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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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