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Gore-ist information: A brief look at virtual reality horror games

“I recently played ‘The Visitor’ in VR. In front of an audience of drunken friends egging on my high pitch outbursts. I lasted seven out of the ten minutes, finally succumbing after a close encounter with a pixelated pillow. The Visitor’s story is about an unexpected guest calling to your house in the middle of the night. Developed by ‘NostalgicBear VR’ for the ‘Oculus Rift’ and ‘HTC Vive’ it relies on atmosphere to unsettle players, using visual cues in the form of intermittent flickering lights to inform the player where to look. Paralysed and lying in bed, you can only wait and watch as the strange occurrences culminate in one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever experienced. As virtual reality goes, this particular experience has a high creep factor. It’s one of those new VR ‘games’ that really should come with a free pair of pants…In the wake of the PlayStation VR release, headed up by the dark and psychological Here They Lie, pretty much every major gaming outlet slashed their prices on horror games and gamers all over the world have been celebrating Halloween with their first exposure to a virtual reality freak out…VR grips the gamer with such a suspension of disbelief; when the headset is on there is seemingly no escape. Do developers take into account the psychological differences between previous gaming horror experiences and that of VR?”

The opening quote in today’s blog is from an article by Gareth May published last month for the Wareable website (‘Could VR horror be too…horrifying?’). I was interviewed by May for the story and is one of a number of media stories that I have been interviewed over the last year concerning virtual reality. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a personal interest in horror films and a professional interest in excessive use of virtual reality so it was an interview I enjoyed doing (in fact, May interviewed me for two stories simultaneously, the other being on mechanophilia – sexual arousal from machines – which also was published last month in an article in the Daily Telegraph).

In his article on VR horror, May wanted to know about whether the playing of VR horror games could be problematic in any way (or as May asked me, ‘Is it possible that VR is just a bit too ‘real’?’). I pointed out that there had been little empirical research on the topic and that almost everything that I said was speculative. I noted that while VR is certainly more immersive than usual, we should remember that immersion can occur even without being in an VR environment. For instance, a lot of my research into video gaming demonstrates that gaming can be immersive (particularly the research I have been carrying out with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari on game transfer phenomena and some research I co-authored in the mid-2000s on time loss in video game play). I did point out to May that for most people, there’s not going to be a problem with playing VR horror games. Those that already enjoy watching horror films, the vast majority will probably love it even more in VR and it’s not going to have a negative impact on them. I told May that I loved gore in horror films and said that I would probably be fine playing an immersive horror VR game and that seeing somebody being disembowelled in front of me would have little effect on me psychologically. (However, I ought to point out that my few experiences of VR have left me feeling sick as I suffer from motion sickness). However, you can never rule out a small minority of individuals that it may negatively affect either psychologically or traumatically. In short, I don’t have many concerns about this until scientific evidence proves otherwise.

May also interviewed Professor Tanya Krzywinska, Director of the Games Academy at Falmouth University who thinks that VR and horror video games are a good match:

“VR is the next natural step for one of gaming’s most popular genres. Horror made its way into video games very early on [such as] the 1995 point and click ‘Phantasmagoria’ [was] an early breakthrough game due to its use of video snippets to show a ‘real’ actress reacting to the horrific events as they unfolded around her…’Silent Hill’ [was also] a game-changer for its use of sound and its surreal ‘Twin Peak-ish twist’ on survival horror. Both these games utilise a particular emotional palette that I regard as central to games: a sense of claustrophobia and the sense of being unable to act effectively on a situation…VR can make very good use of this palette because of its immersive nature and I think horror is one of the few genres that VR really suits…Horror is very inclined to want to take advantage of new formats to refresh the palette and work with the cache that the novelty provides. Without that novelty, repetition occurs and you then only manage to engage younger audiences who haven’t been around the horror block. Horror is a very suitable place to take a good, long, critical look at ethics and I hope that some game designers see that”.

So is the introduction of VR for the horror genre a game-changer? May also interviewed the independent games developer Sergio Hidalgo, creator of the creepy dungeon game Dreadhalls. He was quoted as saying:

“VR can work as an immersion multiplier, and given that the horror genre is built on immersion, it simply opens more opportunities to create experiences that take advantage of that sense of physicality it can provide. Simply being in a scary environment can be a very engaging experience in VR on its own. This was already true when I started ‘Dreadhalls’ but the technology keeps moving forward and improving with new developments such as room scale or motion tracked controllers…In ‘Dreadhalls’ there are monsters that react to the player’s gaze direction, forcing the player to either not look at them directly or the opposite. This is a much richer interaction when the player is performing it herself rather than via a mouse or controller. ‘Dreadhalls would never have gathered such attention if it weren’t for the new types of interactions and features made possible by VR tech…The main ethical recommendation I have in this regard is that of not betraying the player’s trust. When the player enters a VR experience and surrenders control over their senses to the developer, it’s important that [the players are] aware of exactly what to expect, and that this promise isn’t broken by the developer”.

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In an interview that May had with Ben Tester, the games developer of VR horror game Don’t Knock Twice, Tester noted:

“Developers are in a strange predicament where it’s now possible to make a game that’s too scary. For that reason, ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ includes traditional adventure gameplay elements, such as puzzle solving and environmental props, to aid storytelling and remind the player every once in a while that they are still playing a game. We want to make a great horror game that people will remember for sure but we don’t want to make it so uncomfortable that it makes it unplayable. In ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, we want to avoid the player going through a constant stream of scares one after another and instead, create an interesting and atmospheric environment which will creep out any horror enthusiast. It’s about finding the right balance between having a solid gaming experience and immersing the player in a terrifying horror situation…In the VR demo of ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, players can break down a door with an axe. [This often leads to players] leaning their heads forward and triggering the classic ‘Here’s Johnny’ moment [from ‘The Shining’], which only amplifies the jump scare which follows. A scare that wouldn’t have been half as effective if it was in traditional gaming style”.

Finally, May asked me for some advice for those who were scared witless by playing VR horror games. My quoted response? “Just shut your eyes”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ashcroft, S. (2015). VR revenue to hit $21.8 billion by 2020. Wareable, July 29. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-revenues-could-reach-dollar-218-billion-by-2020-1451

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Can virtual reality be addictive? Virtual Reality News, June 28. Located at: http://www.virtualreality-news.net/news/2016/jun/28/can-virtual-reality-really-be-addictive/

Juniper Research (2016). White paper: The rise of virtual reality. Available from: http://www.juniperresearch.com/document-library/white-papers/the-rise-of-virtual-reality

May, G. (2016). Could VR horror be too…horrifying? Wareable, November 3. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/virtual-reality-horror-experiences-too-real-ethics-55

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Oldfield, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). An empirical examination of factors associated with Game Transfer Phenomena severity. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 274-284.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 588-594.

Stables, J. (2016).  Gambling, gaming and porn: Research says VR is set to blast off. Wareable, September 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/gaming-gambling-and-porn-research-says-vr-is-set-to-blast-off-1682

Sung, D. (2015). VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies? Wareable, October 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-and-vice-9232

Tractica (2015). Virtual reality for consumer markets. Available at: https://www.tractica.com/research/virtual-reality-for-consumer-markets/

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Time loss whilst playing video games: Is there a relationship to addictive behaviours? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 141-149.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.

The schlocky horror show: Why do we like watching scary films?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I love horror films (based on articles I have written such as the psychology of Hannibal Lecter). Although I am not a great fan of the archetypal ‘slasher’ movies (franchises such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.), I do like a bit of ‘schlock horror’ (such as the David Cronenberg’s films Scanners and The Fly) as well as ‘psychological horror’ (such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan). But why do we love to watch scary films? Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht (and for who I have written book chapters on various aspects of video game play) in a 2013 interview for IGN (formerly Imagine Games Network) was quoted as saying:

“People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That’s certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects…[Horror films must] provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it. Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people. But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise”.

According to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Dr. Glenn Walters, the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unrealism. Walters made reference to a number of psychological studies to support his argument. For instance:

“Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin (1994), in conducting research on disgust, exposed college students to three documentary videos depicting real-life horrors.  One clip showed cows being stunned, killed, and butchered in a slaughterhouse; a second clip pictured a live monkey being struck in the head with a hammer, having its skull cracked opened, and its brain served as dessert; a third clip depicted a child’s facial skin being turned inside out in preparation for surgery.  Ninety percent of the students turned the video off before it reached the end.  Even the majority of individuals who watched the tape in its entirety found the images disturbing. Yet many of these same individuals would think nothing of paying money to attend the premiere of a new horror film with much more blood and gore than was present in the documentaries that most of them found repugnant.  McCauley (1998) posed the logical question of why these students found the documentary film so unpleasant when most had sat through horror pictures that were appreciably more violent and bloody.  The answer that McCauley came up with was that the fictional nature of horror films affordsviewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed. Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film. In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999)”.

According to research published by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research into motivations for viewing graphic horror, there are four main different reasons for why we (or at the very least a small sample of 220 American adolescents) like watching horror movies (gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching and problem watching). These four reasons were also discussed in relation to various dispositional characteristics such as fearfulness, empathy, and sensation seeking. Dr. Johnston reported that: “The four viewing motivations are found to be related to viewers’ cognitive and affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers’ tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films”. More specifically she reported (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).

A really good article on the psychology of scary films by John Hess on the Filmmaker IQ website claimed there were many theories on why we love to watch horror films. I wasn’t able to check out all of the original sources (as there was no reference list) but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the theories outlined. For instance, the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung believed horror films “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre”. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to empirically test. Another psychoanalytic theory – although arguably dating back to Aristotle – is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch violent and frightening films as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression (an argument also proposed as a reason as to why some people love to play violent video games). Dr. Dolf Zillman’s Excitation Transfer theory (ETT) is arguably an extension of catharsis theory. Hess’ summary of ETT notes:

“Negative feelings created by horror movies actually intensify the positive feelings when the hero triumphs in the end. But what about movies where the hero doesn’t triumph? And even in some small studies have show that people’s enjoyment was actually higher during the scary parts of a horror film than it was after”.

Hess then goes onto outline the thoughts of Noël Carroll (a film scholar) who claimed that horror films are played out outside everyday normal behaviour, and comprise curiosity and fascination. Hess writes:

“Studies by [researchers such as Zillman] have shown that there is a significant correlation between people who are accepting of norm-violating behavior and interest in horror movies. But that doesn’t explain why some viewers respond positively when the norm violators such as the sexual promiscuous teenage couple, the criminal, the adulterer – are punished and killed by the movie monster. This ‘enjoyment’ of the punishment of those that deserves it makes up the Dispositional Alignment Theory. We like horror movies because the people on screen getting killed deserve it. But this may give us insight into who the audiences want to see eat it but it’s not a clear picture of why horror films are popular in the first place. Another theory put forth by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979 proposed that people who scored high in theSensation Seeking Scale often reported a greater interest in exciting things like rollercasters, bungee jumping and horror films. Researchers have found correlation but it isn’t always significant. Even Zuckerman noted that picking only one trait misses the fact that there are lots of things that draw people to horror films”.

Dolf Zillmann (along with James Weaver, Norbert Mundorf and Charles Aust) put forward The Gender Socialization theory in a 1996 issue the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (and sometimes referred to as the ‘Snuggle Theory’). Zillman and his colleagues exposed 36 male and 36 female undergraduates to a horror movie in the presence of a same-age, opposite-gender companion of low or high initial appeal who expressed mastery, affective indifference, or distress. They reported that men enjoyed the film most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Hess says these findings don’t explain why some people go to horror films alone or what happens after adolescence. Finally, cultural historian David Skal has argued that horror films are simply reflect our societal fears. As Hess notes:

“Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears. But for as many horror cycles that fit the theory, there are many that don’t. And horror films work on a universal level crossing national boundaries while still working in different cultures”.

Basically, none of these theories fully explain why we love watching scary films. Different people like watching for different reasons and no theory has been put forward that explains everyone’s motives and reasoning. I will continue to enjoy watching even though I don’t fully understand my own motives.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 701-713.

Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies. Filmmaker IQ. Located at: http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/

Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographical memories about the experience of seeing frightening movies in childhood. Media Psychology, 1, 117-140.

Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.

McCauley, C. (1998). When screen violence is not attractive. In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment (pp. 144-162). New York: Oxford.

O’Brien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared? IGN, September 9. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/the-curious-appeal-of-horror-movies

Walthers, G.D. (2004). Understanding the popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-interactive model. Journal of Media Psychology, 9(2). Located at: http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/horrormoviesRev2.htm

Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 586-594.