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HORROR VIDEOGAMES:

THE PLAYER, THE SPECTATOR AND THE MALLEABILITY OF ACTIVITY AND PASSIVITY

Seminar: Technologies of Vision


Dipartimento di Architettura e culture del progetto
IUAV
Professor Angela Ndalianis

Horror is one of the most well-defined genres in fiction. That’s because, unlike other genres like
“science-fiction” and “first-person shooter,” horror is defined entirely by the emotion response it’s
trying to provoke from its audience.

- Scott Rehm, author of the game design advice blog “The Angry GM” [1]

ABSTRACT
In this essay, I shall explore the horror genre with particular interest for videogames.
I will try to briefly outline the genre and what elements define it. Afterwards, I will delve into the
videogame spectating phenomenon, i.e. spectators watching either live streams or pre-recorded
footage of other people playing videogames. Finally, I try to explain what implications this
phenomenon has in terms of reciprocal active and passive roles of the player and of the spectator and
I try to unravel whether there are specific implications for the horror genre, since game spectating got
popularized in part thanks to horror videogames.

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What makes horror?

Video journalist Logan Baker wrote an interesting blog post listing some of the most significant
elements that define the horror genre when it comes to movies. [2] In the list we can find screenplay,
jump scares, gore, the “found footage” technique, underexposed (dark) environments and the power
of sound. The blog post provides a good base for further exploration of what makes the genre, but
there are many pieces like this one, and they’re all somewhat incomplete mixes of elements that
constitute the genre and techniques used in horror movies.

I found a much clearer and exhaustive explanation in an article of previously mentioned Scott Rehm,
who writes that we have to be careful about claiming horror is just about fear. Because fear comes in
different flavours. And to truly understand the genre, we have to understand the basic flavours of fear
that are most common in horror. [1]

To sum it up, he identifies three different kinds of fear that are the basic components of any horror
story: he calls them fright, revulsion and dread.
Fright is the most basic fear. It is primal, biological fear. It’s the purview of jump scares. It’s not
constant. It comes in spikes, it’s over pretty quickly and the audience tends to either build a resistance
to it or get fatigued by it.
Revulsion is fear that comes from a rational understanding of the implications of a thing. It is disgust,
discomfort, or loathing. It’s the feeling you get from creepy crawlies. It’s the feeling you get from
seeing a rotting corpse or a grisly scene of torture. It’s the feeling we get when we want something to
be over as soon as possible or don’t want something to be real. Fright and revulsion are useful to keep
the audience on the edge, but we can’t forget that after all, horror is a form of voluntary
entertainment. People find it cathartic to experience negative, visceral emotions. But they can only
handle so much. If their brains get worn down, they get tired of it.
The third kind of fear is dread: dread is the fear of the unknown and the uncontrolled. It’s the fear you
feel when you know something terrible is coming. But you don’t know what it is or you don’t know
when and how it is going to turn out. The example Scott gives to better illustrate what he means by
dread is the first alien movie: for most of the film you don’t know what bad thing is going to happen,
you just know something is off, but everything might go very wrong at any given moment. Even in the
end, when you finally see the alien, it is still unpredictable and it might appear from anywhere,
anytime, and take any of the characters away with him. Unlike the other two kinds of fear, dread
builds over time.

Ultimately, dread, fright, and revulsion have to work together to produce sustained horror. A horror
story, no matter the format, can be seen as a series of moments of fright and revulsion, connected by
a wavering sense of dread that rises and falls in each scene, but trends ever upward to the moment
of climax.
But in order for dread to work, there is one last element the author needs to keep in mind and use
effectively: powerlessness.

To understand powerlessness, you need to think about your expectations when you’re watching a
regular movie versus a horror movie. In a regular movie you want the heroes to succeed. They will
encounter difficulties, but they most likely will succeed in the end. In a horror movie you still want the
heroes to succeed, but you know they likely won’t. Or even if they do, it will only be an escape and
not a real victory, or at least a hard earned victory, where they lost much of what they had.
Two of the most common ways to disempower a character are isolation and lack of information.

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Agency is also empowering: we draw strength from a sense of control. And when that sense of control
is stripped away, we are powerless.

Dread relies on disempowerment. It relies on knowing that the protagonists do not have the power
to control the outcome. It relies on the fact that the heroes only have the power to minimize their
losses and escape. That is why in horror videogames the resources you come by are extremely limited.
You don’t have much oil to fuel your lantern, and without it you are in utter darkness. You only have
so many bullets for that zombie-killing shotgun, and if you run out, you’re hopeless. This often happens
in movies as well: just before the final confrontation the hero counts their bullets one last time, three
more shots. After that, it’s all over. This example helps illustrate the difference between dread and
dramatic tension. If the hero finds he has three more bullets and he has to fight, say… a bear, we might
think he has a fair chance of succeeding (it’s a movie after all), dramatic tension builds up as he and
the bear get closer to each other, and it lasts until one or the other survives the confrontation. Now,
imagine the hero finds he only has one more bullet, or none. And that he has to fight an alien creature
he does not understand (lack of information) in a completely abandoned spaceship (isolation), the
same kind of dramatic tension, turns to dread through disempowerment or powerlessness.

As you might imagine, there are issues implementing the concepts of powerlessness and lack of
agency in a videogame: “When we watch a horror movie, we might know that the protagonists
basically have no hope of winning. But the characters can’t know that. If the characters realize their
situation is utterly, impossibly hopeless, they will lose all of their motivation and stop trying.
In games, the protagonists ARE the audience. And, even though they are playing a horror game, the
players still need to know they have the power to affect the outcome in order to have any interest in
playing the game. If they don’t feel like anything they do matters, they won’t enjoy the experience of
being in a horror story. They will just feel frustrated.” [1]

What, then, makes horror games so effective?

And why do so many people willingly seek out that kind of experience? First of all, Horror taps into
the so-called “fear module” (Öhman and Mineka 2001), that is to say, it scares us by triggering
evolutionary conserved defence mechanisms hardwired into the human nervous system. To increase
the power of these stimuli, first-person optical point-of-view is often adopted to foster player
immersion (Krzywinska 2002; McMahan 2003). This enables the player to imaginatively enter the
game themselves. Furthermore, “visual and auditory cues scaffold this mechanism of imaginative
transportation. Whenever Daniel [the protagonist of the game Amnesia: the dark descent] encounters
disturbing scenes (such as a tableau of decomposing corpses or a monster in the distance), the avatar’s
response anticipates and mirrors the player’s intended response: the game emits sonic
representations of an accelerating heart, quickened breathing, and anxious whimpering. Moreover,
the visual field is distorted in a representation of fear-triggered perceptual changes.” [3]

Nowadays, there is a growing community of video game spectators that exists mostly on the Internet
who enjoy watching other people playing games. When someone is playing a horror game, the
reaction of the player anticipates and mirrors the spectator’s intended reaction just like the reaction
of the avatar anticipates that of the player: it adds a second layer of expected response, in a way
amplifying the perception of the horror elements for the viewer by triggering an emphatic reaction.

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We get tense when we see the player tensing up, just like we laugh when we hear fake audience
laughter in a soap-opera.

The video game spectating phenomenon isn’t surprising news anymore, it surfaced around 2010-2011
when, thanks to advances in Internet bandwidth and new web services, live-streaming has become
democratized. And we can find five-year-old papers already analysing it exhaustively [4]. There are
different communities that stream and spectate games for different reasons: these communities can
be grouped into three broad categories: in order of popularity, we have the e-sports community, the
“let’s play” community and the speedrunning community.

The e-sports community, streams competitive matches between players and usually a separate
commentator. Speedrunning is the idea of trying to complete a game as fast as possible. E-sports and
speedrunning have their own incentives that have nothing to do with the horror genre, therefore from
now on we will only consider “Let’s plays” (LP) when we talk about video game spectating.

The LP experience is not framed in a larger competitive context, therefore broadcasts are usually
informal and enjoyment as a viewer comes from what the player/performer adds to the experience.
An LP is generally an episodic account of a player’s journey through a particular game or creative play
in a non-linear game.
Basically, these spectators willingly give up their agency over the game and decide to watch someone
else play it online, either in the form of live streams (e.g. on TwitchTV) or in that of pre-recorded
footage (e.g. on YouTube).
How can this choice be explained and what are the incentives for both the player and the viewer to
pursue this form of entertainment?

What comes to mind is the metaphor of the necromancer, used by professor Ndalianis to describe
her experience playing Resident Evil 4: “I felt like a necromancer who had special skills in summoning
dead, digital flesh to life—a necromancer who then entered the body of Leon to view an alternate
world through another’s eyes.” [5]. But if the player is a necromancer, a puppeteer, then the
spectators are basically an audience watching a puppet show. A puppet show where the puppeteer
is also experiencing the show for the first time, together with the audience, as he impersonates one
of the characters.

Here lies the secret of the attractiveness of videogames spectating. It all comes down to what the
player/performer adds to the game: his reaction, his comments, his jokes, his impersonation of the
characters, and the universe he creates around the game, together with his audience. The success of
a LP broadcaster is not based on their skill in the game, but on how entertaining they are as they play
the game. It is the entertainment the player creates around the experience that draws interest. An LP
can be thought of as a narrative commentary on an experience as it is being experienced. Cheng and
Huang [6] outline different personas to describe the video game spectating audience. The most
prevalent one in the LPs community is the Entertained: this persona prefers watching over playing and
their incentive is specifically the presence of extra content provided by the player/performer.
Another good reason why people could prefer spectating to actually playing, is if they were curious
about a game but unable to play, either because they don’t own the game or they are not skilled
enough to play through the game without experiencing unnerving frustration.

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Before we delve into further incentives specific to the horror genre, let’s briefly analyse the reasons
why a player would want to share his experience with an audience, rather that play the game for
himself.
The act of performing to someone changes the way a player plays; in the simple scenario of someone
walking into a room where someone is playing a game, the player becomes more of a performer if
they know someone is watching: narrating what is happening.
LP broadcasts are meta-games on top of the original game. It is common for a performer to play
around with one object in a game while commenting for a long time, whereas doing so while playing
a game alone isn’t. As discussed earlier, this also adds to the entertainment viewers would get from
playing the game.

For example, LP performer Felix Kjellberg who goes by the YouTube username PewDiePie, creates
characters and voices for elements of the games he plays. Felix discussed in his Nonick talk [7] how he
tries to create a “universe” around the games, which helps create the community of viewers.
Although Felix uploads a different kind of videos right now, and does not do so may LPs, his experience
is relevant to this essay as he gained popularity specifically through playing horror games like Amnesia
and entertaining viewers through his scared reactions [8]. He had then made LP videos his profession
for a while, with the most popular genre being horror videogames.

As I was anticipating earlier, there is a whole other layer of incentives both for the performer and the
viewer for horror games specifically, which I think is the reason why horror largely contributed to the
rise of popularity of LP performances.

Let’s get back to the metaphor of the necromancer for a moment. In this scenario, the player enters
the game world through the eyes of the character he is controlling. That world though, is a scary place:
fright and revulsion wear him down and dread gets to him. Inside of the digital body he is controlling,
the necromancer is scared and powerless. He could just pull the plug and get back to reality, but he
does not want to. He wants to press on, but the lack of control he experiences inside of the helpless
digital body is too great to bear. As we discussed earlier, powerlessness comes in various flavours:
isolation, lack of information and lack of agency being the most common ones. The player only lacks
agency as long as he is getting familiar with the controls. Or as long as he is missing resources in the
game, but as a player he can’t do anything about it. As a player, he could take a break and look online
for information on what lies ahead, therefore empowering himself by filling the lack of information,
but that would be cheating. He can, however, work on isolation: the body he is controlling is alone,
and while he is still experiencing his story visually, thanks to the screen, and haptically, thanks to the
controller, the player does not have to be alone: he can play along with spectating friends or an online
audience. He then interacts with an audience as he puts on a show. This allows the necromancer to
more easily get detached from the events that are happening to his avatar, reducing the feeling of
dread by empowering himself just enough to make the game more bearable and fun for himself. But
then, suddenly, BAM! jumpscare, fright, primal fear, the player and the audience all jump on their
seats, while the player screams and closes their eyes or watches away, but the controller shakes
uncontrollably, enhancing the frightful experience of the player through the sense of touch. Of course
the reaction is also incredibly funny for the audience: we love to see people getting suddenly
frightened when there is actually nothing to worry about, it’s common to see people scare each other
for fun.

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Felix, for example, discusses how he saw another LP performer playing the previously mentioned
Amnesia, which made him want to play too, but when he began to play he was scared, and he reports
talking to an imaginary audience gave him the confidence to carry on playing. Although this is a specific
case of why a performer started, it gives us insight into why performing as a player to an audience is
more desirable than playing alone.

To further understand the viewer incentives for spectating a horror game, we need to understand the
relation between the player, the viewer and the game in terms of information asymmetry[A]. There
are three forms of information asymmetry: player holds information the viewer does not; the viewer
holds information the player does not; neither of them holds a particular piece of information.
In LPs, as the performer also plays the role of The Commentator, they have less control over the first
form of information asymmetry because the viewer is seeing the same content as the performer.
It is possible to have the “Player Unknown, Viewer Known” form of information asymmetry in an LP
but only on a small scale. When a viewer knows what is coming up in a game because they have played
it before, they can look forward to when the performer is reaching that point.
Yet, an LP elevates the “Player Unknown, Viewer Unknown” form of information asymmetry as
revealing the unknown is experienced by both the performer and the viewer at the same time.
Therefore, just as much as the player shares his experience with an audience because it’s too much
for him to bear on his own, it’s possible that the audience prefers watching someone else play rather
than play themselves, because they still want to experience the game, but are too scared to do it on
their own.

The viewers who spectate because they prefer spectating over playing, for one reason or the other,
are the ones that are most interesting to me, because they basically decide to experience the game
similarly to how you experience a movie. In a way, the movie they are watching is similar to those
which employ the “found footage” technique often used in horror, with a notable example in
Paranormal Activity. The spectator still experiences all three aspects of fear just as if he would
experience them in any non-interactive media, like a movie. He still experiences fright and revulsion,
and dread still build up, depending on the seriousness of the commentary provided. What changes
drastically is the nature of the interaction between the viewer ad the game.

The viewers, not being players, do not hold the controller, therefore giving up the haptic part of the
game and their agency over the outcome. Or do they? The truth is they do much less than one would
immediately think. I shall now elaborate on ways the spectator still holds a certain degree of haptic
experience and agency over the game they are spectating.
Haptic vision [9]: one of the topics we touched during the technologies of vision course has to do with
the way our visual and tactile perceptions overlap, that is to say, how our eyes can make us feel
physical, tactile sensations. By voluntarily giving up the control of the game, the spectator can take in
more details about the videogame environment that the player might miss. All the Bruno’s theories
about our engagement with film as kinetic and embodied, also hold up for videogame spectating, and
once again, this is especially true for the horror genre as is works with physical reaction that are hard
wired in our brain and employs several techniques to make the audience merge with the protagonist.

Spectator - Player interaction [10]: “video games are usually enjoyed actively and television is enjoyed
passively, but through studying the video game live-streaming community, we can see that these are
not concrete concepts and viewers sometimes play active or passive roles” [4]. You might see
spectating as a passive-only activity, but the truth is there are several ways the spectators can interact
with the player, to the point of actually impacting the way the player progresses with the game.

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Imagine a group of friends playing a game together: one of them holds the controller and in actively
playing, the others are only spectating. Do you think that will stop them from constantly giving
“suggestions” on which way to approach different parts of the game? Non really, not in my experience,
at least. A similar phenomenon can be noticed online: YouTube videos have a comment section
through which the spectators can give feedback and suggest to the player what they should do next,
or if they missed something they found interesting. The player sees the feedback, and can decide to
check out the suggestions in the following video. In live streams, the interaction is even stronger and
more immediate. On TwitchTV, for example, there is a live chat right next to the streaming screen.
Usually the chat is a place for casual socialization or to interact with the player. But in horror
videogames, it also becomes a powerful tool for the player and the viewer to stick together and
strengthen one another as they share their reaction to the latest jumpscare or they ask if that noise
they just heard was just in their head, in their house or if someone else heard it.
Lastly, the spectators can sometimes turn into developers, designing levels or whole games for their
favourite LP performer to experience. This is true for other videogames as well, platformers in
particular, but the most interesting results I have ever seen are definitely on the horror spectrum.
Following the rise of popularity of horror videogame spectating, there was a sudden appearance of a
huge number of indie horror videogames, these were often short and minimal games, meant more
as experiences than as full-fledged games, but it’s undeniable that there was an interaction between
players and spectators and that many spectators turned into developers, with the main
objective being that of seeing their favourite performers react to their creations.

So, as you can see, activity and passivity are very malleable concepts, and figures like the player and
the spectator constantly switch to more active and more passive roles, despite the player being the
one who is “actively” playing, it’s not entirely true that the spectators cannot experience the game
authentically, or that they have no power over the course of action.

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REFERENCES

[1] http://theangrygm.com/running-your-most-horrible-dd-adventure-ever/

[2] https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/classic-horror-film-techniques

[3] Mathias Clasen, 2016, A Consilient Approach to Horror Video Games, volume 3, Challenges and
Opportunities

[4] Thomas P. B. Smith, 2013. Live-Streaming Changes the (Video) Game.

[5] Angela Ndalianis, 2012, The Horror Sensorium, page 46

[6] Cheung, G., and Huang, J. 2011. Starcraft from the stands: understanding the game spectator. In
CHI, pages 763-772

[7] Web: Nonick 2012. Felix Kjellberg Keynote. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-


iEQD5s97E&playnext=1&list=PL8AD0F546C4CF57E8&feature=results_video. Retrieved 02/2013.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzwk5gDnY4E - a short compilation of Felix’ funny reactions


from back when videogame spectating was not as popular as it is today.

[9] Giuliana Bruno, 2002, Atlas of emotion.

[10] Sky LaRell Anderson, 2017, Watching People Is Not A Game: Interactive Online Corporeality,
TwitchTV, and Videogame Stream
shttp://gamestudies.org/1701/articles/Anderson

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