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Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players
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Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players

September 7, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[In this feature, usability studio Vertical Slice measures player reactions to four Xbox 360 horror games to find out which game is the "scariest," how casual and core players react to the same games, and whether or not they are scared in the same way.]

This study was undertaken by usability and user experience studio Vertical Slice as an internal investigation. As this piece was not for commercial use, and used games that have already been released, it seeks to determine which Xbox 360 game is the "scariest," and is not intended to be a criticism or full analysis of the games in question.

Study Format

Using some of Vertical Slice's unique approaches to user research, the study used a number of methods including interview techniques, think-aloud, researcher/participant post-play analysis and biometric feedback in order to evaluate the player experiences with each game. A group of six players, selected from a comprehensive database of over 500 individuals, was asked to play four different games -- each for 30 minutes, or an otherwise similarly appropriate length of time, depending on the game's content.

The study was conducted in Vertical Slice's labs in Brighton, UK, which are designed to emulate natural gaming conditions. Players were invited to play exactly as they would at home, skipping cutscenes and selecting difficulties as they usually would. The sessions also took place late in the day, so that the room was darker and the play took place during a more familiar time of day for the gamers.

The order of games was counter-balanced across all players, as this helps reduce any bias that may have arisen from play order


The biometrics chosen for this study were heart rate, skin surface temperature, and GSR (Galvanic Skin Response). Respiration biometrics were also used for some of the participants. GSR is ideal for measuring arousal (excitement or frustration), skin temp is an indicator of valance (happiness or sadness) and fluctuations in the other two can highlight key moments of engagement. GSR is the top blue line in the graphs, and skin temperature is the middle green one.

Games Selected

Using social media tools, polls and small-scale informal investigation, a short list of the scariest Xbox 360 games was created. This list was whittled down to four candidates, which were then used for the final study. The selected games were Alan Wake, Resident Evil 5, Dead Space 2 and Condemned. Other games, such as Left 4 Dead 2, Gears of War 2, Condemned 2, FEAR 1 & 2, Dead Space 1, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alone in the Dark and Mass Effect 2 were considered, but ultimately disregarded, for use in this research.

Players Selected

Six players were used, from a variety of gaming and demographic backgrounds. None of the participants have played any of the titles beforehand, and for the purposes of this study, they are broadly classified as either core or casual.

Kira - A 33 year old intermediate gamer, who spends at least five hours playing a week. She doesn't own an Xbox 360, though has a rich history of gaming experience. Claims to become very absorbed in games and scares easily. [core]

Rosalind - A 31 year old advanced player, who also spends at least five hours a week gaming. She owns all three major current consoles and insists she is not a casual gamer. [core]

Rob - A 34 year old novice gamer. Recently sold his Xbox 360 so currently does not spend any time playing gamers. [casual]

Mike - 42 year old casual player. Spends less than two hours a week gaming. Does have limited experience with games, and has for an extended period of time (since ZX81). Also owns a family Xbox 360, but rarely plays it himself. [casual]

Olivia - A 20 year old casual gamer. She plays a lot of games, but seldom for long sessions. Owns no current consoles and professes to enjoy slower-paced or party games, finding action games quite stressful. [casual]

Matt - 29 year old hardcore gamer that plays his Xbox 360 over 20 hours a week. He is a fan of titles in the Fable and Fallout franchises. [core]

Alan Wake

Outline of Play

Alan Wake begins with a narrated nightmare experience that also serves as the game's tutorial. It starts with the player assuming control of the eponymous Alan Wake, who before long is pursued by a shadowy axe-man. Combat and light-wielding dynamics are introduced and the player must defeat a handful of enemies and navigate a horror-infused nightmare environment, before being chased by a massive black storm-like entity.

This opening sequence also features a cutscene (showing the non-explicit severing of another man's head) and includes some narrative framing and exposition. All players chose to play on the "normal" difficulty rating, except for one one (opting for "hard"). The play ended once the participants reached the lighthouse, thus ending the nightmare.

Analysis of Play

Confrontation. Players were largely unresponsive to the opening cinematic, but were generally vocally positive to the setting and introduction. The first significant beat is when Alan turns around to the deeply-voiced supernatural form of a man, who then threatens Alan vocally and then appears in front of him, before lunging at him with his axe. Five of the players died at this point, two of them multiple times, seemingly unaware that the correct course of action would have been to turn and flee.

This sudden change from the relative safety of the start to the panic of a supernatural conflict provoked a response from all of the players, with the casual players reacting more significantly. Players suggested this was neither a positive nor negative response, though the changes in biometric readings implied a sudden and sharp reaction. Four of the players stated that the scene came as a shock to them, with two agreeing that the moment was scary.

Rob was frightened as the axe-man approached, as a clear peak in his GSR reading confirms.

Perhaps surprisingly, the repeat appearances of the shadowy figure failed to provoke any significant response. Changes in respiration rate were attributed to tension arising from the initial combat, but relaxed into a more stable pattern. Only one player continued to react strongly until the mid-point was reached, a house within which Alan seeks safety from his pursuer.

Decapitation cinematic. It is at this stage when the cutscene depicting a non-graphic decapitation is played, which features intense horror scenes. Five of the players elicited a change in GSR at this stage, with multiple peaks each corresponding to different beats in the scene. However, post-analysis and speak-aloud connote that these peaks were the result of heightened engagement not relating to fear. Although one player (Olivia) said she did find this part scary, though another (Mike) said his response spike was the result of relief, meaning all the while the cutscene was playing (and the stranger getting mauled), he would be safe.

Here, Mike elicits a medium GSR response, but his temperature drops and breathing remains steady. He denies he was scared at this point, indicating that the response was related to something else, for example, relief or interest.

House scene. The following moment in the game sees the player trapped in a house, surrounded by dark spirits, eager to get in. This part saw a marked difference between the casual players and the core ones. The core gamers recognised this section as a period of scripted action, in which they knew through prior knowledge of gaming language that they would be safe. This was confirmed after talking with them, with Matt even offering "I knew I couldn't die at this bit, so I wasn't scared at all." When an illuminated exit appears, the three core players did not react.

In juxtaposition to this, two of the three casual players' biometrics indicated that this scene was very tense. The GSR and respiration metrics indicated stimulation, and the casual players all stated that they found this part to be scary. To reinforce this notion, a strong response was observed once the exit appeared, provoking both panic and relief in these casual players.

Despite the game's clear intention to scare during this scene, core player Matt fails to become stimulated and makes idle comments about the decor.

Final sequences. The second half of the demo features increased action, as players face larger numbers of enemies. Two players jumped when surprise attacked by enemies, both at unscripted moments. A third said, "very frightening... no ammunition, nasty axe murderer after me: that's frightening!" but registered sustained intense responses rather than sharp "surprise" peaks in biometrics.

The final minute sees players wander towards the lighthouse, but are interrupted by a black swirly mass. A chase scene ensues, in which two players died. This last minute provoked strong responses from most of the players, and was an incredibly tense, exhilarating finale. Skin temperature levels cooled as the game progressed, indicating a positive experience which was confirmed by five of the players.

Olivia, a player with generally mild GSR response compared to the other participants, demonstrates a marked increase in engagement for the climax of the level, accompanied by shrieking and admissions of fear.


There were four significant moments in the Alan Wake sessions. The initial confrontation provoked a scare response from all types of gamers, and was universally a scary moment. The horror cutscene was possibly designed to scare players, but responses were largely unrelated to fear. The following moment, which sees the players alone in the house, was interesting in that it scared only the casual players, with the core players unaffected. The final moment also managed, but perhaps to a lesser extent, to scare the casual players more than the experienced gamers.

This disparity in the player experience between core and casual gamers is illustrated by the post-session player experience diagrams. Most players, especially the casual players, enjoyed Alan Wake. It was a popular choice for the players when they were asked which title they wished to continue playing after the session had ended.

More player experience graphs displayed overleaf

Comparing the self-drawn player experiences for Alan Wake shows that casual players found the game more engaging than core players. The previously described key moments also illustrate that while core players were scared at times, the casual players found the experience generally quite scary throughout, and also enjoyed it more than the core gamers did.

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Robert Boyd
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Fantastic study! Only change I would have made would have been to include the PS3 game, Siren: Blood Curse, since IMO that's the scariest game released on this generation of consoles.

Kris Graft
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There are probably a few games that could take on Dead Space 2... yes, Siren, but also Amnesia. I'd break their sensors playing that game.

Robert Boyd
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Amnesia would be a great game to have included as well and like Siren, it lends credit to their finding that "Actual combat is not as scary as the implied threat of combat."

Joel Windels
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I agree, especially with the comment about Amnesia. However, with this study, we were only using games available for the xbox 360 platform

Matt Ponton
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Any of the Fatal Frame games I would have loved to see being done. However, it's last generation (Still waiting for my Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 version!!!)

Douglas Burton
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Love seeing studies on fear in games. The idea that combat is prohibitive to inducing fear I think is most noticeable in the game 'Amnesia:The Dark Descent'. Along with avoiding combat, the inability/penalty for even looking at the enemies keeps the enemies scary and mysterious. The first person view and amnesia of the main character helps to almost force the player to fill the void by imagining themselves as being in the same peril as the player character.

A fear inducing game where combat isn't a main gameplay element would greatly benefit a study like this. Games such as Amnesia or Which(Adventure game from early 2010).

Jeremie Sinic
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Thanks for the great feature, it's very interesting.

However, I am left wondering about the "scare" concept, possibly because English is not my native language. I mean although it's a useful term for the sake of this study, "scare" as I understand it is like fear, which bears a too strong connotation.

That's why I prefer to use the words "tension" and "horror", because although I totally understand that a game can provoke sudden surprise or high degree of nervous tension, --even biometrically measurable--, I wonder when we can actually talk of fear. I mean, no sane adult can possibly fear for his own life when playing a game. Yet, I totally admit I was startled the first time the zombie doggy break through the window in the first Resident Evil.

Another interesting aspect of the study is the difference in the perception of fear between core and casual gamers, especially the big difference of ranking for Condemned, which I agree is one of the most tense and unsettling video game experience I remember having, due to the unpredictable attacks from enemies. Still, I remember Condemned more as a tense experience, like a nerve-testing game, but not much as an horrifying game. In terms of horror, I consider Silent Hill 2 as the reference (until I try Amnesia probably :).

Michael Dreyer
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First off, your written English is fantastic for a non-native speaker; really impressive.

To address your question of "fear", it's not necessarily about making the player actually fear for their own life (or even for their character's/avatar's life I would argue) but about eliciting emotions in the player that they themselves can't really explain or rationalize why they are feeling that way.

Fear itself is irrational, as is proved by the fact that once you see something you begin to understand it better, and therefore become less scared by it. Fear lies in the unknown, in our own imaginations. If you can take control of and make a player fear their own imagination, then, in my humble opinion, you've successfully scared the player.

Remember watching horror movies as a kid, scared out of your mind, telling yourself over and over again, "it's not real... it's not real... it's not real..." but still being so frightened that you have to look away? That's true horror; when you are no longer able comfort your own imagination.

Jeremie Sinic
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Well, I guess I had forgotten that but it does make sense. Thanks for your reply.

David Serrano
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@Michael Dreyer

"Fear itself is irrational, as is proved by the fact that once you see something you begin to understand it better, and therefore become less scared by it."

Actually, that's not true. Fear is part of the fight-or-flight response. In a non-stress filled environment, curiosity will motivate the initial interactions with an unknown. If the interactions establish it is not dangerous or a serious threat, you do not develop a fear of it. But when the initial interactions establish it poses a potentially fatal threat, the reaction is to fear it. Rationally, you'd avoid it whenever possible, you'd only observe or engage it from a safe distance or you'd flee if you encounter it at an unsafe distance. Engaging it from an unsafe distance would be the last resort.

Radek Koncewicz
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Very interesting findings, especially the differences in how the games were experienced between "casual" and "veteran" gamers.

John Mickey
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I must be the only person in the world who found Amnesia to be laughably NOT scary. At first it was, but eventually you realize that the game must be beatable without engaging in combat. That realization actually empowers the player. Sure, you sometimes have to run from monsters and hide in a corner while your vision goes screwy, but there's a continual assurance that the game must provide dark places to hide, and, if there aren't any dark places, you must be safe. The game never deviates from this pattern.

Where Amnesia went wrong was in providing no form of combat, even a weak one. In a game like System Shock 2, you're often underpowered compared to your enemies and low on resources - constantly fearing that you don't have the equipment or health to make it much farther. Thus, every encounter becomes tense and unwelcome, and more likely to induce panic or fear. With Amnesia, you always have the resources to survive - not to mention the free break you get at every flashback scene, most "puzzle" rooms, and areas without dark hiding spaces.

Amnesia was like a haunted house - constantly pulling tricks, but only scary as long as you ignore the smoke and mirrors.

Dan Jones
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Interesting article. I always find these kinds of biometrics studies fascinating.

I only wish Resident Evil 4 had been used instead of Resident Evil 5, but as far as I know it wasn't/isn't yet available on the Xbox 360 so I suppose the blame lies with Capcom rather than Vertical Slice. ;)

My own personal metric for the "scariness" of games is my wife, who watched me play through RE:4 in its entirety because it was "like watching a scary movie," yet who could barely muster the interest to watch me play more than 10 minutes at a time of RE:5 because "meh, it's all shooting."