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.