Why Are Survival Horror Video Games So Popular With Kids?

This summer, I worked part-time at Big Lots. One day I had to mark down the prices of a shipment of calendars. To my surprise, the majority of the calendars were of Internet culture. Some of these were animals like Grumpy Cat and Doug the Pug, which seemed like a savvy business deal to me because pets are inherently good and deserve the world. But the other kinds of calendars were of the horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s. This game, in case you don’t know, is where you play as a security guard in their office at a spoof of Chuck E. Cheese’s. Your job is to check the security cameras, where the animatronics led by the eponymous Freddy Fazbear can be seen roaming the restaurant. The catch is that they want to kill you (they’ve killed someone before) and every time you protect yourself by checking the dark hallway by turning on the dim lights or shutting the doors to keep anything out, you use up battery that keeps you from being able to scan the security cameras to know where the animatronics are. If you run out of battery before the end of your shift, Freddy or one of his friends will get you and scare you by having their presence announced with musical box music or by jumping in your face and screaming if you’re caught when you’re checking the security camera. The game is super effective despite being simple, and for someone who doesn’t play video games that often I can tell you it took me time to win the game. Imagine my shock when a customer in her late 30s or early 40s came to buy a calendar of the game for what I assume was her small child. How could kids be such passionate fans of such horror?

I think part of it is that the characters of the game are easily marketable. They are distinctive anthropomorphic animals, which make up many popular characters used for mass production, and are based on a familiar cultural institution in America. I’ve heard of girls in middle school who would destroy their Barbie dolls in an effort to show how mature they had become by turning their backs on their childhood. I think it’s possible young fans of the game want to do the same thing by turning a place that brought them innocent fun with other children their age into a warped nightmare that makes them feel grown-up by withstanding the sinister story of Five Nights, proving they aren’t scared of the dark anymore and that they can handle taking away the sugar-coating of the robots their parents paid to entertain them. The fact that the game has turned into a series of five installments and has a film adaptation in the works produced by Blumhouse Productions is testament to how popular it is.

But where did these little kids hear about the game in the first place? I for one first heard about it from the many gamers on YouTube who posted videos playing the game upon its release in 2014. The journalist Shane Digman for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail believes that the merchandise to the game from the popular collectibles company Funko Pop may actually be an effective kind of advertising to introduce the game to children. He raises the question of whether or not this can be done in good conscious, seeing as how children can have psychological repercussions from being exposed to horror that causes them fear. The thought that the child-friendly inspiration of Five Nights at Freddy’s could lead it to be misinterpreted as a game for children makes me sad, because not only could it put little kids through unnecessary stress if they play the game when they’re too young, but it also defines video games as a medium for children that cannot be taken seriously if it explores the dark nature of what is considered innocent.

One of the reasons presented in Digman’s article as to why young people playing horror games would be a bad idea is because their brains are still developing and can’t distinguish fact from fiction yet. That brings to mind the horrifying attempted murder of a 12 year-old Wisconsin girl by two mentally ill girls her age in 2014, where the perpetrators claimed they wanted to gain Slender Man’s approval and protect their families from him with a sacrifice. Slender Man is an urban legend created by Eric Knudsen in 2009, a cryptid who is tall without facial expressions that can teleport and stalks his prey (notably children) in forests. Thankfully the victim survived the attack, but it’s tragic that a character who is known to be fictional could inspire such a horrifying act. I, like most people I know, was introduced to Slender Man through the video game based on the urban legend called Slender: The Eight Pages. I find it interesting that the game found success like FNAF did through viral videos on YouTube of gamers playing the game, gaining many young fans as a result. There is something deeply fascinating about a modern day myth that can be put into many settings in our country. The scary nature of these two games, however, makes me wonder if there’s something beneath the surface of the current generation of youth that would make them feel validated somehow by such scary creatures that would threaten people like them in the real world.

Ana Lucena

Ana is an English major with plans of becoming a lawyer if her writing career doesn’t take off. She is passionate about literature, film and comics. She also enjoys anime and K-pop and would be eager to discuss her favorites with you.

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9 Comments on "Why Are Survival Horror Video Games So Popular With Kids?"

4 months 13 days ago

thanks for sharing

6 months 20 days ago

What if youtube let’s plays of horror games are appealing to young children because the person who play it has overreacted emotions and expressions, which children can learn from in a way that how to react in similar situations? Fear and being scared is an emotion usually well hidden from children by the parents and when kids see it, they feel like they have stumbled upon something new and suddenly feel a need to explore it. It’s a totally new area of emotions, which they think they can map out on their own just by looking at a bunch of youtube let’s plays. I might be totally wrong, but the idea comes from my 9 year old niece nagging me to play FnaF together. She doesn’t want to play alone, but wants me to monitor her while she plays. I assume she wants to see me scared too, either to brag, that my fear level is below the average youtube players’ level or to see herself, whether the reactions of youtubers are correct or over-exaggerated.

Ana Lucena
6 months 17 days ago

I’ve never thought of that! Thanks for your perspective. I hope you have fun playing with your niece. It’s funny that she might want to see if you get scared easily when she’s the one too scared to play on her own, which I don’t blame her for — it’s a scary game.

8 months 30 days ago

I was about 9 or 10 when I first got into the game (I’m 14 now). Even at that young age I was a fan of horror, especially of creepypastas and the work. I actually heard of FnaF from a friend of mine on the playground, and when I got home I went online and found a let’s play of it by Markiplier. From there I became obsessed with the series, my friends as well. I would watch as many let’s plays and lore videos as possible, and my friends and I even came up with a game called, creatively ‘FnaF tag’, where four people would be the animatronics and one the nightguard. The animatronics would chase the nightguard down, and whichever animatronic caught the nightguard, would become the nightguard, and the nightguard would become animatronic
Anyways, I think the reason I loved that series so much, and why it became as popular as it did was due to the cryptic storyline (like, I still can only barely make sense of the damn story, but it’s so fun to figure it out!) that inspired many people to theorize and try and piece together what it all means, and also the creepy, but also fun(?) and unique cast of characters, that inspired many other’s to create their own based on them.

TL;DR horror + mysteries and indirect storyline + unique lookin’ characters = $$

That’s just my take tho.

Ana Lucena
8 months 8 days ago

Thank you for your perspective, I really appreciate it. It sounds like we had very similar experiences. I’m a long-time fan of horror like Creepypasta, but I got into it in high school. You’ve been a horror fan for so long! And I also found out about FNAF from Markiplier. Small world. It’s good to hear you enjoy the game, and I’m happy that you had friends to share it with.

11 months 22 days ago

I’m still technically a kid but I’ve seen many kids smaller than me loving Hello Neighbor and bendy so I have no idea P.S there are some that aren’t even in kindergarten loving these titles

Ana Lucena
11 months 21 days ago

Thank you for sharing! I’ve also seen elementary school kids wearing shirts with Bendy on it… I haven’t played it yet but I hear it’s really scary, so I was surprised to see little kids into those kinds of games. I’m glad I’m not the only one noticing this!

2 years 1 month ago

This is really interesting, Ana. My introduction to Five Nights at Freddy’s was through seeing it in the toy aisle with my preschooler. I actually didn’t realize what the game entailed, and would’ve guessed something more innocuous based on the toy line…