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.
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