ByKen McDonnell, writer at
Now Loading's sentimental Irishman. I can't stop playing Overwatch, please send help.
Ken McDonnell

Horror. Experiencing it for ourselves and attempting to deal with the aftereffects can take great tolls on our bodies and minds. And yet, year in year out, millions of us around the world make the conscious decision to sit through countless hours of horror films designed to shock and terrify their audience. We see things on big and little screens which would otherwise scar us where they to occur in our own lives, and a lot of us love it. But why?

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Psychologists have studied the attraction of horror for decades. Cinema has been the focal point of these inquests as researchers asked questions like, "What happens to us when we watch a scary movie?" and, "Why do we subject ourselves to such horrors?" However, in recent years we've seen video games become involved in these studies, and their inclusion has brought about some interesting results.

How Do Video Games Scare Us?

Alien: Isolation
Alien: Isolation

Some of us take pleasure in frightening ourselves. We've all experienced that exhilarating rush of adrenaline, the sweaty palms, the need to hide or scream; all of which is underscored by a sense of comfort and security. We understand that what we're watching isn't real, and we take refuge in our own ability to simply turn away or switch off whatever we're watching at particularly uncomfortable moments.

But video games present a different kind of horror, a kind where your abilities with a controller or mouse dictate your experience. It's a completely unique form of fear, and the first kind of study that examined this fear was carried out in 2014.

Dead Space
Dead Space

Researchers Teresa Lynch and Nicole Martins from Indiana University conducted an "investigation into how the immersive nature of survival horror games frightens us, and how our individual traits can affect the degree to which they scare us."

269 college students took part in the study, all of which were tasked with playing a popular survival horror video game for a brief session. Using games like Dead Space, Silent Hill and Resident Evil, they applied a method that's used to "measure viewer perception of fear in film and television." Those who took part were hooked up to machines that measure their vital signs and were asked a series of questions regarding their own experience with horror games, and how factors like images, music, sound and presence influenced the fear they felt.

The results showed that not only do horror games scare us in unique ways, but that developers actually utilize specific scare tactics when designing a game.


Of the people who took part in the survey, over half expressed fear while playing these games. The fear came in numerous forms:

  • Individuals described being panicked by their lack of control over certain moments, either through game design or their inability to command a controller, and likened it to being hunted by an animal they couldn't escape from.
  • Because the players were in control of their own decisions, unlike with cinema, they expressed a degree of unparalleled immersion. The feeling of being "in the game" was a factor in how scared they became, with some stating that the lack of distance between you and the character was troubling.
  • Realism was another factor. With video games becoming increasingly better at depicting more realistic appearances and behaviors (even though we're talking about fictionalized monsters here), participants described discomfort over how authentic the threat felt.

These are just a few of the ways in which video games uniquely frighten us. But another aspect of the study is perhaps the more interesting: what your playing horror games says about you as a person.

Empathy & Video Games

Telltale's The Walking Dead
Telltale's The Walking Dead

Empathy describes your own ability to sympathize with another person; like how seeing someone upset will evoke the same feeling in you. Some of us empathize heavily with others, whereas others may not even feel bad for a distraught person at all. This level of empathy and compassion we share with others apparently determines our willingness to play horror games.

Lynch and Martins realized that those who admitted to having low levels of empathy were more likely to enjoy playing horror games. That's not to say that those of us who care more don't like them, but the results demonstrated a much stronger resistance to taking part amongst the more compassionate people.

They concluded that people who relate a lot easier to others' negative emotions may wish to avoid feeling those emotions for themselves. Makes sense.

Another interesting statistic showed that, while men and women experienced the exact same levels of fear from these games, men were far less likely to admit to it. Go figure. Putting up that macho front and all.

Women on the other hand were far more honest and described how and in what ways the games scared them, whereas men were more likely to say how much they enjoyed the experience.

Keeping Your Distance


The study concluded that over 40% of the individuals who took part enjoyed the fear they experienced. So what does this say about those who look for their thrills from video games?

Cinema creates a degree of distance between the horrors on screen and ourselves. It's voyeuristic. We can enjoy these fears without consequence and maintain our own level of distance. But, as these participants demonstrated, video games offer up a unique form of horror where the usual boundaries that cinema erects are eroded. We're "in the game". Psychologically we all seek thrills and perhaps need to be scared every now and again, and video games appear to be one of the strongest ways to do just that.

Do you play horror games?

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