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الخميس، 17 فبراير 2011

The Psychology of Horror Games

Horror video games are a bit of a problem. No doubt they're popular, but this is kind of the problem. "Fear is a noxious emotion," says Dr. Andrew Weaver, an assistant professor at Indiana University whose research focuses on media consumption and the effects of media violence.
"We generally don't want to experience it," he adds, "and the aftereffects of viewing particularly frightening media are not something that anyone wants." So why do people line up to cringe at horror movies and operate game controllers with hands tensed into claws by what they see (or don't see) onscreen? Psychologists have extensively studied the attraction of horror, though most of the research has focused on films and only recently included video games. But a lot of what researchers are finding can apply to games, allowing players to understand what scares them and letting game designers understand how to do it more effectively.

Scare Tactics

"What scares you?" is a personal question because we all have our own, private fears-bugs, heights, inappropriate anime cosplay, and so forth. But beyond the obvious fear of injury or death, other proven sources of fear exist.
Fear of extreme abnormality and disfigurement is at the source of both our fear of monsters and "body horror" that relies on the graphic disfigurement or destruction of familiar forms. We grow even more uneasy when we can recognize a distorted or supernatural form for what it used to be. The Dead Space games epitomize this idea: Fellow humans are horribly mutilated to begin with, and you actually need to disfigure them further by lopping off their limbs. This category also encompasses things that act or move abnormally, like the jerky, scuttling movements of the little girl Alma in the F.E.A.R. franchise.
Fear of darkness and the unknown has its roots in biology-we're visual creatures, and our fear of darkness may be the result of natural selection. What's that rumbling in the dark? It could be a tiger with a chain saw, so you'd better run. Alan Wake, for example, focuses on darkness to the point of making the flashlight an actual weapon.
Research on "excitation transfer" shows that vague feelings of excitement or anticipation can transfer their emotional wallop when monsters or killers eventually barge on to the scene. This is why ambient noises and spooky soundtracks are so effective, though custom soundtracks do present challenges to game designers. According to John Williamson, the producer and lead designer on Konami's Saw II: Flesh and Blood video game, "We are required by Microsoft and Sony to allow the player to turn the music tracks off or replace it with the Backstreet Boys or other music of their choice. [Steven] Spielberg doesn't have to contend with that. Would Jaws be as scary if you were listening to 'I Want It That Way' instead of John Williams's haunting shark theme?"
Finally, it matters how much events onscreen are similar to things in real life. We're not going to tense up watching one pixel menace another pixel, but as visuals and sound improve, the potential for evoking fear increases. This concept also addresses how video games with realistic, identifiable settings and threats can be more frightening. "Older children and adults are much more likely to be frightened by things that could actually happen in the real world," says Glenn G. Sparks, a professor at Purdue University's Department of Communications.

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