This Time it’s Personal

This image turned out to be a hoax, but the fear was real

In March I was visiting Tokyo when Japan was rocked by a huge earthquake and tsunami. In fact, the earthquake itself caused relatively little damage; it was the resulting tsunami that claimed the lives of almost 20,000 people in Northern Japan. To my surprise the news didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the tsunami or its victims. Instead it focused on the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which lost power due to the quake and experienced a meltdown. In fact, there was quite a bit of nuclear hysteria in the days and weeks that followed. People left Tokyo en masse, American and European news carried reports of threatening “nuclear clouds” that would purportedly carry radioactive death from the Daiichi plant across the Western world; the media followed the plant’s progress with rapt attention. Though the tsunami had wiped out entire towns and devastated Japan’s northern coast, it was the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, to which no deaths were attributed, that caught the public’s attention. The abstract threat of radiation is apparently scarier than the actual destruction caused by a 15 foot wave.

I thought about that for a while. It’s sort of easy to write nuclear fears off as after-effects of the Cold War, a residual phobia rooted in an era in which the dangers of nuclear fallout were drilled into the national consciousness. The effects of radiation are certainly terrible; we know that many of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not killed instantly but suffered prolonged, painful deaths. Even a small bit of radiation seems dangerous; after all, it causes cancer, and cancer is a horrible way to die. There have been other nuclear disasters; the Chernobyl explosion caused between 30,000 and 200,000 premature cancer deaths, depending on which report you believe. It’s easy to see why the threat of nuclear fallout, or perhaps contaminated food and water, might cause panic across the globe.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that there’s another lesson about fear to be found in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster. The way that the world glossed over the plight of the tsunami survivors (and the thousands of casualties) to focus on the reactor in Fukushmia isn’t just about nuclear hysteria. It’s the nature of the radioactive threat, something about the idea of an invisible cloud of death spewing from a burning reactor and wiping out everything in its path like some sort of contemporary Black Plague. Whether you lived in Tokyo or San Francisco this summer, the news on your TV screen was suggesting that you yourself might be in danger. Not somebody else in some other town or state or country, but you, the person sitting there in your house right now, might die because of events that took place in some far-off place. The people killed in the tsunami were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the scary part about some sort of airborne radioactive material is that nowhere is safe, not even your own neighborhood. It’s an intensely personal threat, and I think it causes a very personal form of fear.

In Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Robert B. Cialdini et al describe the concept of “social proof,” the idea that people tend to believe that a popular choice is a correct choice. If you can convince a person that people they associate themselves with act a certain way, they too will tend to act that way. To show how powerful the social proof can be, the authors ran an experiment involving the wording of a small sign placed in bathrooms throughout a hotel. The sign originally implored guests to reuse their towels to reduce water consumption in the name of saving Planet Earth. Cialdini changed the wording to suggest that most people who stayed in the room had decided to conserve energy by reusing their towels. He tracked the rate of towel reuse before and after the change, and found that by altering the wording of the sign he had improved towel reuse by 26%. The key was the “most people in this room” bit. By suggesting that other people who stayed in that very same room, people not unlike the guest himself, had reused their towels, he was able to convince more people to do the same.

Like the fear of nuclear fallout, social proof works because it is personal. Popular opinion is much more convincing if it comes from a group to that you include yourself in, whether it be defined by physical location or some other metric. Those Facebook “Like” buttons operate on the same principle. They invite an action while simultaneously reporting the number of people who have taken that action. When you see a Like button that shows 15,000 Likes, all by people who visited the very same web page you did (or so you may assume), the concept of social proof states that you yourself are thus more likely to click that Like button too. Because hey, 15,000 people are probably not wrong, especially if they are browsing the same corner of the web as yourself.

In 1938 a realistic radio presentation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, complete with fake news bulletins that interrupted the broadcast periodically, was so convincing that it sent people into a panic. People thought that Martians were really invading the planet. It worked, I suspect, because it portrayed the alien attack as an event happening just down the road. The fake news reports that accompanied the broadcast gave it a dose of realism and caused people to believe that Martians might be arriving at their doorstep in large robotic tripod ships at any time. It sparked fear (and subsequently outrage) because it was too close to home, too personal.

Which brings us to horror games.

At Dakota State’s conference on horror games back in November (which I disgracefully have yet to write about), Jacob Butcher gave a lecture called “Methods of Interactivity in Horror Video Game Narratives.” In it he suggested that horror game often strive for “sympathetic fear,” in which we the player are scared for the life of our on-screen avatar. But a few games also pursue what Butcher called “authentic fear,” which occurs when the game makes us feel that our own lives are actually in danger. Authentic fear is hard to come by, but one way to go about it is to make the game world appear to overlap with the real world. Butcher talked at length about the Manhunt instruction booklet, which looks like a catalog for a snuff film company (Manhunt 2’s booklet looks like patient records–cool!). The idea, Jacob explained, is to make the player a more active participant in the game by casting them as authors (or at least purveyors) of snuff; combined with the handheld-camera kill display featured in the game, the instructions are designed to make you feel uncomfortably close to the content of the game.

I think Butcher is on to something. I mentioned this idea myself while discussing SquareEnix’s DS horror game, Nanashi No Geemu: “[t]he story is about a person playing a corrupted game on a handheld gaming device, and it is presented by giving you a corrupted game to play on your actual handheld gaming device.”

Nanashi No Geemu uses authenticity outside of the game (in this case, the fake DS UI screens and NES-era RPG it contains) to snare the player into accepting the otherwise routine horror content that appears in its main 3D exploration mode. It’s making the experience personal by stepping beyond the normal boundaries of the game, just as Manhunt does with its instruction manual. When I spoke with Deadly Premonition designer SWERY about this game, he admitted that he wasn’t able to finish it. “I was scared that I’d end up cursed,” he told me.

Speaking of Deadly Premonition, it tries hard to be personal too. The way York speaks directly to the us (as “Zach”) makes us feel that we’re an active participant rather than a passive observer. SWERY explained at the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference that York has to shave, smoke, and change his clothing every so often in order to invoke a memory of the game when the player is doing those things himself. SWERY wants to use everyday actions to spark a memory of the game even when the player isn’t playing.

There are other examples, too. The insanity effects in Eternal Darkness that mimic the UI of your TV are designed to keep you (not your avatar, but you) guessing at the legitimacy of what you see on the screen. The use of the Wiimote as a telephone receiver in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is another attempt to bring the player closer to the game content, as is that game’s “psychological profiling” system.

These systems are not about increasing immersion, they are about increasing personalization. Immersion is when you feel that you are your avatar, but personalization occurs when you are scared for yourself, not just your on-screen counterpart. The radioactive cloud of death making its way into your lungs after crossing the ocean from Fukushima is a personal threat to your well-being. The social proof is a form of manipulation based on your own self-association with a personal group. The fake DS screen is just enough to trick you into substituting the cursed hardware in the game with the device in your own hands. The fake news bulletins and convincing narrative of War of the Worlds was enough to make people fear for their lives. These are intensely personal threats, and they cause a very pure (or “authentic,” as Butcher would say) form of fear.

Here’s to hoping that more games take advantage of this weird, complicated, and by all accounts effective approach.

8 thoughts on “This Time it’s Personal

  1. I don’t know if many attempts at personalization can really be scary though, because in the end I still know that I’m playing a game. For personalization to work it needs to be authentic to such a level that a player actually believes it to some degree. For example in Eternal Darkness I was rather unaffected by the TV UI thing as the UI on my TV looks totally different. Or when you saw the blue screen of death, I knew it was fake because the game kept screwing with me in constant time intervals.

    A future example could work really well if it’s executed right: The Fatal Frame spin-off for the 3DS will use personalization by having the player taking photos of a “cursed” notebook included with the game, which could make that particular notebook scary even if you’re not playing the game.

  2. I remember playing Eternal Darkness years ago at a friend’s house. When a fly walked across the screen my friend reached up to flick it off but was confused when he found it was inside the TV ^_^

    Personalization plays a central role in Alternate Reality Games by taking fictional elements in one medium (often from the web or a video game) and shifting them to another, usually more concrete medium (phones, faxes, mail, even the physical world). Beyond the mass of ARGs for viral marketing there are many that have been created for the sake of entertaining realism or the idea of ‘gaming in reality’.

    I haven’t had much experience with ARGs or ‘played’ one all the way through, but I find their potential intriguing. The horror genre is especially fit for ARGs due to the possibilities of the personalization of fear that you discuss in the article. For example: at the end of the first part of Ben Drowned (a ghost story about a haunted video game cartridge that has since evolved into an ARG) you are given the author’s supposed last message in a text file. It’s his diary entries made during the course of the story. While reading through the entries you learn that it’s possible for the curse to travel, and that by downloading the text file it has most likely traveled to you D: I think ARGs have the potential to change horror gaming. And I’m with you in hoping these techniques are further developed.

  3. After reading your article I can’t help but notice that the experiment for showing social proof may play upon peoples’ natural instinct for reciprocal altruism. The person involved chooses to be part of the group by sacrificing (or sharing) something therefore in return they might get something later, but on a grander scale the choice increases the survival of their genes’ through the protection of the group.

    Also, I recall that when System Shock 2 was released the developer made a patch available that removed the spiders from the game. People where complaining that the spiders were triggering their real world phobia.


  4. In general, I think a first-person viewpoint can do wonders to increase personalization. It’s just a shame that most of the games utilizing that perspective tend to put a weapon in your hand and tell you to go kill all the bad guys.

    The part about shaving, smoking and changing clothes in Deadly Premonition really jumped out at me, though. If you look at quality examples of horror in movies and literature, you see that only a small portion of the story is dedicated to action and confronting whatever is menacing the protagonist. On the other hand, that sort of thing makes up the majority of time spent with a video game, especially nowadays. Even slower paced titles like Silent Hill throw small armies of the same monsters at you, over and over again. I feel that games as a storytelling medium are held back by concepts like “levels” and “enemies”.

    Is there a viable alternative? Instead of a game where you actively fight the forces of evil, is it possible to make a game that encourages you to try and live a normal life that’s being encroached upon by intangible forces? Imagine the ideas that Deadly Premonition dabbles with; dredging up memories of the game as you do those same actions in real life, only ramped up to 11. Would you be a little more apprehensive about your morning commute, opening the mail, watching television or answering your phone if something subtle, yet deeply disturbing happened while you were doing those otherwise mundane tasks in a game?

  5. BT, I agree that there is usually a small army of baddies to fight in most horror games, which really distracts from personalizing horror. But that’s just how the language of games works. I think with more and more independent stuff being made and ARGs we’ll see more interesting horror being made. But personalized horror is the hardest to make, everyone is a bit different, I just wrote something on the forums about how Deadly Premonitions use of York, Zack, and the player is probably the best way to bring the player in without patrionizing them.

    The idea of a mundane game with secret horror behind it, sounds a bit too scatter shot to actually work, although I like the idea of the preportions of it. You don’t really need the mundane to frame the horror to make it stand out. You just need the real meat of the horror to stand out from the backdrop of the army of baddies or other atmospheric padding. It reminds me of one of the Yokai Monsters movies (I believe 100 Monsters) the whole film is really campy, the monsters look cheap, the whole thing has a feel it was made for kids. But there’s quite a bit of bloodshed, and other unnerving moments and the pinnacle of the movie is one shot. After a scene of the ghosts and monsters rampaging they cut to a shot of two double doors all by themselves, and they slowly open and close on their own. It’s a strangely unnerving scene, it totally breaks the pacing of the movie, and the rest of the film frames it very well. You really need to watch the whole film to get why that’s such a powerful scene. It’s the part that will haunt your nightmares, in the moments when you’re home alone, you’ll glance at a door and be made at unease. The campy monsters aren’t scary, but they present a phantasmagoric effect, like dreams. The whole film is 98% camp and 2% surreal terror. And that just highlights the horror.

    If you’re playing a mundane game and all of a sudden someone mails you a decapitated head, it’ll come off as a WTF moment. There needs to be consistency of tone or at least supporting tone. Like, DP has a bizarre/surreal upbeat tone while investigating in town, and shifts to horror while investigating the murder. The surreal upbeat tone highlights that not all is as it seems in the town.

    This reminds me of the time I tried to make a horror game years ago, and I wanted to try and personalize the experience, so I simply asked the player what their name was and had the introduction address them directly. Upon losing the game, a fake news paper report would fade in to view, again mentioning the player by name in their obituary.

    The rest of the game was kind of awful, though. Sometimes even plagiaristic. But, I was young.

  7. Despite its pervasive corniness, I thought that the Wii game Calling was actually surprisingly good at personalizing the horror, and was more successful at it than Shattered Memories was. On top of the game being played in first-person- forcing you in to the roll of exploring without an in-game avatar to distance you from it- the ghosts make phone calls to your controller. There are actually points in which ghosts will leave you messages on your console to read outside of gameplay. It’s not a A+ horror game, but the gamemakers attempt to pull the player in to the game was a nice surprise.

    I felt like Shattered Memories tried to personalize the game through the phone calls and therapy sessions, but in the long run forgot it was supposed to actually scare you.

  8. Yeah, people think horror is just ghouls and zombies and sh*t, but when your city is fallen away from under your very feet, now I’d say that’s horror!

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