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Using Fear in your Game Designs

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and Fear of Loss are two of the easiest ways to give your players pleasurable eustress, as opposed to negative stress. And they don't even need to be aware of it - it all works on a neurochemical level.

Filip Wiltgren, Blogger

August 10, 2015

6 Min Read

Would the world end if I missed the bus QuoteImagine this: you’re going to work. You’re one of those ecological types who takes the train (or you’re too poor to drive, who knows). You’re walking down to the station when you realize that the train is already there – you’ve got seconds before it leaves! So you start running, coat flapping (hey, maybe you’re one of those cool guys who wear a coat), leather patches on your cardigan slapping your elbows (or not). And then the train leaves. Without you. What happens?


You don’t lose your job. You aren’t late for a life changing meeting (if you didn’t take an earlier train just to be on the safe side before your life changing meeting then it couldn’t have been that life changing). You get to relax at the station for a while until the next train. Or you call a friend and ask her to pick you up on her way. Or you call in sick.

Either way, there’s nothing there that would warrant your hurrying. If someone asked you “would you run for a mile in your suit and shirt so you wouldn’t be a few minutes late?” you’re likely to have answered “no”. And yet there you were, running like crazy because the train was leaving.

Scratch that. There I was, running like crazy, coat flapping and I had no idea why I was running. Would the world end if I missed the bus? Would I get fired? Would I end up homeless, eating old hamburgers from the dumpster behind the McDonald’s? Would anything, anything at all, happen?

No. At worst I’d have to work twenty minutes longer. Probably I’d just cut my lunch short. Nothing would happen.

So why was I running?

FOMO: The Fear Of Missing Out

I was running because I had decided to take that bus. It was my bus and in my mind’s eye I was already on that bus. I was afraid of losing it.

See, there’s a wonderful pair of non-negative, non-reactive fear: the fear of loss and the fear of missing out.

But let’s back up. There are lots of different types of fear, the fear when you when a cat unexpectedly jumps up beside you, the fear when you go over the top of a roller coaster, the fear of having your mother-in-law visit. We’re not looking at those. We’re looking at fears that we can use to achieve an action in our players.

We don’t want to scare them with extinction (read death) or the loss of autonomy or ego death (shame, humiliation etc.). Most of those, and their derivatives, are way to strong to be comfortable for the majority of players. “Hey, Joe, make your move before the angry clown chops your head off. No, mom, we’re just playing. Mind the blood.”

We’re looking for a fear that’s pleasurable. Like the roller coaster one, the kind of fear that brings on eustress instead of stress. The kind of fear that people get hooked on.

FOMO doesn't need actual loss quoteThat’s where loss and missing out rule. They’re very basic. We don’t need to construct any elaborate setups in order to achieve them. No violin strings building up to the crescendo, no Freddy behind the closet door. All we need to do is give a player something, then threaten to remove it.

Or better yet, we give our players the possibility of something, then threaten to remove that possibility.

Wait, wait, where did the whole “running to the train” thing go?

Hopefully not. When we’re unthinkingly running for that bus we’re reacting to the fear of loss. We don’t know the impact of that loss and we don’t need to know it. It’s enough that it’s there even if it’s entirely imaginary (we haven’t got the bus, we’ve just decided to take it).

That’s a key point: the fear of loss doesn’t come from having something you own threatened but from having something you consider yourself to own threatened.

Using Greed and Fear of Loss

The possibility of fear of loss activates at the moment when your players decide that they own something. It’s the moment of decision, or realization, or greed that kicks in the fear of loss.

Add to that the fear of missing out. Let’s imagine that we’re playing a game. I’ve got a house, you’ve got a house, our friend Duke Dukeman’s got a house. Everyone’s got a house. Nothing much can happen here.

But let’s say that I and Duke’s got a house each and you could buy one with your KrugerDollars right now. But look, there’s a car, right there, cheap as can be. Take the car. Do it. Take the car.

Miss out on the house.

Fear of missing out is socially generated. We don’t fear missing out on that ten tons of bio-degradable manure delivered to your door right now. But we would fear it if all of our friends had it and the campaign was ending.

Check: fear of missing out doesn’t need loss. All it needs is that others have gained something that you might not gain. It’s self-generating. No resources necessary.

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re playing a game. There are two options, buy a house and buy a car. You can only do one or the other. Now:

  1. You don’t have anything. You calculate the expected value of the house, counter the expected value of the car. You take the one most valuable.

  2. You’ve already go the house but you need to repair it or it breaks and you lose it. You can still choose to take the car instead. The situation is the same as in A) except that you’ve already got the house. You’re emotionally invested in the house. You’re experiencing a fear of loss vs. a potential gain and that fear of loss is skewing your decision towards taking the house (at least if you’re a normally working human being, if you’re a hardcore gamer you might have erased your fear of loss in this particular game).

  3. You don’t have anything but everybody else’s got a house and this is the last house available in the game. It won’t wait, or somebody else might take it. Enter fear of missing out. Once again you’re skewed towards houses.

So what do you do as a designer?

  1. Your house is breaking down, there are no new houses, everybody else has got a house. Lose this one and you’ve lost all house possibilities. You really want to keep that house.Now make the car, very, very attractive.

From Wiltgren.com - Game Design, Writing and Productivity. New updates every Monday and Friday.

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