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Causing Player Fear and Anxiety through Sound Design in Video Games

Toprac, P. and Abdel-Meguid, A.,  Causing Fear and Anxiety Through Sound Design in Video Games.  In M. Grimshaw (Ed.), Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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This project researched and tested how to cause fear and anxiety through sound design in video games. The project made the distinction between fear and anxiety and explored how the two emotions are linked while explaining how to effectively evoke those emotions using sound design. By selecting and designing sounds using Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego theory as a baseline for human psyche, this project tested the use of volume, timing, and source in causing fear and anxiety in players.

This study used a Survival-Horror style level designed and constructed by the author. The player must find his or her way through an old and aging mansion during a nighttime thunderstorm while being ambushed by enemies from various hiding spots.

Twenty-seven Guildhall students were used as testers ranging from ages 22 to 40, predominantly male, from all backgrounds of video gaming. Results, based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data, suggested that the best method for causing fear is high-volume, well-timed, and sourced sound effects. For anxiety, data suggested the best method is medium-volume, untimed, and unsourced sound effects.

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Introduction:

Video games are digital entertainment media that utilize both audio and visual channels to capture the audience’s attention and immerse them in the developers’ vision.  In many cases, this involves putting the player in the role of an avatar that interacts with the in-game world.  In essence, the player is the star of an interactive movie; he sees his avatar’s actions portrayed on screen for his entertainment.  It logically follows that the aesthetics for a video game should attain similar standards to those of a movie; the quality of both visuals and sound should be high.  The industry currently has a clear guideline for visuals, but not particularly, where it relates to audio.  To achieve a high quality of audio, an established guideline for quality needs to exist.

Level Designers can use sound to enhance the player’s anxiety and fear.  This relatively inexpensive process of creating and implementing sound yields very effective results and therefore, should be researched and refined.  Using clearly defined sound design principles, Level Designers can add a high level of polish to their levels.  The purpose of this project is to determine the best use of volume, timing, and source of in-game sound effects to cause fear and anxiety in the player.

Volume is the most basic property of sound.  Level Designers can use variations in volume to scare the player with suddenly loud sounds, or slowly ease in certain sounds using incremental volume changes. 

Timing is the point in a game at which a sound plays.  Level Designers can determine exactly when the player hears a sound by using pre-scripted events, or they can simply set that sound to play randomly while a player is in a certain area.  Modern games frequently use both techniques.

Source is a visible instigator of a sound effect.  For example, the source light bulb flickering sound effect would be the light bulb itself.  A sound effect with a source typically communicates something specific to the player.  Sounds effects without sources typically convey a general mood or feel.

The goal of this project is to experiment with the volume, timing, and source of in-game sound effects to find the best possible combinations of those properties for creating fear and anxiety in the player.  This work examines how a Level Designer can manipulate and test three basic attributes of sound, volume, timing, and source, through level design to evoke fear and anxiety.

 

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