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What If Horror Is Your Safe Place? by Alicia Brunskill

More often than not, stressful or potentially triggering content in videogames is signposted to players so that they can avoid it or prepare themselves.

However, can these kinds of titles bring comfort to some gamers? And if so, how?

It goes without saying that there will be a range of player reactions to any given videogame, although feeling comfort might not be one of the responses you’d expect to hear described by people playing titles which are more commonly perceived as stressful.

So, what could be behind this alternative perspective? In this piece we’ll discuss a few possible reasons such as, how tense events in these titles might provide an outlet for emotions in daily life, how videogames can be a safe place to explore emotions from themes that can cause stress in our lives, without the judgement from others, and how experiencing stress in an environment where you have a level of control may feel comforting in comparison to less predictable real-life pressures.

screenshot from the game: a girl lies in an open coffin surrounded by flowers

One videogame that falls squarely into the category of games that have the capacity to shock or induce feelings of tension in players (but would perhaps not be readily considered to provide comfort) is the recently released title from Wired Productions, Martha Is Dead. Although, on closer inspection of the themes presented in this videogame, perhaps we can see how some people might find this experience an opportunity to channel certain emotions from their own lives vicariously through the main character’s journey.

Giulia, the protagonist in Martha Is Dead, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her twin sister whilst also dealing with complex issues of childhood trauma and mental illness. The game is set in 1944, wartime Italy, which also brings into the story the increased stigma associated with mental illness from that era. As a consequence of this mix of circumstances, Giulia experiences a range of emotions while she navigates her way towards the truth about what happened to Martha.

screenshot from the game: a body lying on the bank of a water bank lays in the flowers just out of shot

Some players might be able to take comfort from being able to experience their own feelings alongside Giulia; perhaps empathising with the events in the game, or perhaps finding catharsis for similar emotions from unrelated events in their own life. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean not finding portions of the game unsettling or stressful as well. Yet even in these moments it might be possible to find comfort, perhaps in the liberty to explore your own feelings and responses to these themes in a private, non-judgemental, and safe setting.

Another point of view to consider is that for some people, childhood, adulthood, or both, can be a fearful experience, so fear and stress can feel familiar. The familiarity of these emotions might make it feel comforting to play a stressful game; at times, perhaps even more so than titles made with the goal of consolation in mind.

Equally, for some of us, in real life there may be pressure from others to feel a certain way about an event, or it may not be possible to examine our own response thoroughly due to a variety of reasons. Videogames like Martha Is Dead can offer a means to process these emotions where otherwise there might not be the opportunity. What they can also provide is a way to face potentially difficult feelings with a level of control that doesn’t always exist in real life.

For example, if the emotions brought about by playing the videogame feel overwhelming you can pause the experience. Similarly, you can stop to examine feelings as they arise before continuing with the story and revisit themes in subsequent playthroughs, moving at your own pace. When you lack control over a situation or how you are able to give an emotional response it can feel cathartic to take control over a situation that produces similar feelings. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how this might be a comforting experience for some players.

two children walk arm in arm down a lane (black and white photo)

Whilst the ideas we’ve looked at in this piece are perhaps not the most common responses to the kind of content that appears in games traditionally considered stressful, they are all perfectly valid reactions. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to consuming this kind of media, so feeling comfort certainly has a seat at the table.

Alicia Brunskill

Alicia writes and edits videogame and tech reviews for Rapid Reviews UK and articles on various topics on Vocal. As a private tutor, she also teaches French and Spanish to secondary school students. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found playing videogames, running or walking her dog.