What’s the Point of “Scary” Art Games?

We play video games for our own reasons: because they’re fun, because we’re bored, because we’re procrastinating, because we need something to occupy our time until an event occurs. However, some of us play games as a way to escape our daily stresses, or to break away from reality itself. In this sense, video games act as opiates, taking our mind off of the circumstances that we don’t wish to face. When I use the term “opiate” I’m referencing sociologist Karl Marx’s “opium of the masses” quote, explaining how humans have forms of self-releases to cope with their struggles or, in his words, a “sigh of the oppressed creature.” Although his quote is about religion being the “sigh” for some people, I believe this concept could also apply to how some view video games. The way Wade views the Oasis in the novel Ready Player One is a good example of this perception. He uses his life in the game world to replace his crappy real life as a poor, trailer park resident. Everyone needs that one form of escape in their lives to make them forget about some of the ordeals they’re going through. Video games can be that perfect escape, however, what happens when the very game we’re playing is a representation or simulation of the slice of life that we are so desperately trying to avoid?

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I personally can’t handle scary games, and I try to avoid playing them…When I say “scary,” I don’t mean games containing zombies, monsters, ghosts, or other entities that are actually meant to be frightening. To me, a “scary” game is one that mirrors the dark, depressing aspects of life in order to bring awareness to the issue. Games that set their main topics to real-life problems such as disease, violent social issues, animal cruelty, slavery, domestic violence, or death are just a few examples of topics that we tend to turn away from.  Sure these sorts of games are meant to educate the player, but if we play games for enjoyment and mental stress relief, why remind us that gruesome situations like these continue to exist outside of the virtual world? We don’t want to think about how bad the economy is getting, or how the earth is becoming more unsustainable every day. We just want to play.


As we discussed in class, Artgames tends to be the video game genre that introduces these dark concepts as a way of making the player think about the matters that people face in real life and what messages the player should learn from them.  This form of interactive media uses a combination of visual graphics and story-like concepts to lead the player into a world different from their own, yet relatively the same. They force the player to take on the role of the main sprite or character by controlling their actions throughout gameplay. As soon as you hop into the character’s position, whether it is the boots of a soldier or the lab coat of a scientist, you are responsible for the game’s outcome. This gives the player a non-transferable god-like power that sets the game world into motion. Although the player can use this power to make the entity move in any direction they choose, they are still forced to remain within the confines of the game’s programming rules; whether it be directional limitations or unavoidable interactions with other sprites. These restrictions could represent how certain real-life situations are inescapable. The difference between these sorts of art games and other video games is the fact that their main plots and mechanics focus less on gameplay and revolve more around teaching the player a lesson. And what better way to learn a bit about the effects of depression than through procedure. It is important to note that these games can only take us SO far when explaining a real ordeal. A game can mimic depression to get people thinking, but NOTHING is comparable to the real condition.


I want to make it clear that not all art games are depressing ones. In fact, there are many out there that center on positive ideas or aesthetic beauty, such as “Super Mario Clouds” which is the original Super Mario game with every element removed except for the clouds.  Another one is a quick game called “Good Fortune” which explains how just simply praying without doing any other action wont get you anywhere. If you seek fortune, you have to earn it. (I’m in no way a stabbing at religion! This game is still a Christian concept saying that God wont help you until he sees that you’re attempting to do things for yourself first.)  Okay, so if optimistic games like these exist, why do we continue to play the gloomier ones that force us into undesirable situations? Honestly, I don’t know this answer. I think it’s up to personal preference or curiosity about aspects of the world.

As I said before, we use video games to put our minds at ease and to send us into worlds where the only real issues are deciding what ammo to use to kill off the other players. This is not all gamers; in fact there may be some who play games for the sole purpose of entertainment. Still, I have personally met individuals like Wade who wish that they could remain in a game world for the rest of their lives. A world much better than their own.


RelevantSideNote: I use video games to make me forget about the fact that I’m going to have a gazillion loans to pay off when I graduate……ugh.



Image Sources:

http://www.kongregate.com/games/TerryCavanagh/dont-look-back http://www.kongregate.com/games/LemmiBeans/one-chance http://playspent.org/ http://gambit.mit.edu/loadgame/summer2010/elude_play.php

  9 comments for “What’s the Point of “Scary” Art Games?

  1. Hughes
    March 20, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I think you make a good point, and it is kind of weird that people seem to be drawn to darker themes in entertainment. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I guess I’m drawn to darker, more mature themes in video games because I am looking for something to feel strongly about even if it’s fear. It’s the same reason my favorite movies are typically darker. That’s not to say I don’t also play games for pure enjoyment or as a distraction when I’m bored or as a way to procrastinate, but my strongest memories of playing games had to do with something more profound.

    It could also be that people tend to seek out something that matches their moods. It’s like when you’re sad and you might listen to a moody acoustic song instead of club music. Maybe scary and artistic videogames have to exist in order for the more lighthearted ones to exist as well, kind of like balancing out the equation. It does seem weird that people would seek out something that would make them feel sadder, but I guess it’s a good thing that there’s always something out there for everyone.

  2. Evan
    March 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    I think it’s possible that many people are drawn to these darker games because they can be more emotionally evokative than just the adrenaline rush of an action-based fps, or because maybe the dark themes allow them to appreciate their own lives more (once again, just speculating). Personally, I am not drawn specifically to the genre, but certainly have played my share of dark games.

    A great example from class would be Limbo, which has been one of my favorite games for one time, despite my general distaste for puzzle games. The game lacks a plot, its solely in black and white, and features a protagonist that faces a gruesome death time and again. However, this darkness is what drew many players too it, despite it being an unbelievably depressing game, which may in itself be the reason we are drawn to it as players.

    These same concept applies to movies it seems. Many of the most memorable scenes in movie history are the darkest ones (end of Casa Blanca, Titanic, The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan, and the list goes on) because of the fact that our mind strongly associates the development of memory with emotion (especially sadness), which may be why many audiences gravitate towards these films.

  3. March 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    My two cents on sad or scary artsy games is that, in spite of everything, these games are still ludic. True, people do play games for the sake of escape, but escape doesn’t necessarily mean safety or relaxation. Furthermore, it doesn’t always signal a departure from real-world problems.

    The key to enjoying these games, or at least tolerating them, is the distance between the player and the game. No matter how realistic or frightening a game may be, it can’t hurt us. A game about, say, struggling to pay off student loans while supporting your cancer-ridden father and diabetic sister, is unfortunate, and capitalizes off of many adult fears. These elements make it raw and sad, and much like “Darfur is Dying,” they can show us a tragic perspective of society. Yet once we turn off the game, or beat it, regardless of the outcome, the player goes back to their life no worse for wear.

    Moreover, these games have rules and guidelines. Players can enjoy a good horror game because it’s expected to elicit fear, and may similarly enjoy a sad game for its ability to offer the player a controlled tragedy. The player is aware that they are in a simulation, or rather, that their character is. Therefore, without having to experience fear over personal safety or true emotional attachment towards NPCs, everything becomes a form of play.

  4. Chelsea
    March 21, 2013 at 12:44 am

    You present a lot of interesting points. It is remarkable how well Karl Marx’s “opium of the masses” and “sigh of the oppressed create” quotes can be applied to video games. I also thought it was interesting how you placed “’scary’ art games” and other video games into two different categories because it forced me to look at games in an entirely different way. I found myself questioning the purpose of using video games as a form of escape, even if that escape placed you in an undesirable environment. I feel that, even though “’scary’ art games” do not provide the same sensation for game users as the OASIS did for Wade, it doesn’t make them “pointless,” as your post title suggests.

    Although undesirable game content does not necessarily “put our minds at ease” in the way other, less-scary games might, it still has some value. Although the topics featured in these games are avoided in the real world, a game player may be more comfortable dealing with these topics within the game. With fictional content, no matter how bad it may make you feel, it is never as bad as it would be if it were experience in real life. To a certain extent we always know what we’re playing isn’t real and therefore do not react to it the same way we would if we were experiencing it firsthand.

    I agree with Hughes’ argument about “looking for something to feel strongly about even if it’s fear.” And, as Evan said, this could also be said for emotional movies. It’s a thrill in itself to experience a wide range of emotions without actually being emotional or physically harmed. If we view these “’scary’ art games” are educational opportunities, we can use our experiences within them to prepare ourselves for a situation in which an actual incident occurs.

  5. Bekka
    March 21, 2013 at 1:29 am

    As has been stated above, I think part of the draw of these ‘scary’ art games is being able to experience such strong emotions second hand. With these games we can temporarily live in a terrible situation and experience the character’s struggle on some level. Then once we’re done or had enough sad for the day, we can leave and go back to our normal lives where the world isn’t ending and we’re not running to fetch water for our village.

    I also think that in the case of games like Darfur is Dying, we play them to feel good about ourselves. In darker art games with a message about how bad someone else has it, we can play it and suddenly feel informed. “Oh yes, well I played a game where the character was trying to help their village survive, all the while trying not to get killed. I’m so informed now. I’ve done so much good by broadening my world view.” Except… you haven’t really done anything. You’re not that much more informed, you really haven’t broadened your world view. You sat down and played a game with a message and decided that was enough.

    In the same vein, I think a draw with art games, especially dark and ‘scary’ ones, is that they provide an illusion of depth. By talking about an art game, you can talk about all the interpretations or symbolism or what its message was and sudden you feel so smart.

    Both of the things I mentioned above obviously do not apply to everyone who plays these games, just some. Other people may be drawn because of the emotional response, or they actually do care about a game with a message or meaning and aren’t faking it to feel good about themselves.

  6. jaustin
    March 21, 2013 at 2:43 am

    I feel like people play “scary” games to make them feel better about themselves for example if someone is playing a game like about slavery or domestic violence (not to sound mean or anything) and they were having a bad day or something they can say well at least it is not that bad, it could be worse. I also agree with what you say about that video games takes our mind off of things people do not want to face. I know I do this all the time when I play Sims just because it is a sort of alternative reality that I want to make myself better or how I want my life to be like. When you put the picture of One Chance game where it shows the wife dead it occurred to me that playing “scary” games can inflict different emotions that some people might feel unappealing. I do not know why people play though games, I would think it is to feel a specific emotion but who really wants to feel sad…no one. I agree with what you said about a game can mimic depression but it is nothing like the real thing. I think that is true unless you are the type of person that is overemotional and take everything to heart then I think that they can feel more of an emotion that the average person. All in all I think that everyone has their own feelings towards games no matter if it is a “scary” game or not they chose to play that and they will continue to play it to bring out that emotion again and again.

  7. jabbott2
    March 21, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I think that a big part of the reason that people play these games that are scary or rather the ones that mirror the depressing aspects of life is to feel a connection with others. For example, someone who is feeling depressed over a bad breakup might listen to emo love songs, or someone who’s dog has just died might watch depressing dog movies like “Marley and Me.”

    By using various forms of media we experience a cathartic release of emotion by oversaturating our minds with a given experience. Furthermore, with a game mirroring our own experience it gives us the feeling of a collective consciousness where we know that we are not alone in our experiences but rather that their are many others who can relate to our personal trials and tribulations.

  8. jhernan2
    March 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    People can be curious sometime and that curiosity makes them want to try to play these games. Humans like experiencing the unknown and if they have the chance to experience it without getting hurt physically or emotionally then they will take that opportunity to try it.

    It seems that games like games like Limbo may seem innocent but they in reality represent frightening moments in life. This sudden jolt seems to give people a rush that makes them want to try more of these games and the artistic style of the game only add to the experience.

    People also feel something when the game itself impacts the emotions. We can see this in games like “One chance” make the people express different emotions at different times throughout the game and people feel for the characters reactions and choices.This wouldn’t be an art game if only looked good, but it also bring out the emotions in those that are playing it making it a full experience.

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