Horrifying Video Games

Özge Üstündağ

Satisfying the hunger for fear

Have you ever seen a horrific video game trailer? In mere seconds, you will feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck as your mouth gets dry and your stomach churns in anxiety. All the while your systems, not bothering to wait for your conscious decision, pump copious volumes of blood to your limbs to help you run as far away from the screen as possible if the need arises.

While we “consciously” know that eventually we are going to get really scared playing horror games, our bodies’ automatic reaction to fear (e.g., sweaty palms, heart beating fast, etc.) does not necessarily change. Moreover, we experience the same fear reaction whether we are watching a horror game preview or we are actually in the game for real.


Whenever we feel our life is in danger, the “fight or flight” response kicks into gear. Basically, we either want to fight the evil-eyed monster, or we want to run like there is no tomorrow, with our heels bumping against our rear ends.

Humans know the taste of fear since the pre-historic times. Yet, it is something that we have been accustomed to suppress as a society. In other words, we have been conditioned to cloak it under the “negative emotions” umbrella, assuming it to be a hindrance to our performance as human beings. However, as Katerina Bantinaki, the University of Crete lecturer in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, argues in “The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion,” exposure to frightening stimuli may help us overcome our phobias and re-shape our belief systems in ways that will help us grow out of our comfort zone.

Gaming is scary and pleasurable

Unlike violent video games, fear-inducing gaming has not been extensively researched in the past. Nowadays though, researchers wonder whether playing video games get us frightened in the same way that watching scary movies does and whether fear possesses a hedonic quality.

In an effort to illuminate this understudied field, Indiana University Media School researchers surveyed 269 college students in 2013, asking them about their experiences with playing widely known video games such as “Resident Evil” which pack enough horrors to make watchers’ teeth chatter.

Findings of the study, led by IU Assistant Professor Nicole Martins and Ph.D. student Teresa Lynch, published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, suggest that playing horror-laden video games is indeed as chilling as watching an eerie movie. In addition, “adrenaline junkie” gamers were mostly influenced by the unknown and disfigured humans (compared to natural disasters and vampires). According to Martins, enjoyment of survival horror video games might come from “knowing that no harm is really going to come to you." In essence, games such as "Call of Duty" and "Amnesia: The Dark Descent” may help players gain insight into their own fears without actually putting their lives in danger.

Similar to what Bantinaki highlights in her account of fear’s hedonic appeal, the idea of control plays a critical role in enabling gamers to experience their fear reactions to the fullest. 

There is a catch

Graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison point out that playing video games, though useful for managing emotions, comes with a catch. While frightening games may be exhilarating, players’ outlook on life might darken considerably due to the generous measures of violence they contain.  

In their research, university graduate students in Communication Arts, James Alex Bonus and Alanna Peebles, and School of Journalism Assistant Professor, Karyn Riddle found that the participants who were intentionally frustrated with an extremely difficult game were better able to transform their anger into ambition. In other words, after sweating through a game which was intentionally designed to be impossible to complete, players were more motivated to finish the games in the second phase of the study. They not only enjoyed these games more but they also believed that they possessed the skills to complete them, that is, they had strengthened feelings of competency. However, those who enjoyed the violent game the most (Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage) seemed to perceive the world in a more hostile way compared to those who played a less violent game (LittleBigPlanet 2).

The bottom line is that there seems to be something exciting about “surviving” the unknown. Mindful exploration of our fears, be it through horror games or something else altogether, is not only insightful but also emotionally strengthening. 


  • 1. Bantinaki, K. (2012). The paradox of horror: Fear as a positive emotion. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 70, 383-392.
  • 2. Bonus, J. A., Peebles, A., & Riddle, K. (2015). The influence of violent video game enjoyment on hostile attributions. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 472-483.
  • 3. “The Fear You Experience Playing Video Games Is Real, and You Enjoy It, IU Study Finds” http://news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2015/06/fear-in-video-games-study.shtml
  • 4. “The Science and Psychology of Fear Documentary” http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2j2ksf