At a very basic level, we play horror games to get scared. That’s all there is to it. Why else would we play them? Some people would argue that they play horror games for their intricate plots or revolutionary gameplay, but there are plenty of other games with those elements that aren’t scary in the slightest, and let’s face it, most horror games nowadays don’t exactly have great plots or fun gameplay.
When we actually get scared, the body unconsciously takes over and chooses to either fight of flee (the fight or flight response). While doing this response, the body also produces more dopamine and endorphins, causing an adrenaline rush within the player which will help the body react to threats (whether you fight or flee) faster and stronger than you would normally be able to. This gives a reason for thrill-seekers to play the game already, seeing as they’re addicted to adrenaline rushes, however this still doesn’t really explain why normal people would play and finish a horror game.
Most horror games will follow a set pattern. They will begin by initially creeping you out through clever use of sound and darkness to create a fearful atmosphere, and they might even show a few uncanny things (uncanny being things we know, but with something a little off about them, such as a mannequin) to help creep you out some more. After this, they will outright scare you, usually through the use of some abject (abject being something downright nasty, such as blood) monster popping up in front of you, not only startling you but causing an adrenaline rush and generally forcing you to flee. After the main scare, the game will then give you some respite and a reward (whether the reward is a key to help you progress, or just the satisfaction of completing the game). The game will repeat this loop over and over until the end of the game. This loop is what keeps us coming back, we enjoy the respite and reward at the end and feel the need to get the ultimate reward of having finished the game, and so we will endure the fear and pain necessary to get there.
If you’re interested in things being creepy, VSauce did a great video on exactly that, where they go more in depth into the uncanny valley!
Also check out Corey’s article on why we enjoy playing video games in general here!
Agnello, A. 2014. Body of Fear: How Your Body Keeps you Playing Horror Games – IGN. [online] Available at: http://au.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/body-of-fear-how-your-body-keeps-you-playing-horror-games [Accessed: 2 Mar 2014].
Clark, D. 2014. Playing with Death: The Appeal of Horror Games – IGN. [online] Available at: http://au.ign.com/articles/2013/04/29/playing-with-death-the-appeal-of-horror-games [Accessed: 3 Mar 2014].