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Horror that Tastes like Anxiety: the New Video game Recipe

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(Toronto, 22th August. Okuroku) There is a dark room. Noises come from outside, the door opens with a crack. You peek outside and there is a long corridor that awaits you, there is a light in a wall, very far from you, it blinks, you heard how the wind whispers at your back. You are scared, aware that something is going to pop up, but technically, nothing is happening.

Horror video games have been a trending for a while. There is a wide range of games that develop in this genre and every day they evolve with new improvements and features. But there is a new trend that is making a path for itself in the terror-horror gaming scenery: anxiety that overcomes plain fear. It is not a casualty that these fears target one generation in particular: those who were born and raised in 1985-90 and beyond, the so called “Millennials”. Names like Outlast, Alien Isolation, Silent Hills and Resident Evil 7 are not the only ones but good examples of this trending. This essay is about how horror-terror video games transformed the way they work with the purpose of scaring millennials better and therefore keep their share of profit exploiting this relatively new market of buyers.

The most relevant notion of the horror-terror video games nowadays is that they want the player not only to jump out of their seat, they look forward to making the individual to feel scared, to simulate that they are actually been chased, that their life is in “real” danger. Most of the scenarios, even if they are unrealistic, as it happens in Alien Isolation where the player is trapped in a spaceship with the creature, some of them can be actually be treated as reals: in silent hills the player is trapped inside a house with a presence (ghost is not enough to describe these phenomena) and in resident evil 7 the protagonist has to deal with a family that practices cannibalism.

But why video games would focus more on exploiting this kind of scenarios now and not before? Because anxiety is the breaking point of a new generation of players: the Millennials

It is an open truth that Millennials have been accused of being a really anxious generation. Blame it on helicopter parents, on politics and terrorist attacks, on global awareness, the result is the same: depression is more common now, in the hi-tech era than it was before. According to the World Health Organization (2016) “Depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents and suicide is the third cause of death”. And even if they do not always come together, anxiety, impotence, awareness, and despair could be present too in the mood disorder’s cocktail. Also, Twenge (n/d) points out that individualism and also anxiety are factors on the rise since 1970 so, it is logical to think that generations, not only those so-called millennials, are being raised with these problems. Perron (2012) marks out that playing horror video games is always been a personal experience because the player is the only one controlling the protagonist fate. This overlaps perfectly with the individualism that Millennials are being characterized of.

Another crucial factor to understand what causes so much anxiety on this new generation of Survival Horror games is the presence of two factors: Horror Vacuii and Terror Porn. In Horror-FPS (First Person Shooters) the player could expect that there will be enemies that could be shoot down and keep going with the adventure. The scariest thing will at least make them jump out of surprise but nothing else. But in the Survival Horror genre, therefore also in the new Silent Hills and Resident Evil 7, the main goal has overcome the obstacles, trying to keep alive and if you have to kill your adversary, if is possible to do it, it will not be easy.

When normally in horror scenarios the protagonist found itself trapped in a situation where killing is legit (in FPS there are enemies of some sort so it is accepted somehow) this premise is taking a little bit further where the Terror Porn influence is more evident: the protagonist, as its antagonist, are corrupted. But not in a religious way, this corruption has seed in secular soils, the sadism of the perpetrators and the victims are closely related to the clinical condition. Killing is mean to survive, yes, but also a choice and it is evident when the player is attacked and when it fights backs. The recreation of historical forms of torture and the recognizable human appearances (fetus, deformations, etc) make this horror closer and scarier to the spectators because they can relate this fantasy with a plausible reality.

Another important fact is that Fear and Desire are the same. Student on Videogame development and analysis Parker (2010) summarizing Santos and White (n/d) explain “The player as champion of the symbolic order partakes in two kinds of activity/pleasure: Proaretic pleasure in resolving action/threats; hermeneutic pleasure in ordered narration, solving mysteries, linearity and coherence” so, in other words: people enjoy playing survival horrors because the same chemistry that summons fear also brings pleasure, two kinds of pleasure to be precise: the one is given by the act of solving puzzles and the other from hearing a good story, and at the same time the player get in touch with his/her subjectivity and psychology. Perron (2012), a professor at several universities such as Montreal and Michigan, confirms this theory arguing that “We play horror games because we want to feel scared”. This can be achieved by the feeling of entrapment, the dark scenarios (a fear ancient as time) and continuously aware that characterize this genre of video game.

But if the player becomes too scared, it will stop playing. That is why the programmers and developers have to take in consideration that the game has to remain a safe environment where the user should recognize that even if it is really scary, everything is going to be ok, in most of the cases. That is where the aesthetics come to play: irrational camera angles, change of color palettes, bizarre locations unconsciously remind the gamer that what they are experimenting is fake. These artifact emotions are most of the time in combination with superb sound and special effects to maintain the player engaged on the experience without pushing his boundaries too much.

So, considering that millennials are famous for being more aware of themselves and their potential, but also more creative and open minded when it comes to taboo topics, it is easy to understand why the video game’s industry wants to exploit these characteristics into the survival horror genre, mixing these new triggers and forms of fear (that also translates in pleasure) and make a profit from it.

Therefore, why use these feelings as a marketing strategy? Because the millennials are the new market and that is the way to scare them the most.  Marketing millennials is a challenge: according to Swartz (2016) Millennials are digital social animals who are eager to connect sentimentally with a brand and consequently their trust on it. So, stepping back for a moment, Videogames in general have been around for about 30 years, Silent Hill and Resident Evil are on their 20ties, those teenagers that killed monster on their Ps2 or Nintendo 64 are now young adults who probably would keep in touch with these brands, because that is how the Millennials mindset work.  Following the report of Statista (2016), the group of age that were the most active players where those between 18 and 35 years old with a 29% of the surveys, followed closed up by the group above 18 with a 27% but the number declines to 18% when it comes to those between 35 and 49 years old. This means that the baby boomers are not a big fan of video games in general but the millennials and the generation that follow them are active gamers and so, a new market to exploit.

Finally, as time passes generations are literally looking for stronger emotions. As Millennials are digitals mammals which primary sense is the vision, video games are trying harder to involve completely the players in the game experience with the presence of hard and gruesome images.

When it comes to the player’s experience, it is getting more one-to-one, with no third camera avatars and more realistic surroundings effects, so vision has an important role in the matter. Soderman (2015), writer on “The visual Journal”, explains that horror video games are obsessed with this sense and make a business based on the practice of looking, camera angles and points of view. Soderman makes particular attention on the Horror Vacui, the fear of empty spaces. This aspect includes the overcrowding of some areas (very common in Resident Evil 7 where there are rooms full of trash and other disgusting materials) but also includes the anxiety of having something jumping out to us from those empty or out of or range of view spaces, as it happens in most games of the genre.

The Horror Vacui in Silent Hill PT is manifested as the vision of only partial movements of the presence, this makes that the feeling of anxiety to rise because the player does not have proper information about the pattern, and actually according to Einsermann (2014), writer on a webzine dedicated to video games, there is no pattern at all. Einsermann also notes down that in Silent Hill P.T the numerous recalls to techniques used in famous horror movies are a great influence on the experience. This kind of fear afflict millennials in particular as they are a generation that feeds on the visual more than others, so there is a need to surpass the expectations of this public, so the obligation of using more violent and distressing images and surrounding effects that complete the picture of desirable horror.  Reinforcing this idea, Perron (2012) explains that video games exploit their ability to use visual effects as an opportunity to make the player experiment stronger feelings, and even overcome phobias.  So, in general, the “feel” overcomes the “do” and Millennials as sensitive content curators, they are going for this.

There has been some opposition to the idea that anxiety is not targeted to millennials in particular so it could not be a proper marketing strategy because that kind of violence and horror does not have any sense at all and on the other hand, there is not enough proof that millennials are a secured market to sell.

Casting doubt on the former affirmation, Aaron, writer of “Torture Porn in the wake of 9/11” argues that this kind of violent media is the result of a tendency created since the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. This new tendency overlaps the almost natural approach that the human being has to horror and acquires new connotations. First of all, the writer labels “Terror porn” as an upstanding position from the “Slasher” genre where most of those productions have as topic violent and cruel scenarios with frightening persecution, mutilation, and so on. These characteristics can be relatable to a new connotation of fear, as a consequence of the terrorist attack: now people are more aware that the terror lies there, lurking, in the wait and as the perpetrators are corrupted characters, with insider-behavior, this means that “the roots of violence are close to home” (Tropes, 2015, 24), so close that most of the now called Millennials were children or teenagers when the event happened, and it is not illogical to think that this new meaning of fear is more approachable to them that to the previous generations.

On the other hand, the latter affirmations argue that there is not enough proof that millennials can be a considered as a marketplace. It is true that the definition of Millennials is subject to debate, but it is also true that this new generation is taking the lead in many areas and making a voice for themselves, so it will be wrong not consider it as a market in continuous evolution.  A quick search on google academic can show that there are indeed more and more studies that treat this matter so it is too soon to declare that millennials are not a market to exploit.

In conclusion, Millennials are prone to feel anxiety and depression but still, as is common in human beings, they continue to seek horror video games because it brings the rush of being scared in a safe environment.  Also, Millennials have some particular characteristics that video games can exploit to make a profit of them, such as being an individualist, emotional approachable and social engagers. Finally, Millennial’s best trait is the vision and they are most of the time looking forward to stronger emotions, that videogame industry exploits through strong visuals, that are accompanied by other effects that recreate better the sense of being involved.  So remember, maybe next time your character is facing a dark room, hear some noises and you feel some chills down your spine, do not worry: it is all part of the plan to scare you best.

Maria Caterina Bruciapaglia

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