What Is Universally Terrifying?
You want to invoke a sense of terror in your games, but because each person has different fear prompts it’s difficult to pinpoint specific triggers for everyone. Some people may be afraid of heights, others afraid of spiders. You can’t guarantee that someone walking into the room will be afraid of what you’ve got in your bag of tricks. You could include navigating heights or unreasonably large spiders in your game but that won’t scare everyone. You will likely elicit a terrified stupor from those who are afraid, but what about the rest who don’t mind heights or spiders?
Mental Conditioning and Fear
The trick isn’t to make something a man will fear, but to make that man fear something. Through mental conditioning any man can be made to fear any object. Think of a common innocuous object, something you use every day, perhaps something in your pockets or on your desk right now. That object in hand shouldn’t inspire any sense of fear and is a wonderful candidate for our explanation. If the task is to make someone fear that object a strong association needs to be formed with another stimulus that will create an aversion to the item.
Pain is a powerful motivator, but that would be hard to pull off through a medium like video games. We have been told it may also be considered unethical to inflict pain on unsuspecting victims users. Oh well, what we do have available to us as developers is failure and loss.
Now to make that innocuous object frightening we need to create an association between it and the stimuli of failure and/or loss. We create this association by turning the object into a trigger and the stimulus into a consequence.
Hypothetical Mental Conditioning
Let’s assume that item I asked you to consider earlier was a cell phone. Something you deeply love and cannot live without. How could we ever make you learn to fear it? Allow me to insert a hypothetical situation to dramatically demonstrate a point.
You find yourself in a dire situation. You are confined within a very large and meagerly illuminated warehouse. Around you is amassed a large variety of crates. At the fringe of the vast room the shadows are stirring, pressing against the dim halogen lights with malicious intents.
You have been tasked with finding and recovering an object from these crates that is paramount to your survival. Informed that you may request a text message via your cell phone that will indicate your proximity to the object in question you have only one hour to complete your task before the lights go out indefinitely; allowing the shadow to consume you. However, this enlightening text message will come at a murky cost. With each hint received one of the few lights of the warehouse will flicker and go out, allowing the pressing shadow to elatedly leap a pronounced distance closer to you.
You do not have time to search each and every crate so using the cell phone is imperative to your survival.
As the wall of shadow closes in each and every text message you begrudgingly invite will become more and more terrifying to use. Anxiety will compound as the luxuries of light and time runs out. Within a few texts what you have lost will quickly condition you to loathe and fear using your phone for it may dwindle away what little time and resources you have. The phone is now an enemy, indistinguishable from the foreboding shadow slipping impishly closer to you with each passing moment.
Congratulations we’ve just created a phobia of phones by using operant conditioning to associate phones with negative consequences. The duration of the phobia will likely be short lived after the event because the reinforcement was continuous. When the consequences stop the subject will quickly acclimate and the connection between the object and the stimuli will cease. The duration could be extended using more advanced methods of operant conditioning but that is a topic for another day.
Fear of loss is a powerful motivator and it can very easily be used to make someone forsake something they love. It is even more effective on something that doesn’t boast the claim of your affection. If we could convince you to fear something you love, how easily could we convince you fear something you already have an aversion to?
Yes, you could condition anyone to fear anything but should you? Some objects take less coercion than others. A ragged doll is easier to use than a boiled egg because we have already been partially indoctrinated in the fear of said object. The boiled egg would take far more effort to establish as a phobia and might not be unattainable within the confines of your game. We have a very limited window in which to engage our intended audience and we need be wise about how we spend that time.
In your quest to create fear in your project you have the option to create fear or expand on it. In many cases expanding will be more than sufficient. Instead of investing a gratuitous amount of time and energy trying to make someone fear something new, it may be time better spent to relapse an old phobia or expand on those that already have foundations laid by our cultural indoctrinations. Using childhood fears like horrid monsters, the darkness of night and shocking events can keep your audience around and interested long enough for you to put together the pieces to establish new innovative fears for them to experience.
As a sadistic advocate of fear in games, I would implore you to use a combination of resurfacing mainstream phobias as well as work quietly in the background to create an enduring aversion to something pertinent to your games theme. Nothing makes me congratulate a horror game developer quite like the dawning realization that something in their game has changed my typical behavior. Now go forth and make the world regret paying $19.99 for your psychologically degenerative experience.