Connor McCallum

Horror-Themed Games Give Us the Illusion of Control in Unprecedented Times

(DayZ, Bohemia Interactive)

According to one study, horror-themed video games offer us salvation in uncertain times, giving the player agency while experiencing the horrors of the apocalypse.


A new study published in the journal Preternature suggests that disturbing video games may play a therapeutic role in our uncertain world by offering players the illusion of control. “Faced with physical and psychological dangers, human beings imagine them as monsters and seek to master them,” the authors wrote in the paper.

This concept is demonstrated by the authors through a critical analysis of DayZ, a post-apocalyptic game set in a zombie-infested landscape in which the player has one objective—survive with bare minimum equipment and a fragile character. Death marks the end of the game, and the player will need to create an entirely new character to play again. In essence, the underdog character must be kept alive for as long as possible against stacked odds.

It may hit too close to home, but, for some, it is exactly the kind of escapism they are searching for. At least, that’s how the authors see it. They explain that when unfortunate and uncontrollable events rear their ugly head, we may personify them as malevolent forces intentionally out to destroy us. In reality, however, these forces are not material and incredibly tenuous. Horror video games, on the other hand, solidify fears into material monsters where the player can actually fight them, giving the player a sense of control.


Horror video games solidify fears into material monsters where the player can actually fight them, giving the player a sense of control.


Much of the stress that is caused by a pandemic or economic uncertainty is the helplessness we feel about events entirely out of our control. Terrorizing video games offer the player the ability to actually do something about stressful events.

“The horrific experience of video games, and hence their cathartic appeal, emerges when a game produces a constant level of anxiety in players while allowing the players to act on it,” the authors explain. Supposedly, fans of DayZ “generally enjoy, rather than avoid, the combination of permanent death … and the drive to strengthen their characters and make them safe.”

The authors liken the psychological effects to those not dissimilar from religion; both horror games and the belief in an angel/demon spiritual duality of the universe give us a sense of control over our destinies.

“Religion stems, in part, from our capacity to see agency in our environment,” they say. “A strategy designed to help us avoid danger, but which also leads us to believe that there are forces at work just outside of our immediate awareness. The tendency to turn shadows into stalkers and fallen twigs into footsteps.”

The researchers surveyed more than 7,000 players of two online horror games: Requiem: Memento Mori and DayZ. Almost 70% reported that the gaming experience was “mild to very cathartic.” Interestingly, 20% claimed reality was less frightening than before. However, the majority of players claimed the games had not altered their daily life.

The authors are of the belief that dark forces faced in the virtual reality “represent the irrational, the repressed, and the wholly other.”

“That these games exist shows that we need horror,” the authors conclude. “The demonic and the monstrous appear in pop culture because they represent evil and our fears and anxieties. It is our human nature to be attracted to the horrific and obtain pleasure from encountering it because this is how we gain a partial and temporary victory over ourselves.”


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