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  • An Investigation into the Effects of Horror Games

    - Darren McKettrick
  • [Staffordshire University alumnus Darren McKettrick takes a look at how players are affected by horror games, examining which in-game elements are especially effective.]


    "It isn't what you see, but what you can't see. It's the suggestion; the subtle teasing of the subconscious; the lonely creaking of the floorboard resonating throughout an empty hallway; the slow advance around the corner; the swelling sense of dread as the ever-present evil looms near refuses to reveal itself. Fear is not an adrenaline rush. It's that helpless feeling of be alone in the dark." [Fahs, 2008]

    This introduction to Travis Fahs' Alone in the Dark Retrospective illustrates the direction of this project. The horror genre has featured in games since its creation. Going back to the text based game Zork (1980) a section of the game had the player stumbling around a dark cave scared of being eaten by a Grue, a situation no one had experienced before in a game. Horror games then continued to be produced, including The Lurking Horror (1987), Alone in the Dark (1992), Resident Evil (1996), Silent Hill (1999), F.E.A.R (2005), Dead Space (2008 and Slender (2012). Horrors present a new challenge to players after years of game where the player must learn new fighting skills; horrors required the player to escape from the threat.

    Horror games are interesting to analyze for several reasons. In terms of emotional content, horrors can affect almost every emotion possible - raging from disgust to happiness, suspense and fear to relief. The emotional effects of horror can be seen as suspense, fear and worry, further studies suggests that horrors relies on monsters creating a feeling of horror and disgust.

    This Dissertation will examine:

    • How players are affected by horror games - do their hearts start being faster, do they move about more, do they run from the room terrified
    • The psychology behind horror games - why are you afraid?
    • Which factors within horror game create the biggest scare - it is the atmosphere or enemies that make a player terrified or is it the relationship with the character


    The aim of this project is to investigate how players are affected by horror games, and which factors within these games create the greatest scare from the player.

    The Oxford Dictionary definition of scare is: "1 cause great fear or nervousness. 2 a sudden attack of fright".[i]

    The purpose of this project is, therefore, to investigate how horror games can cause the player to be scared.

    Aims and Objectives


    At the research stage of the project, multiple sources will be viewed which will show the creation process behind horror games, the effects of horror games on people, the psychology behind the genre and how to improve horror games.

    A number of critically acclaimed horror games will be played and examined to determine why they are rated as some of the best games of all time.

    After all the research has been completed, it will be split into two different sections. The two sections are: Atmosphere and Psychological. The atmosphere section will detail the aspects that create a sense of dread and terror from the environment, sounds and non playable characters. The psychological section will examine the elements that are left to the players' imagination.

    The aim of this stage is to gather information that can be used in the creation of horror games. This information can also be used by the game industry for the creation and improvement of horror games or any other game where it could be applicable.


    The testing section will require a number of participants to play several horror games. This experiment will be used to find the factors within the horror games that produce the biggest ‘scares' for the player.


    The research section will focus on what makes horror games scary and the psychology behind horror games. After both sections have been researched and detailed, they will be split into two further sections which are: Atmosphere and Psychological. These two sections will reveal how each element can be used.

    What makes a horror game scary - This section will look into the methods that are used within a game to scare the player. This could be the music that is used, where the game takes place or how combat is dealt with in the game.

    Atmosphere - This section will detail which methods are used to create an atmosphere in a game. For example how the audio track could consist of a heartbeat, beating faster as the character gets closer to an objective.

    Psychological - This section will examine the methods that will alter the player's mental state. This could be done be the player thinking that they are being chased by an enemy when there is actually nothing chasing them.

    The psychology behind horror games - This section will describe why a player feels the emotions they do when playing a horror game. For example, how the player feels empathy if a character is being chased by a monster and so will feel afraid as well.

    Critically acclaimed horror games - This section will be a review of horror games which have been noted to be some of the best horrors created.

    What makes horror games scary?

    Ambiguity - In horrors it is the things that are left unsaid that will engage the player's imagination. The player must be guided through key areas and key points of information, but they should have a hunch that something just isn't right. For example, the introduction of Silent Hill 2 makes the player walk to the town. The area is covered in a thick fog so the player cannot see if there is anything in front of them until it is too late, and while walking, all the player can hear is the character's footsteps, a minimal sound track and occasional sounds as if a dog is running near the character and growling. However, the player encounters no enemies, but because of the audio and visuals the player is put on edge.

    Don't show; persuade the player to scare themselves.

    Strong Sense of Place - Within horrors there is a wide array of places that the player will instantly understand as a dangerous and spooky, for example abandoned schools, hospitals and hotels. If there is a ‘safe place' within the game, this should not be used by the player as a hub or base, but as a place for them to cower in a corner and to contemplate the next horror. But if there is a place that the player must return to again and again, it is more terrifying when something about it changes. In the game Silent Hill 4 the player is given a home which they leave and come back to throughout the game. As the game progresses, the room becomes vulnerable because enemies have the ability to invade it.

    Within a horror game no place is safe.

    Subtle changes to the environment - When something becomes routine within a horror game then it is not a horror anymore because the player knows what will happen. But if minor changes are made they can both excite the player's curiosity and increase their fear. If the game is taking place within one building then items should slowly start to disappear, the music should change while progressing through the story, and if the character can receive messages they should eventfully become warnings that make very little sense.

    The player must never feel as if they have mastered the environment.

    Relationship with the Protagonist - This is essential. Most horror games use empathy as the emotion of choice so that the player feels for the hero, and will fear for the characters' safety. But other kinds of emotional relationships can be used to create more opportunities to unsettle the player. In the video game Haunting Grounds, the player is cast as a powerless young girl who can only run from the cultists who are chasing her. This makes the game more frightening as the player often experiences distress at the girl's circumstances. However, in the game Spec Ops: The Line, the player takes the role of Captain Martin Walker. Walker is a soldier who can defend himself, so the player should not fear for his safety. But the game forces the player's choices and the degree to which the mental condition of Walker's mind deteriorates, to express horror. During one scene in the game the player is given a weapon which can cause massive destruction, and told to use it against their enemies. But after doing so, the player learns that there is an unexpected consequence to what they have done. When the scene was being focus tested, after the players had realized what they had done, they were pausing the game and leaving the room. [ii] This shows that both the player and the character are experiencing some of the same emotions about what they have done within the game, because the player who was controlling the character was oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

    Fear Must Have a Purpose - Fear must be grounded within something real. All emotions are personal. Fear should be made personal by linking it to something that is mundane.

    It should bring the fear home for the player.

    Human Interaction - Bringing a human drama into a horror will deepen the player's emotional attachment to the characters. However, simulating a human being within a game is a difficult problem; this can be overcome with simple actions. For example, in the game Ico the protagonist must hold a girl's hand and guide her through the game. Without this contact the girl would be lost or taken by the monsters that are chasing her.

    Anticipation - Horror games need a sense of anticipation. This must be drawn out for as long as possible. The player needs to know, at all times, that something horrible is waiting for them just around the corner. However, when the horrible thing actually happens all of the tension is lost. When the player has finally seen what it is they must face or overcome, something becomes defined which doesn't need to be feared as much as the being their own imagination has created.

    Combat - Combat in horror games should be simple. However, the player shouldn't have full control over the situation, whether the enemy's behaviour is hard to predict or the character is weaker than the enemy. Actual combat is not as scary as the implied threat of combat. If the game does require the player to fight enemies, the combat should be ‘up close and personal'. Defeating an enemy by shooting them from across the level does not add any sense of fear because the character is not in any real danger. If ranged weapons are used, having limited ammo ensures that the player is constantly afraid that they will run out.

    Sound - Sound in horror games allows the game to scare the player even before they see an enemy. It also creates atmosphere and in some cases a build up of tension. The music is usually composed of long dawn out notes or repeats of harsh sounds mixed with soothing ones. Some music that is not in horror games can nevertheless instil a sense of dread in a player. For example, during the underwater levels in Sonic the Hedgehog, as Sonic started the run out of oxygen the music's tempo would increase, which would in turn cause the player to start panicking. Within some horror games sounds are linked to certain events so that when the player hears them they will begin to get anxious because of the link they have made with the sound and the event. For example in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, when the player hears the Nemesis theme played, they start getting nervous because they know that Nemesis is nearby. If a horror game did not include audio, then it would not be as immersive or scary. This has been proven by Raymond User who created an experiment which investigates the importance of audio in computer games [iii]. In this experiment a number of participants are required to play a number of games while being monitored for physical responses. The participants played the games with, and without, audio. After the experiment was finished, it was discovered that when playing the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there was a significant difference between the two groups. The group with audio had a significantly increased heart rate compared to the group with no audio.

    Enemies - An enemy in a horror must either be unsettling, threatening or a combination of both in design. An example of this is the difference between a Werewolf and the Wolfman. To begin with they are both wolf based but they focus on different designs. The Wolfman is a twisted distortion of mankind. When you look at it you are afraid because you know at one point it was human and somewhere inside it there still might be a shred of humanity left. You are terrified because you can put yourself in its shoes and see it happening to you. On the other hand, the Werewolf has a complete lack of humanity. It is a pure beast which just follows its instincts with rage and savagery. It is the unconscious thought of being haunted by something that will not show mercy and which is doing this for no peculiar reason other than its own nature. Another way to scare players in the enemy design is the use of innocence. In horrors if the enemy has a sign of innocence it will disturb the player. Innocence is scary for a number of reasons. It shows the fear of a person's own children performing horrible acts against others, becoming something hideous, and the fact that most people's own moral conscience would stop them from killing something like a child.

    Atmosphere - In the Oxford Dictionary atmosphere is defined as: ‘the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or creative work' [iv]. This section will therefore detail the elements that create a tone or mood of a horror game. The elements are: - Strong sense of place, subtle changes to the environment; fear must have a purpose, combat and sound.

    • Strong Sense of Place - This factor creates a sense of atmosphere because of the player's knowledge that most horror stories happen in an abandoned hospital, school, hotel or dark woods.
    • Subtle Changes to the Environment - As items start to disappear, the music starts to change and other characters start acting bizarrely, this will alert the player that something is not right.
    • Fear must have a Purpose - Something within the game should relate to the player, whether this is the setting, characters or story.
    • Combat - Depending on the setting of the game, a character will have to fight according to it. For example, if the game is set in the medieval ages the character will have to fight their enemies with swords or bows.
    • Sound - In the game Max Payne, during a nightmare-like sequence, the background music is a baby crying and if the player falls off the maze the baby will start screaming. This creates a very disturbing section of the game.


    This section will examine the aspects that affect the player's mental and emotional states. It will examine the elements within a horror game that will change a player's emotional or mental state. The elements are: - ambiguity, relationship with the protagonist, human interaction and anticipation.

    • Ambiguity - A horror game should never show what the enemy looks like at the beginning of the game. This will allow the player to create their own monster and will have the player scared at every corner while they wait for an enemy to appear.
    • Relationship with the Protagonist - By creating a relationship between the player and protagonist, the player will have an emotional connection to them and will feel fear when the hero is in danger.
    • Human Interaction - By having the player's character interact with other characters within the game it will increase the player's attachment to them.
    • Anticipation - Anticipation is the build up of tension. As tension builds throughout the game the player will become more and more tense until it can be released.

    The Enemies aspect can fit within both sections. It fits into the Atmosphere because design and look of the enemy could be a reflection of the environment. For example, Splicers in Bioshock. Splicers are the citizens of Rapture, due to abusive ADAM consumption, their minds and bodies are mutated beyond repair and are dependent on ADAM. It also fits in Psychological because the enemies could show innocence which would cause the player to be hesitant when faced with them.

    The Psychology behind Horror

    Mirror Neurons - In the early 1990s, a team of neuroscientists made the discovery that a certain group of neurons in a monkey's brain fired when it performed an action and also when it watched others perform actions.

    Mirror neurons are believed to be very important for a human's ability to empathize with others. Dr Marco Iacoboni says "Mirror neurons are motor cells. That is, they send signals to our muscles to move our body, make actions, grab a cup of coffee, smile, and so on. However, they differ from other motor cells because they are also activated by the sight of somebody else's actions." For example, a mirror neuron is fired when you reach for a drink, but also when another person is reaching for a drink. "By being active even when we do not move at all and simply watch other people moving, they sort of create an inner imitation of actions of others inside us." [v]

    Wondering how exactly this happens, Iacoboni and several others conducted a study (Carr,Iaconboni and Dubeau 2003). [vi] In this study they used equipment to monitor the brain activity of subjects who watched images of faces expressing different emotions. Upon seeing facial expressions mirror neurons fired, but also the neurons in the limbic system fired. The limbic system is a portion of the brain which is related to emotions. So in a way the subjects were actually feeling the emotions themselves to some degree.

    The effect of mirror neurons can be seen in the game The Walking Dead, because the game frequently shows the player, the faces of the characters and their facial expressions. Therefore when a character in the game is angry or disgusted, the mirror neurons in the player activate as if they are making the expression themselves and so feel some of the emotions to some degree.

    Empathy - Empathy is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another". [vii] Empathy is the ability to understand another person's emotional condition from their perspective.

    The psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are three types of empathy. The first is ‘Perspective Taking'. This is putting yourself in another's shoes. It is used to understand where others are coming from, but not understanding their emotions.

    The second type of empathy is ‘Personal Distress'. This is feeling another's emotions. For example, while playing a horror game, you may start to feel scared when the character in the game is being chased or threatened. This process is called ‘emotional contagion'. Emotional contagion is the process where emotions are treated like a disease and spread. [viii]

    The final type is Empathic concern. This type is what the majority of people think of when they hear the term empathy. It is the ability to recognize another's emotions and understand them.

    For an example of this in a game, during one scene in The Walking Dead the player has the task of giving the last four pieces of food to a group of ten people, all of whom have not eaten for days. Some of the characters are children, and one is an old man with heart disease. Throughout the game the player has made relationships with all the characters, so the player will feel upset if the people they do not feed get upset or angry.

    Fight or Flight - The fight or flight response is a psychological reaction that happens in the presence of something that is terrifying. The body will prepare to either fight the threat or flee from it. It is also noted that this can happen even if the threat is imaginary.

    This was first discovered in 1920s by Walter Cannon [ix].Cannon discovered that animals react to a threat with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system regulates our internal organs and controls some of the muscles within the body. So if there is a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system it means the body involuntarily takes over and causes the animal to either flee or fight.

    This can seen in horror games in the experiment performed with this report. When the participants were playing the game Slender, some of them when seeing the monster for the first time would panic in an attempt to escape, which in most cases would end up with the character's death. But the participants that remained calm had a better chance of escaping.

    Research Analysis

    It appears from the articles read and games played that it is important that the Atmosphere must be believable and that the story, characters and enemies should be a reflection of the protagonist's mental state. For example, in Silent Hill 2 the whole town and its inhabitants are a reflection of James's mental condition.

    The setting should be as realistic and believable as possible so that the player will be immersed into it. For example, Bioshock creates a whole city which the player can explore. It is believable because from the audio logs the player can gather they had a sense of what happened to the city before they arrived and why everyone is crazy.

    The enemies in the game should not be easy to defeat. This can be achieved if they have more amour or health than the player, have powerful weapons or they are greater in number. This should be done so that the player does feel fear for the character, however if the monster can be defeated, then make sure it does not take the player a long time to do so as they will just get irritated and quit the game.


    The test will be an experiment. In this experiment a number of participants will play several horror game levels. During play the participant's heart rate and physical reactions will be recorded and analyzed. The experiment will take place in a university lecture room. This was decided because the room had the capabilities to play the games and it had a black out feature so that the players would be playing in darkness.

    The aims of the experiment are to examine horror games, see if there are any common features in them that will increase a player's heart rate or cause a physical reaction and to find which elements in a horror could be classed as the ‘scariest'.

    The design of the experiment is to identify which elements in a horror game are scary. This will be determined by the participant's heart rate, physical reactions and the responses from a questionnaire, which will be completed after the experiment has finished.

    Each participant will be asked before the experiment to fill in a form (Appendix 1)which will ask them about their previous experience with horror and if they have played any of the games beforehand. They must also sign a consent form (Appendix 2). After the experiment is finished they will again be asked to fill in a form (Appendix 3). This will ask participants which games they found the most and least scary and the reasons for this. The participants' heart rate will be measured by a heart rate monitor which will be clipped onto the player's ear or finger. (Appendix 4) Their physical reaction will be monitored via a video camera with audio recording capabilities.

    The games that will be played for the experiment are Resident Evil 5, Dead Space 2, Silent Hill 3, Bioshock, Slender and Spec Ops: The Line. Each game has been chosen because they all have received praise from a number of game reviewers and each creates horror through different means.

    Resident Evil 5 - During this game the player must survive while waiting for a helicopter to destroy a gate blocking their path. The player will face a large number of enemies and one boss-type enemy who wields a giant axe. The player starts the game on a hill which they must descend; the player then enters a house where a cut scene begins. In this they see another character being executed. The enemy leading the execution then sees the player and orders the crowd of people to attack them. The player can then fortify the building they are in by pushing shelves in front of doors and windows, and gather ammo from the area. Eventfully the boss-type enemy destroys a wall of the building allowing other enemies to enter and the player is allowed to roam a bigger area. The player must then survive until the helicopter arrives to destroy another gate so the player can escape. If the character dies, the game is stopped. This level was chosen to see how players cope with constant attack from enemies while having nowhere to run.

    Dead Space 2 - The player must complete the beginning of the game. During this the character the player is in control of is stuck in a straight jacket and must flee from enemies who are chasing him. The game begins with the character being interrogated and hallucinating. Eventually the character blacks out. When they awaken they are being released by another person who gets attacked and starts to mutate in front of them. The player must then escape. They make their way to an observation area where they are then grabbed by another character who holds a knife to their throat but releases them from the straight jacket and directs them to a locker with items inside. When the character turns around, the other person then cuts their own throat in front of the player. If the character dies they will respawn and continue. This section of the game was chosen to see how players coped with not being able to fight back against their enemies.

    Silent Hill 3 - The section of the game chosen is the introduction. During this the player has no knowledge of where they are or what is happening, so it is up to the player how they proceed. The player starts at an entrance of an amusement park where there are a number of rabbit costumes all with bloody smiles. When the player leaves this area they go to a retail section where they encounter the first enemy. The player will eventually reach a rollercoaster and start to walk down the tracks, only to be met by a cart coming from the opposite direction. Once the character dies, the game is stopped. This game has been chosen to see how players cope when there are no clear instructions on what to do and to see how players cope with the disturbing and unnatural atmosphere of the game.

    Bioshock - In this game the player will play the introduction. The player must navigate the first area of Rapture during which they are given their first weapons and plasmids and introduced to the population of Rapture. The game starts with the plane which the character is aboard crashing into the sea. After finding a light house with a biosphere inside, the player descends into Rapture. When the biosphere resurfaces they see another character being killed by a splicer. The player then makes their way through the level while fighting a number of enemies. The player can respawn during the game. This game was chosen because of the atmosphere and how it creates a believable world.

    Slender: The Eight Pages - In this game the player must search dark woods while looking for eight pages and being stalked by Slender. When the player encounters Slender, static will start to fill the screen until the only thing the player can see is static and Slender's face. Slender will only start stalking the player after they have found the first page; the soundtrack will change to a beating drum. After finding the second page, short bursts of static will occur. The player will only have one life while playing. This game was chosen to see how players dealt with being chased by an entity which they cannot fight against or reason with.

    Spec Ops: The Line - The player takes the role of a soldier who must use a mortar to kill a number of enemies. When all the enemies have been disabled, the player must then walk through the carnage they have caused. When they reach a trench they see they have mistakenly killed a large number of innocents. The player can respawn during play. This game is not classed as a horror game, but it was selected because it shows the player the consequences of their actions, and to see how players cope with killing a large number of innocents.

    The hypothesis for this experiment is that the game Slender: The Eight Pages will cause the highest heart rates and create the greatest physical reactions because of how it builds tension and has numerous jump scares. However, the game that will be rated highest by the participants will be Silent Hill 3 because of its dark and unsettling atmosphere.


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