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.

“Doki Doki Literature Club”: a weeaboo nightmare

After showing several warnings that this game is not advised for children and those with depression or anxiety, the 2017 video game “Doki Doki Literature Club” begins by almost boring you to tears with a typical story for a dating sim. You are a remarkably unremarkable male high school student in Japan with a love of manga. Your neighbor and closest friend, a cute and ditzy girl named Sayori, drags you to her literature club after school out of a shared concern for your lack of social skills. There you meet her equally cute friends who you are obviously smitten with as they fit anime tropes: president and queen bee Monika, tsundere Natsuki and mysterious Yuri. You are forced to play the game straight, meaning repeatedly playing an almost dull mini-game where you form a poem by strategically picking words from lists in order to win over the girl of your dreams.

In the droning rhythm of the game, little hints that something is off are something you shrug off. But they’re not quite subtle enough. There is clearly something wrong with the girls that they keep hinting at. And yet you must continue forward with the story, as you are rarely given the opportunity to engage the girls on a more personal level. The game starts acting wonky as well, and makes you start questioning your sanity. Does the cheerful music keep getting distorted? (Yes.) Are there supposed to be “errors” in coding that makes the normally sweet girls’ dialogue shockingly dark? (Yes.) Do the glitches when the girls appear scrambled or out of place happen intentionally? (Yes.) And yet you still feel secure as you continue this mindless journey schmoozing the anime girls as you discuss writing poetry, because nothing this pastel can get under your skin like it claims. Right?

Wrong. Spoiler alert: the horror in “Doki Doki Literature Club” is revealed slowly by undoing what you know about the story, and then goes a terrifying level further by undoing what you know on a technical level about the game itself.

The cute girls of the literature club all kill themselves and in a way that implicates you in their death. It is shockingly dark in and of itself to find out that each of them is hiding dark secrets. Sayori has been struggling with depression for years. Natsuki is neglected and physically abused by her father. Yuri cuts herself. The way these sweet two-dimensional girls are dealing with all-too real issues is shocking and unnerving.

Yet what is weird is that the errors in the computer game makes them reveal this to you. Sayori screams in pain when you share your interest in the other girls before she reveals she likes you. And then she hangs herself as the music distorts, restarting the game! Natsuki’s eyes change animation style as they pop and bleed after you give her a poem tailored with a different girl in mind. And then she snaps her own neck before her figure is pushed to the front of the screen, restarting the game! Yuri has blood running from cuts all down her arm after she gets excited and dashes out of class to be left alone. And then she clunkily stabs her otherwise static body after she confesses her feelings to you! No matter what you do, the game’s glitching pushes the horror from the imagery of the characters committing suicide to a profound moral guilt as you are made complicit in the demise of these girls who have no other choice but to love you. But it gets worse still. Why did this happen?

Because Monika knows you’re out there, and she wants you all to herself. Yes, you, behind the screen, even though she knows you may not be a boy and that the name your computer is registered under is not the one you used in the game for immersion. She did all of that to her so-called friends. For you. And so she proceeds to destroy all the sets and characters in the game until she is in a timeless void in space with unending time to spend. With you.

The unnerving obsession that is made grotesque in this game speaks to the excessive romanticizing of dating in general. Thankfully, I put the game to rest by deleting Monika’s character file on my computer, effectively killing her. This was a small feat, as the game hints at this time after time. But I could not kill the sleep-stealing fear she instilled in my heart.

No Other Art Forum Does What Video Games Do

Video Games, unlike all other art forms, deny you access to the art form when you are bad at it. The below sketch certainly made me stop and think about it for a second.  (Warning! There are some crass terms/imagery in the video.)

I like video games but I am generally very bad at them unless it’s something like Simms where you just live the life of a person and the goals of the game are what the player decides.  Art does not deny the viewer in the same way video games do. Games in general produce this frustration for many. Dancing adequately for an album to continue or understanding a books metaphors is not necessary to finish or enjoy the content.

To me there is no doubting video games as art. I do wonder if the idea that gaming is the only art form that blocks certain people from joining it is true. People often talk about easter eggs and homages in content that others might not understand or notice. While a book may not spontaneously shut down on someone who can’t list the main themes, a particular reader might not fully appreciating a work because they lack the skill to think deeply about the content.

Perhaps this exclusion might be something that helps define art in comparison to crafty endeavors. Art not only needs a particular amount of skill to create it also needs a particular amount of skill to be understood. There are so many people who scoff at various modernist pieces and say that they could have made a piece or that it isn’t art. In a way there scorn might be something that helps define what art is.

This is not to say that all art is of the same quality and needs deep thinking to be understood but that many art styles may exclude viewers in the same way that video games do in a less obvious way.

A Talk About Sequel Seasons: VGHS Season 2 Review

So lately I’ve been on a very goal oriented mission to finish all the TV shows that I’ve started this year. Unfortunately, this number is a LOT higher than it should be due to the fact that, well, school. So even though I might have such good intentions, I inevitably end up falling short and dropping off in the middle of a season or even an episode.

This list of shows is including but not limited to: Sherlock season 3, Doctor Who Series 7 (Clara), New Girl season 3 (and finishing Season 1 because I technically never watched all the episodes???), Legend of Korra season 2, and Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

Although this list shows how diverse and interesting my TV habits are, there’s something that most of them all have in common – they are all sequels.

And by sequels I don’t mean like a sequel movie, I mean a sequel series. Even though I’ve been waiting months (or even years in the case of Sherlock) to watch these shows, somehow….I just…haven’t.

Previously on the List of Things To Finish was the show Video Game High School Season 2. Last year, while taking flu medicine that wasn’t actually doing anything since my doctor misdiagnosed my infection, I ended up waking up early every day one week and yet not going to class, because, you know, infection. I didn’t miss much since I was in community college at the time, so instead of trying to do work I surfed Netflix for my new obsession.

And, as fate would have it, I stumbled upon Video Game High School, or VGHS. I thought, why not, I’ll give it a try, and ended up marathoning the entire show since Netflix had put each episode into one big movie. Instantly, I loved it. I’m not a gamer, and I’ll never be a gamer, but this show had great characters, interesting plot points, a fantastic, clever, and completely hilarious script, and a huge heart. Yes, VGHS was my new obsession. As you might guess, it’s about a high school that plays video games as its curriculum. The creators, YouTubers who are fairly famous around the internet (heard of Freddie Wong?), made this show both specific in its plot about gaming and yet accessible to anyone such as me who doesn’t even know the first thing about an FPS game.

So when I found out that there was a Kickstarter to fund a season 2, I was absolutely pumped. And, since I’m on this new finishing things streak, I decided to finish season 2 which had come out in early September.

While the characters are still the same, and still dynamic in their progression, and the script was both funny and witty, I was…dissatisfied with the end product. Majorly disappointed would actually be more accurate. I can’t say I didn’t like it, because I did enjoy watching the episodes, but it lost something this season.

Instead of sticking with the previous format of a show with a continuous plot that culminated to an exciting (and epic) finale, the creators opted to be more fluid with the layout of season 2. Each episode does build on the next, but in very small ways. There was no overarching theme or plot, and for the most part each problem presented was resolved within the episode, leaving the next one to pick up a new one. To me, it was Video Game Sitcom, not Video Game High School. The writing and characters are much more interesting, diverse, and funny than a sitcom, but the layout and plot were just so blah. I kept expecting something to pick up, especially since two great plot points were introduced at the very beginning in the first episode. However not one but both of these opportunities were wasted, and the season finale was so unsatisfying that I couldn’t believe that it was actually over. The creators even used a cliffhanger to draw in audiences (and give them an incentive to crowdsource their season 3 efforts), and honestly, I’m just disappointed.

Honestly, I mostly wanted to use this post this week to vent about my frustrations. There were so many good things about season 2 that I’m just really surprised that I’m so unsatisfied. But the sad thing is, there’s really nothing I can do. I’m not sure if I want a season 3 so that Freddie Wong and co. can redeem themselves, or if I just want to rewatch the golden entertainment that is VGHS. Either way, I’m coming to find out that sequel seasons can be amazing (Sherlock) – or they can be massive letdowns.

A Call for Virtuous Video Games

I am not a fan of video games.

Mindlessly falling away into a realm of flashing lights and sounds of illusion is often a means to mental decay. Modern video games have become more concrete and closely parallel to society. People blast away at the avatars of others with artificial guns, peppering virtual bodies with imaginary bullets. The sights and sounds are brought to life before our eyes and the lack of abstraction takes us to a place we can perceive, without much thought, as reality. While this is often the basis for arguments against violent video games, I am not trying to debate against the content of these games, simply the premise and existence for them. At their core, they lack ingenuity. They are largely based off of war, sports, or racing, and while we typically may not  have access to the full extent of these activities in real life, the fact that these games are simply reflections of this reality does not aide in the mental development of players.

Video games need to be more intuitive, leaving more to the imagination and less to graphics. While technology becomes increasingly easier to use and manipulate, a higher creativity is required for furthering greater development. With fresh and innovative ideas, we can form technology as not only as a wondrous tool to eliminate grueling and grinding work (such as mindless data entry, etc) but a refreshing toy that teaches us how to think and learn.

We need technology to better our minds, not help them. VectorPark.com is a beautiful example of what improved technology can create. It breaks the mold for what video games have popularly become. It defines something new and strange, something that makes us think and learn, like children, developing a greater plasticity in which we can continue to learn and figure out the unknown. There is a small niche of these games in existence and they revolve around a philosophy of thought and intuition, rather than a dexterity of control. It challenges the mind by pushing the player into a flow state. If we, as a society, can learn to embrace the unique, the strange, and the challenging, we could develop a whole new line of video games and draw in a more intellectual audience that benefits society, rather than detract from it.

So start by playing Feed The Head, both for your intellectual and visual enjoyment. This game, like any form of art, holds the potential to inspire you.