The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Trouble sleeping? You might have been playing a horror game

Half a week ago, a popular science article about violent computer games topped the news of the Stockholm University homepage. As the article is in Swedish, I’ll summarise it for you: it is about two studies performed at the stress research institute in Stockholm where they compared the heart rate for boys (age range 12-15) playing a ‘violent’ and a ‘non-violent’ computer game. The studies showed that the heart rates of the kids were affected by playing the violent game both during play, and during the night after. The kids also reported trouble sleeping. Furthermore, a second study compared the effect for boys who play games a lot (more than three hours a day), with those who play only a little (less than one hour a day). This second study showed that the heart rate and sleeping problem affected only the boys who play less. Malena Ivarsson (who is interviewed in the article) interpret this as a sign of general desensitization towards violence. I have been able to track down a publication on the first study, but not the second.

I would first like to point out a strength of this study, and that is that it was actually measuring psychophysiological effects, and moreover, that it was able to do so under ordinary play conditions. The kids wore the heart rate sensors while playing at home, in their normal play environment. I would love to see more studies done with this kind of methodology, rather than the host of contrived ‘measurements of agression’ (such as the ‘hot sauce‘ test) that psychologists have come up with over the decades. Secondly, I would like to point out that the study doesn’t even try to prove that boys become violent from playing violent video games – it is not set up to study transfer effects at all.

However, there is a huge problem with the games used in the comparison. It seems like both studies compared the same two games: Manhunt versus Animaniacs. Wikipedia classifies Manhunt as an ‘action horror’ game, and Animaniacs as an ‘action adventure – comedy’. The latter has rating E 10+ whereas Manhunt has been rated Adults, 18+ and it is also unusual in that it has been banned in a number of countries. Notice that little word ‘horror’? Notice that it is missing in the genre description for Animaniacs? Manhunt is a game designed to scare adults shitless – no wonder 13 year old boys have trouble sleeping after playing it! (I wonder how on earth they could get this experiment approved by an ethics board…)

So, the study compared a violent and scary game with a non-violent and non-scary game. But there are more differences. Animaniacs is a rather derivative game, using a well-established gameplay model (GameSpot reviews it as a ‘good old-fashinoned platformer’). There is almost no other interpretation of Animaniacs than through its ludified meaning: the game is about counting coins and vanquising the occasional enemy to advance to the next scene.

Manhunt is a revolting, scary, and from an ethical perspective very interesting game. It raised a critical controversy and was apparently also controversial within the development company. In his 2009 DIGRA article, José Zagal discusses it as a game that create ethical dilemmas for players. In Manhunt, the player is tasked with murdering his way through a host of victims, but the player is given a choice in method: the murders can be done more or less violently. The interesting thing is that there is almost no gameplay reward at all for choosing the more gruesome models; it just intensifies the narrative. This way, Manhunt resists the ludic trivialization that Linderoth writes about. Just as most action games, Manhunt is about killing, but Manhunt is also about making players feel bad about killing.

This is why their second study is more interesting than their first. Remember that the second study showed that the boys who played little games reacted stronger to Manhunt than those who played a lot of games. Ivarsson interprets this as a desensitization towards violence (in general), but there are at least two other possible explanations. One is that the boys who played a lot of games understood the horror genre better, thereby getting less scared. But the other explanation, and the one I think is the right one, is that they were better at understanding the game as a game. Their tendency would be to ignore the fiction as much as possible, seeing it as ‘adornment’ on top of a gameplay reward system that they focus on mastering. This is trivialization through resignification, and need not have anything to do with desensitization towards violence in general or even the horror genre in particular. Their ‘desentitization’ is tightly tied to the context of playing a game, as the ludified meaning is created by the game rules and goals and cannot exist outside of the game.

I am not sure what the study tried to achieve, but there are a couple of comparisons that I think would have made it more interesting. I would have liked to see a comparison between the reactions to a horror game and a horror movie, or, between somebody who plays the game and one who just watches it being played. I have yet to see a study that focusses on the effects of players acting in a game as opposed to just seeing the same things play out. Secondly, I think it would have been interesting to compare an action horror game with a survival horror game (like Amnesia) to single out the effect of performing violence, rather than just running from it. Finally, I wish that all of these comparative studies would pay more attention to how players talk about the games, to identify whether they refer to a fictional or a ludified reading of the game.


Malena Ivarsson, Martin Anderson, Torbjörn Åkersted, and Frank Lindblad. Playing a violent television game affects heart rate variability. Acta Pædiatrica 98(1):166-72, 2009.

Zagal, José P. Ethically notable videogames: Moral dilemmas and gameplay. Proc. DIGRA’09 Breaking new ground: Innovation in games, play, practice and theory, Brunel, U.K. 2009.

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2 thoughts on “Trouble sleeping? You might have been playing a horror game

  1. Pingback: Unethical Research? « Beyond Skin

  2. Pingback: Emotional acts in single-player stories « Persona

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