for, aiming to achieve identification with the player by seeking resonance.

The brain regions involved in emotion processing, which correspond to fear recognition or processing in horror games, are primarily the amygdala and hippocampus. However, horror games are not solely about scares and terrifying murders. These games often leave suspenseful elements and rely on sound/light design and other elements to create an atmosphere. When eerie music enters our ears, it can trigger amygdala, even without directly seeing horrifying images or objects, causing a sense of fear in our nervous system. At this point, we may not have any background or clues about what we should be afraid of, so the hippocampus retrieves memories and fills in the gaps based on our personal fears.

So what are we afraid of in our memories? Each different cultural context has its own corresponding "nightmares", such as the chainsaw killer in some Western movies, Sadako in Japanese movie scenes, which are often the design prototypes for various horror games. Or in Chinese-styled horror, there are concepts like ghost weddings and red candles in dark, which instinctively increase our heart rate. And sudden ringing of telephones, and the crying of babies can easily make people feel the fear.

One of the most terrifying thing often happens in the field you are familiar with. When a horror scene takes place in a familiar building, it creates a stifling atmosphere, immersing you in the game. After a slow-paced gameplay and numerous puzzle-solving elements in the early stages of some horror games, it delivers a fatal blow to players at the climax of the storyline.

Multimedia further attracts players.

In recent years, horror games have gained their popularity again thanks in part to the rise of the live streaming industry.

Horror games seem to be naturally suited for live streaming, as they are perfect for creating excitement and the atmosphere that attracts audiences. This further promotes the popularity of horror games in the live streaming industry. After all, streamers love the effects of shocking them that horror games could bring and players who are watching love these terrifying but hilarious scenes. Unlike other games, horror games in livestreaming don't require continuous viewing to understand the narrative, nor do they require long-term experience for full immersion. When streamers show exaggerated reactions on screen, it provides viewers with a strong feel of comedy while also boosting the streamer's viewer count. It also serves as free advertising for the game, allowing horror games, which were once niche, to reach a wider audience.

As an audience, when you see your favorite streamer playing a horror game and screaming in fear, you naturally become interested in the game and actively seek to know more about horror game genre. And feelings of joy, anger, sadness, and happiness can easily be transmitted to others through various forms.

Beware of physical discomfort.

As a game genre, horror games may have various gameplay forms at their core mechanics. However, in terms of graphics, developers need to be cautious of brutal and extreme artistic designs that may cause physical discomfort to players, potentially resulting in a negative impact on the game's visual effect. It is important to dive into deeper design aspects such as terrifying monster depictions, fundamental enemy design principles, and the mechanisms how players react, while incorporating early player testing for necessary adjustments. This can help reduce potential reputation risks upon release.

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