Rushgames are those play experiences in which the player must maintain concentration and control against a background of stressful events. There are many different kinds of rushgame, depending upon the source of stress being applied – including high speed, vertigo, situational pressure, instinctive terror, or wanton mischief. The characteristic emotional states induced by rushgames are excitement and its close relatives fear and surprise, and the reward emotion of relief.
Whereas the competitive play of wargames is often assumed to be what videogames
(and games in general) are about, rushgames may actually be more popular – both
Tetris and certain Mario platform games sold more copies than any
wargame ever made. However, there are some soft borders to consider, as many
wargames could also be considered rushgames, in so much as they share similar
emotions. (The boundary condition for wargames has been stated as competition
or violence, however, and rushgames need not contain either). It is worth
noting in this regard that a key wargame emotion – fiero (triumph over
adversity) – may naturally occur in a rushgame, although its companion anger
(which can intensify fiero) is not necessarily associated.
Rushgames correspond to Roger Caillois’ ilinx (vertigo) pattern of play, which we have discussed previously, and also to Nicole Lazzaro’s Serious Fun pattern of emotional response, while wargames correspond to Caillois’ agon and Lazzaro’s Hard Fun. All rushgames tend towards tactical in the terms previously defined, in that the most prevalent forms are necessarily real-time, but in fact a turn-based rushgame (i.e. a strategic rushgame) is perfectly possible (certain cRPGs, such as Final Fantasy X2, produce this kind of experience by increasing pressure on the player within a turn-based format).
We will look at the many different types of rushgame in due course, but first we will consider the relationship between wargames and rushgames from a biological standpoint.
Fight or Flight
The fight-or-flight response is a basic biological stress
mechanism found in most vertebrates and many other animals, first described by
Walter Cannon in 1915. The response was later linked to the hormone and
neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenalin), which raises the heart rate and
triggers a host of other biological responses that prime an animal to take
action when facing a stressful situation. The two responses – fight or flight –
are chosen by the animal in question based on their instincts and
Note that the stress response relating to adrenalin provides the emotional feeling of both excitement and fear. Psychologically, these feel like different states, but biologically, the physiological response is in essence the same (being driven internally by the same chemical). The difference between excitement and fear is subtle, and many psychologists have remarked on their similarity (for instance, Nina Bull’s 1951 study of hypnotically induced fear, and Smith & Ellsworth’s examination of emotional responses in the 1980s). Indeed, the key distinction is the individual’s expectations: when negative outcomes are expected, fear occurs (we might term it anxiety, but it’s the same emotion), but when positive outcomes are expected or no conscious expectation exists, excitement occurs.
The two parts of the fight-or-flight response correspond to
wargames and rushgames respectively. The desire to fight is motivated by anger
overcoming fear – this is the emotional pattern of wargames which, after all,
are about competition and violence – fighting. Conversely, the desire to flee
(flight) is motivated by fear overcoming curiosity (an emotion we will look at
later) and occurs in the absence of anger. This is the exact emotional pattern
associated with rushgames – excitement (which is a form of fear) in the absence
Rushgames, therefore, are about stress without anger – games of adrenalin, which need not involve competition or violence. Stress creates excitement (modified fear) and when the stressful situation passes, the player experiences an endorphin rush of one of two kinds: in the case of simple survival through the stressful episode, relief (the physiological signs of which are exhalation and muscle relaxation), and in the case of a sense of achievement or victory, fiero (the physiological signs of which are hands suddenly held high, and a possible intense vocal exclamation, such as “Yes!”).
It is possible that the same endorphin chemicals are behind
these emotions, and that fiero is simply the same emotional reward as relief
but in a different context – possibly when anger is part of the mix (anger
being tied to norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter similar to
epinephrine i.e. adrenalin). However, I caution against overvaluing
reductionistic perspectives in understanding psychology: the underlying
mechanisms are important for medical and pharmaceutical research, but are
largely irrelevant when considering human behaviour itself.
Additionally, the nature of the play of these
games - which generally involves attempts to maintain control under
difficult conditions, can also lead to surprise - a brief emotional response, probably also related to fear.
For instance, in a rushgame which creates tension by the use of a long
combo chain, if the player breaks the combo by making an unexpected mistake they will display the open
mouth, wide-eyed expression which corresponds to surprise, and similarly a survival horror game may plan shocking events to evoke surprise. Interestingly, surprise can often be followed by relief - especially if the shock doesn't turn out to be as serious as first assessed - which means surprise can also be a route to the emotional reward of relief. Since surprise and fear seem to be quite similar (apart from duration), this reinforces the idea that games of this kind are ultimately about fear, usually experienced as excitement, and the related reward of relief.
Now we understand the biological mechanism behind rushgames, we are ready to look at different kinds of rushgame.
One common way to put the player into a stressful situation is to place them at the limits of their ability to maintain control, which is a technique employed in high speed racers such as the Burnout and F-Zero franchises, and indeed in racing games in general. The same kind of play can be found in snow boarding games and crime-based racing games, which challenge the player to make their escape from the police (such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise).
Usually, these games are also designed with competition in mind – thus skewing the play more towards wargames. This may in fact result in a narrowing of audience – it is perfectly possible to design a game mode for a speed rushgame in which no competition is required.
Another way to evoke the patterns of emotions associated with rushgames is to use vertigo (something Caillois was acutely aware of). A prime example of games that attempt to invoke excitement in this manner are the Mario franchise platform games, almost all of which evoke excitement by dizzying the player with the consequences should they miss their next jump, coupled with the additional pressures of compensating for momentum. The high scroll speed of the Sonic games are perhaps even more obviously vertiginous in nature, and combine elements of speed rushgames with vertigo.
Note, however, that platform games need not necessarily be rushgames – the Mario games are inherently more stressful than many of the 3D platform games that occurred during their heyday in the 1990s, for instance. This is because many of these kinds of game are using the platform game structure, but are really offering players opportunities for exploration and other more relaxed forms of entertainment (we shall look at this later this year).
Puzzle games which fall into the rushgame pattern increase player stress by reducing the player’s capacity to respond to game situations as a result of increasing pressure to act, or decreasing freedom to act. The most successful game of this kind is Tetris itself, which is a quintessential pressure rushgame, placing stress on the player to deal with problems that occur before the play field fills up.
The same kind of play can be found in “plate spinning” games, such as Diner Dash and its antecedent, the 1983 Bally Midway arcade game Tapper. In these games, situations requiring player response occur with increasing frequency, thus creating the stress situation. Clearing each barroom challenge in Tapper gives the player the reward of relief – they survived the crisis situation.
Vertically scrolling shooters in the "bullet maze" style may also fit within this category, if they do not warrant a category of their own.
Closely related to pressure rushgames, another means of putting the player in a stressful situation is to have the player’s overall performance index linked to their capacity to accurately complete actions in succession – commonly achieved via the use of an exponential combo multiplier that dramatically inflates the score the player achieves as a result of many successive successes. In a combo-focussed game, one mistake breaks the chain – it is this undesirable outcome which provides the excitement and fear, since to reach the highest scores absolutely requires few if any breaks in the combo chain.
Examples of this style are endemic and hugely popular. The recently released Link’s Crossbow Training is the latest of a long tradition of shooting galleries based on this form, and the classic NiGHTS: Into Dreams became a chain rushgame after the player mastered the basics. Most successful of all the games in this kind, however, are rhythm action games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. These function initially as pressure rushgames in general, and then (once the player becomes fully cognisant of the scoring mechanism) as chain rushgames.
Another approach to the emotions associated with rushgames is to go beyond excitement and attempt to engender fear directly – often by use of traditionally “scary” monsters (zombies, alien creatures, spiders, snakes etc.). The survival horror game, of which the Resident Evil franchise is the most commercially successful, represents a special kind of rushgame in which terror is encoded into the narrative setting of the virtual world.
These games usually also add a logistical element, namely the conservation of ammunition and healing items. Indeed, this element is crucial to the general feel of the survival rushgame – decreasing resources increases the stress upon the player, making the surprises the game triggers to cause the player jump with fright all the more effective. A great number of tricks from the narrative language of film can be gainfully employed in this style of rushgame, which is the only kind in which fear is expressly more important than excitement.
A final approach to engendering excitement and relief corresponds to another aspect of Caillois’ ilinx play pattern – something discussed previously as destructive ilinx. Games which draw on this approach tap into the normally repressed desire to cause destruction and chaos – the pleasure one gets from stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.
The most famous of these mischief rushgames is the Grand
Theft Auto franchise, which invites the player to take part in all manner
of illegal acts they would never consider doing in real life, but within the
magic circle of play, where normal social rules are suspended, the freedom to misbehave is irresistible. (Of course, GTA
games also function as speed rushgames, and in many other play patterns as
well - this is part of the secret of its success).
Other examples include the crash mode of games such as Burnout 2 that allow the player to cause gigantic pile ups which are graded in terms of the destruction caused.
Rushgames are a genre of videogames that place the player under stress in order to create excitement, without expressly needing to use competition or violence. There are several key forms currently being commercially exploited:
- Speed rushgames: use the difficulty of maintaining control at high velocities as the source of stress.
- Vertigo rushgames: use the risk of falling as a source of stress.
- Pressure rushgames: increase the number of critical situations the player has to deal with as a source of stress.
- Chain rushgames: use the risk of breaking an exponential score combo as a source of stress.
- Survival rushgames: use fearful monsters and restriction of the means of defence as a source of stress.
- Mischief rushgames: draw upon our natural tendency to repress destructive and chaotic impulses as a source of stress.
These forms of games excite the player by presenting stressful situations that the player is challenged to survive, through which the player earns the emotional reward of relief, and in some cases fiero (triumph over adversity). Surprise is also associated with this kind of game - both in terms of intentional shocks and the momentary panic when a mistake costs the player dearly (as in a broken combo in a chain rushgame, a crash in a speed rushgame, or a fall in a vertigo rushgame).
This form is actually even more commercially successful than wargames – both Tetris and Mario have outsold the most popular wargames by orders of magnitude – which begs the question: if rushgames are more popular than wargames, why does the games industry spend so much more of its resources making games of violence?
Please share your experiences of rushgames in the comments.