The article “A Sense of Fear and Anxiety in Digital Games: An Analysis of Cognitive Stimuli in Slender — The Eight Pages” by Bartosz Dudek argues that digital games can cause fear and anxiety in multifaceted ways when the different game mechanics and fear- and anxiety-inducing techniques are co-operating together. Even with plain mechanics, the human cognitive potential could be fully unleashed. The narrative could be an important part of the horror game, but with the right components working together the game turns into an embodied experience, too. Dudek claims that with these components even simply designed horror games can cause feelings of fear and anxiety. He uses a free-to-play survival horror indie game Slender – The Eight Pages (shortly just Slender) by Parsec Productions from 2012 as a case example in the study.
In the article, Dudek lists different cognitive stimuli of Slender that can cause these previously mentioned emotions. Before that, he defines that anxiety is most often felt when people are facing unknown threats with unclear motives or when they are put in unpleasant locations. On the other hand, fear is a natural reaction to the visible threat: by their nature, humans feel an instant urge to defend themselves when facing a threat. In Slender, these elements are present.
Dudek separates fear- and anxiety-inducing techniques into three different main categories. He calls them cognitive stimuli. The main categories are game world design, the objectives and the character, the villain & other mechanics:
- In Slender, the world design is very simple, but with this simplicity also comes the feeling of being lost in a world that looks the same from everywhere. Dudek claims that being in a maze-like environment creates a feeling of isolation and confusion.
- The objective of the game is to collect eight pages. It forces the player to move around the map with an objective which purpose is unclear. The player must make interpretations of the mysterious pages. Also, without a clear narrative, the player constructs their own imaginary narratives.
- The game is played from the first-person perspective. In the first-person, the player is put into the character’s position. This strengthens the feeling of being in the game world. The player is defenseless against the villain and running is the only way to escape the encounters. However, the character’s movement is restricted by the map borders, exhaustion and capricious flashlight. Dudek also argues that as the Slender Man is the only adversary in the game, it makes the situation much scarier than facing multiple enemies. The other mechanics creating anxiety and fear in the game are the randomness of the villain’s appearances and the fact that the enemy stands still when facing it, whereas normally detecting a possible threat would cause a short freezing by the detector.
Dudek points out that creating fear and anxiety is one the most typical aspects of fiction, but only digital games manage to fully satisfy these demands. As said, even without a clear narrative or an AAA-budget, games like Slender, which is mostly based on folklore and internet myth, can utilize different but well-combined mechanics and components of video games to create an intense atmosphere of being in the game world and even facing own fears instead of character’s fears. Dudek opens, that players get identified with the character by taking its perspective and sharing the same objective. He uses the theories of transportation-theorists who claim that some people see reading as transportation to ourselves. This transportation could lead to the change of self-concept which consists of self-schema and possible selves which are mostly ideas of wanted or unwanted future selves. This applies to gaming too, so when encountering an unwanted future self in a scary gaming situation, the player can feel fear or anxiety of their own instead of just embracing the character’s feelings.
Dudek played the game to gain personal experience so he could answer better which elements invoke these strong feelings. He also watched videos of other people playing it and read comments about the game from game reviews and online forums. Dudek also combined his observations with actual psychological data about cognitive stimuli which are responsible for creating the emotions of fear and anxiety. He states that the findings of the article could be useful in future horror game development. As a stylistic device, Dudek describes his own gameplay session very precisely to fully steal the reader’s attention.
Dudek, B. (2021). A Sense of Fear and Anxiety in Digital Games: An Analysis of Cognitive Stimuli in Slender — The Eight Pages. Game Studies, 21(2). Retrieved from http://gamestudies.org/2102/articles/dudek
Picture: “Slender Man” by malik.harem is licensed under CC BY 2.0, https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/2672068a-ed95-477d-821a-8fc6f522802d