The Fight, Flight or Button Mash Response: Fear and Arousal in Gaming

Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Gaming | Tags: , | Posted on 24-03-2011-05-2008

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My eyes darting around in panic as I frantically scan for a a climbable ledge or a solid, safe surface – anything at all would do – the palms of my hands react in the worst possible way by turning cold and numb with moisture; perhaps the very combination of inappropriate bodily responses that would make this awful fear of heights – and in particular, falling – a grim reality. I could understand if, say, my sympathetic nervous system had reacted in a fight or flight response by making me tense up and redirecting blood flow to my limbs should I need to use either my fists to attack or my legs to run, but this? This! What could possibly possess my brain to decide to ironically make my hands slippery when I need them, most of all, to hold on tight?!

It’s at this point that I use my damp thumb to press on the Start button of my controller to pause these thankfully fictional near-death experiences, and sit back to take into account the bodily response that had just occurred. The game I’m playing is Just Cause 2, and the situation is controlling the larger-than-life alliterative secret agent character Rico Rodriguez, hanging onto the sides of the large blimp in the game with his trusty grappling hook and looking for the remaining hidden package on the craft which has proven tricky to locate. I’m somewhat sad to report that my real life is utterly devoid of such risks and I obviously do not possess the death-defying capabilities nor tools that Rico may call upon, and yet in this virtual world where base-jumping and parachuting and grappling onto planes and helicopters in mid-air is commonplace I had not experienced any such fear or adrenaline-stimulating response until I was in that one particular moment, clinging onto that blimp, my own tormenting phobia creeping up slowly behind me to shout “Boo!”

Fear stimulus up there, past those trees…

We gamers have surely all felt a similar, bodily response at some stage in our endeavours that make us even more intimately connected to the virtual worlds on offer, whether it be a knot in the stomach during a competitive versus match of Street Fighter, or after conceding a sloppy goal in Pro Evo/FIFA soccer when you know that you should be performing better. A friend of mine, Fergus, has expressed how he often gets a rush of adrenaline in the middle of a difficult song in Guitar Freaks at the arcades (the original guitar video game before Guitar Hero came about), sometimes facilitating improvement in his reactions or, when a group has stopped to observe him, adversely affecting his functioning. Similar is the response, he says, when a rush of zombies and multiple Tanks appear in Left 4 Dead right when the escape vehicle arrives. So not only do we love the content of these games through the dedication of our time and effort (and, sometimes, also possessing a pride open to vulnerability should we find our status of all-conquering Chief under threat), our bodies will also sometimes react to the immersion appropriately.

In the case of this experience with Just Cause 2, the hidden package was subsequently located upon resuming the game, but boy did my body have to work to make that happen. So now I’m asking – what games have elicited a physical or emotional response from you, and what was the situation that made it happen?

*There’s also “that sinking feeling” after accidentally deleting a save containing hours upon hours of amassed playtime, however I suspect that that is a little different and not quite as captivated-within-game as I’m looking for.

[Gamasutra feature & comments]


Comments posted (2)

Playing Xtreme Beach Volleyball elicited a physical response from me. Multiple times. Huh. I still use the same jokes over and over. Haha, you said “arousal.” Getting 100% completion in Super Mario Galaxy 2 made me feel like a million bucks. The Perfect Run level was a fucking beast. Reminds me of getting all the achievements for Modern Warfare. Playing the same games over and over gives me a headache sometimes and makes me feel like I’m getting dumber.

Falling off high places tends to give me butterflies for some reason, I know that I’m playing a game but I still get that physical discomfort.

I’ve been playing through L.A. Noire, when a suspect gets all confident on me even though he is guilty. I just want to put him away.

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