Verbs Revisited

Fight or Flight

Janet_leigh Fear is one of the emotions that games have learned to evoke, often by borrowing tricks already developed in film and other entertainments, such as funfair spook houses. Biologically, the emotion fear leads to the infamous fight-or-flight response, and the expression of fear in games is no exception. Ironically, the expression of fight-or-flight in games means that fear is actually very hard to maintain, devolving into the more familiar emotions of play. Only the use of another related emotion – surprise – allows games to maintain at atmosphere of dread. 

Ordinarily, the play of a videogame induces a relatively common set of emotions. Nicole Lazzaro took the work of psychologist Paul Ekman and identified which of Ekman’s emotions related to videogame play. She concluded that the most important emotions to the play of videogames were fiero (triumph over adversity) and frustration (a form of anger), excitement and relief, wonder and curiosity, and amusement. The combination of excitement, relief and fiero are the stable trio of emotions that the play of a large majority of current videogames depends upon.

Caillois’ play pattern of agon invokes this central trio of emotions quite readily, as we have already seen. In order to cause a player to experience fear, it is important not to have the play devolve too readily into agon – for in agon, the fear is drowned out by the absorbing experience of striving to achieve victory. Fear, therefore, is evoked through the play pattern of mimicry – by creating the illusion of a situation where the player can feel afraid. 

One of the earliest instances of this is the Commodore 64 game Scarabaeus (Ariolasoft, 1986), tagged ‘The Incredible 3D Search and Survival Program’. It was also an early instance of 3D graphics, using a square-grid 3D maze as the basis of more engaging play in a manner not dissimilar to Doom, six years later. Now all but forgotten, this game evoked fear chiefly through it’s use of sound effects, in particular the sound of the player’s heartbeat, which increased when they were in danger. The effect at the time was quite spectacularly effective, and nothing else in the 1980s can stake so sure a claim as being the earliest evocation of fear in videogames.

When fear is triggered, it leads to the infamous fight-or-flight response – the individual must make a split second judgement as to whether to save themselves by running away, or to fight against what threatens them. (All this behaviour is related to specific primitive brain structures– the thalamus, amygdala and hypothalamus). Now in games, the player’s response when facing the fight-or-flight response is essential in terms of the ongoing experience of fear, because if every time this response is triggered the player’s response is fight, then the effect of fear is negated and the focus of the play of the game switches from mimicry to agon, with a corresponding shift of the emotional focus away from fear and instead towards fiero (and its companion, frustration).

One of the reason Scarabaeus was so effective at evoking fear was that the player did not have any capacity to defend themselves. When threatened, they had to run – and for the full experience of fear, this may be essential. 

Fatal_frame_3_ghostbust In modern games of fear, however, the player is almost always provided a means to defend themselves – whether playing Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Project Zero/Fatal Frame, the fight-or-flight response tends to lead to fight, not flight, thus undercutting the effectiveness of any fear that is invoked. Instead, such games rely on a different emotion to trick the player into feeling briefly afraid: surprise.

Ekman identifies surprise as the shortest of emotional responses, over in a fraction of a second, and relates it to fear while noting that it is physiologically distinct. Surprise is the secret weapon of horror movies and horror games alike. Distract the player or viewer briefly (and suspend the music) then pull a sudden shock – result: a rapid and confusing experience of fight-or-flight expressed as surprise. This trick is quite effective at keeping the player on their toes, although frequent surprises are quite distinct from a full experience of fear itself. 

It is an irony of modern horror games that by providing so much agon (which many publishers erroneously presume is essential to videogames) the capacity to evoke fear is undercut because the theme of agon tends to drown out the theme of mimicry. The problem is, if you remove the agon, then you risk key players (especially reviewers in the specialist press) not enjoying the game. It seems doubtful that even the indie game makers will attempt to make a game which evokes fear without devolving into agon.

This is not to suggest that modern horror games do not successfully cause fear – they certainly do. When I play a Project Zero/Fatal Frame game with my wife, it is readily apparent that her primary experience is fear: she will be exploring the environment, and when a ghost jumps out at her she screams and panics. The fight-and-flight response leads her always to the same action: pressing the pause button (the logical equivalent of choosing ‘flight’). She then hands the controller to me so that I can fight the ghost. 

My wife can enjoy the fear of games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill because she does not have to fight the monsters (she makes me to do the dirty work – which to be fair, I do generally enjoy). For myself, I get to experience the surprise, but rarely get to experience the fear, because I always must be ready to fight. Is it possible we might see a videogame deliver fear without agon in the future? Possible, certainly. But I am doubtful that commercial game development is ready for so bold an experiment. 


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For the sake of discussion, I point out the Clock Tower games, wherein the entire game is about running away. You progress, searching for clues adventure game style, until Scissorman turns up, at which point you have to run like crazy (using a horrible, limping kind of movement) until you're able to (a) set a really awful trap that delays Scissorman so that you can run even further, or (b) hide effectively.

... totally not scary, though.

I think that combat in horror games is necessary, in that it allows catharsis. Without this, people would eventually just find the game getting "too much", and stop playing. The trick is in pacing that catharsis better than is currently managed, making it a significant event rather than a pervasive game mechanic.

Greg: but is the problem with Clock Tower that its central conceit doesn't work, or that the game design doesn't support it? :) The construction of the game space is so channeled it doesn't really allow for much play at all, just hoop jumping.

I agree broadly with what you are saying, but I think the answer might lie in seperating the fear and the play.

Imagine, if you will, a game set in a mansion, with an underlying Lovecraftian mythos. The exploration of the mansion can be used as the centre for the play, with some backstory investigation a la Lovecraft, the horror elements can be used solely to evoke fear. I can imagine writing a game design for The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward (with a little work) that would do the job. In fact, there are several Lovecraft short stories that might work in this role.

To some extent, I'm open to your argument that the combat is necessary, but a part of me feels strongly there are other approaches that simply haven't been looked at yet.

Just posting to say your response has been read and appreciated! You're right in that Clock Tower isn't really the best example of what it's trying to do. Other than that, I think I really have nothing further to say; I guess I'll have to wait until I've played another attempt at escaping the Resident Evil/Silent Hill box.

Clock Tower was the game that scare me the most and game me nightmares for months and months. I have zombie dreams alot, those don't scare me so much because the dream's "balance" gives me just enough ammo. I rather enjoy my zombie dreams, but I'm glad I haven't had a Scissorman dream for almost a decade.

Thanks for the comment, Patrick! One thing is clear about fear and games - different things push different people's buttons. :)

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