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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror
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Fight or Flight: The Neuroscience of Survival Horror

June 12, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Priming. In psychology, priming is defined as the effect in which the response to a stimulus is influenced by the exposure to a previous stimulus.

Consider the word-stem completion task, for example. Here, a test subject is exposed to certain words, one of which is the word "lettuce". He is then asked to complete the following word: "let----". The effect of priming can be seen when the subject fills the blank with "tuce" due to the fact that he was exposed to that word earlier in the experiment.

Several games rely heavily on creating anxiety using this strategy, by using sounds that remind the player of an encroaching yet unseen enemy. In Amnesia, visits to various torture chambers (where he actually "hears" victims in an iron maiden, a brazing bull, etc.) leads up to being locked in a cell. The fact that such priming took place (being exposed to the torture scenes) clearly influences the way the player feels when he himself is locked up and dreading the possibility of similar tortures.

A diagram in the Strappado torture room in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

In addition to this priming, certain events characterized by unexpected novelty can, very efficiently, startle a player. For example, events that can lead a player through a relatively safe part of a level may lower our guard to new threats when revisiting the same environment (i.e.: consider the first 30 minutes of Doom 3 or the hubs in the Silent Hill and Dead Space series).

These choices will often save time in level design while still maintaining progress and the required ambience to startle and terrify.

Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons in certain regions of the brain that are active when an animal performs an action, or observes another individual performing that same action.

Discovered a few decades ago, these neurons are argued to be the key in understanding other individuals' intentions and feelings, empathy, and even imitating the actions of others. It is very possible that mirror neurons play an important role interfacing our experiences with a virtual avatar.

PET studies highlighting similar clusters in the brain that activate between individuals who are watching an action (listening to music) or partaking in an action (playing music).

In most video games, moving in a three dimensional space is likely to trigger spatial orientation mirror neurons. In the Silent Hill series, similar mechanisms would elicit anxiety and disgust when players are given the choice to stick their hand into a hole in a wall or to take something out of a toilet.

James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 asked to stick his hand in a dirty toilet, likely eliciting disgust in the player, who mirrors this experience in her own brain and, to some extent, "experiences" it herself.

Similarly the same can be said in Dead Space 2, where players are given the choice to crawl in very confined spaces (where the right camera angle make the entire difference) or guide a needle into the eye of Isaac Clarke.

And what's best is that the developers of these games are increasingly aware of these facts and capitalize on it. As Thomas Grip of Frictional Games (Amnesia: The Dark Descent) himself said at the Games Colloquium at Concordia University last year, the involvement of mirror neurons is important when the empathy factor is high. In other words, you can't help but put yourself in the protagonist's shoes.

Context and Environment. Naturally, our environment plays a large role in the perception of fear and potentiating startle responses. In the right context and environment, our baseline startle reflex shows gradual elevation over the course of aversive conditioning (antagonizing the player).

This works both inside and outside the game. Out of the game, mood plays a large role in getting the most out of the experience (consider the importance of playing in a dark room, adjusting the gamma, and wearing headphones). Creating the right environment inside of the game is equally important and capitalizes off of our own neurobiology. For example, our fear of the dark stems from our evolved circadian rhythms that revolve around a diurnal (day-night) cycle making us vulnerable at night. Similarly nocturnal animals like rats exhibit very similar startle responses, only in the light.

The use of light has always created a sense of helplessness and a shrouded and mysterious environment creating ambience in the survival horror genre. Alan Wake (top) and Dead Space 2 (bottom).

It should be noted that the appropriate context can also elicit fear in not so dangerous objects or cues. Fear conditioning with auditory cues can still cause anxiety, with the auditory cue and no immediate aversive stimuli.

An example of this is best exemplified by F.E.A.R.'s antagonist Alma, a little girl who can do rather terrible things. Additionally the unpredictability of aversive stimuli (such as a little girl vs. a man with a chainsaw) increases our perceived anxiety and fear.

In the case of F.E.A.R., game designer Craig Hubbard said that "...a guy in a mask chasing co-eds with a meat cleaver can be scary, but on some level you're thinking to yourself, you could probably kick his ass if you got the drop on him... But when a spooky little girl takes out an entire Delta Force squad, how are you supposed to deal with that?"

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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