Fear as a Game

What can the philosophy of games tell us about our odd impulse to scare ourselves?

Fear as a Game

Elisa Gabbert
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My life in acrophobia:

When I was eleven or twelve, I went with a friend to the pool at her family’s country club and somebody dared me to jump off the high dive—or maybe I just felt implicitly dared because the other kids were doing it. It wasn’t incredibly high, probably ten or twelve feet. I was not a good swimmer or diver, but I did have pride. As I climbed up the ladder, I knew I could not hesitate or I would freeze at the top. I’d seen a girl do this—she panicked and then had to crawl back down. A surge of adrenaline carried me off, and after I’d jumped (feet first, holding my nose) and survived, I felt such a thrill that I immediately wanted to do it again. The second time up, courage failed me. I’d become overconfident—I thought it would be easy. I climbed the ladder, walked to the end of the board and off into the water, but as I swam to the surface and then to the edge of the pool, I was shaking with fear. I hated the second jump, and I knew I would never be brave enough to go a third time.

During my first year of college, I often went to Six Flags in Houston with a group of friends. I wasn’t afraid of roller coasters—I loved rollercoasters—but I did fear one ride: the Dungeon Drop, a twenty-story “drop tower” that slowly lifted riders up a structure, something like a naked elevator shaft, pausing for a terrifying moment and then plunging them back to the ground. My roommate was also afraid, but we agreed to try it once, together. It was nighttime, dark, our feet dangling freely, and I remember her saying the pause at the top felt “peaceful.” Just as it had on the high dive, adrenaline got me through. Later I heard that the gondolas once got stuck at the top, and the riders had to sit there, 230 feet up, for over an hour. I never went on a ride like that again.

A few years later, I went skiing in New Mexico with a boyfriend. He was a good skier; it was my first time. We got on a chairlift, a metal bench without any kind of safety belt or bar to hold us in—something I did not have time to process before we were suddenly thirty feet high in the air. My boyfriend was six foot three, nonchalantly swinging his giant, heavy skis. A pure cold white fear of death overcame me. I began uncontrollably weeping, trying to wrap my arm completely around the metal bar that connected us to the cable. When we got to the top of the hill, I fell off and someone had to pull me out of the way of the chair coming up from behind us. I realized then that I would not like skiing, and that I was very, very afraid of heights.

For years, I avoided scenarios that might trigger that intense fear. But I sometimes caught glimpses, when crossing a high bridge on foot, for example—the footbridge in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, or the Steel Bridge over the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. I was safe on the bridges, I knew, but regardless, seeing the water far below through the gaps in the slats was a glimpse of the terror. Part of me liked those glimpses—the heart palpitations, my skin tingling. I felt a little more alive. I sometimes provoked this pseudo-fear vicariously, by watching films of people doing scary height stuff, videos of Philippe Petit tightrope-walking over Sydney Harbour or, most unbelievably, between the Twin Towers. Or of Joseph Kittinger, who parachuted from a helium balloon at an altitude of more than 100,000 feet. (It was actually closer to 103,000 feet—the extra 3,000 feet seem inconsequential, yet 3,000 feet in itself is already a terrifying height, an extra Twin Tower or so.)

I did not truly put my acrophobia to the test again until recently. On a work trip, my manager signed my whole team up for a ropes course. I wasn’t required to do it, but everyone else was doing it. I had pride, still, and also curiosity. I wondered if maybe the ropes course could cure me. It was evidently safe—we were strapped into harnesses, attached to a cable overhead. Before going up, we had to participate in an hour-long training session, which was mostly an elaborate proof of the safety equipment. The ropes course was unlike a bridge, or the edge of a cliff or a building, where you fear l’appel du vide, “the call of the void,” as much as falling. And so I was not very afraid, but I was very anxious, three stories up—it was hot, and we were all underslept and hungover—and when I completed each element of the course, I felt relief but not triumph, and the relief was short-lived. The segments were increasingly distressing, higher and more complicated, and the process did not get more fun. At the first opportunity to bail out, I did.


Fear is an oddly attractive force. Horror movies, haunted houses, bungee jumping—these are fear experiences we actually pay for. (My favorite tweet: “If I pay $40 for a haunted house I better die.”) Why do we do that—why do we crave small doses of terror? Why do we like “safe” fear? In her book about the role of monsters in art and culture, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, the scholar Marina Warner notes that “scariness has gained ground as a pleasure; it is perhaps a modern affect.” A new feeling? Maybe not entirely, but according to Warner, writing in the late 1990s, “the ambiguous satisfactions of scariness have been cultivated more intensely during this century than ever before.” This is in part because new technologies, from better special effects to computerized parachutes, enable us to terrify ourselves so successfully.

There’s a theory in the science of emotion that the only innate human feelings are valence and arousal. Valence can be pleasant or unpleasant; arousal can be high or low. You can map any feeling on a wheel called an “affective circumplex,” with the midpoint representing neutral valence and neutral arousal. The upper right quadrant contains feelings of pleasant valence and high arousal (like excitement), the lower left quadrant low arousal and unpleasant valence (like boredom). It’s easy to tell if a baby is happy or unhappy, sleepy or wakeful. But as for more specific emotions—what does the baby desire—we have doubts. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, researchers have tried and failed to discover some underlying state in the body and brain that corresponds reliably to “fear” or “joy,” or any of the seemingly universal emotions. There is no consistent physical difference between individuals who are “depressed” and individuals who are “anxious,” and most psychiatric patients describe themselves as both depressed and anxious, or as neither, not one or the other. So how many emotions are there? As many as we can invent concepts for, and then claim to be feeling. We may need to learn a word for a feeling before we can feel it.

Kierkegaard thought anxiety arose from possibility—a reaction to radical freedom, the “dizziness of freedom.” The ability to choose one’s path in life, to choose an unknown among unknowns, is paradoxically paralyzing. This would make suicidality a condition of modernity, of fortune and “progress”—we did not always have so much choice. The philosopher John Kaag once said, “Existential crises are a luxury for those who don’t have real on-the-ground crises.” How strange, that life can seem pointless once survival is mostly a given. It’s as though the survival instinct kicks in only at the last possible moment. I think of the people who, against terrible odds, survive jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. These survivors almost always report having felt immediate regret. One said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

Recently, researchers studying contemporary hunter-gatherer societies were stunned to find that their metabolism is similar to ours—that is to say, to those of us who have pretty sedentary lifestyles, sitting at desks all the time and shopping in grocery stores. The Hadza people of Tanzania are nearly always walking, getting “more activity in a day than most Americans get in a week,” as the evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer has said. Yet they burn about the same number of calories as we do, between 1,800 and 2,500 a day. If anything, they burn slightly fewer than us, because they tend to be shorter. Pontzer calls this discovery “shocking” and “nonsensical.” It goes against everything we thought we understood about metabolism. But it’s true and verifiable. It’s also true for monkeys in a zoo compared with monkeys in a jungle—they “need” the same amount of food. How is this possible?

It seems our bodies are incredibly efficient with the calories we have. If we need to, we can stretch two thousand calories to walk ten miles. With this new understanding, it does not make sense to say that walking a mile “burns” x number of calories. There is no fixed rate of burning. So what happens to the calories if you live in a modern society, in conditions of relative affluence and ease; if you work in a building and drive to work; if you’re not moving much? As Pontzer explains it, your body finds other ways to use the calories. And they are not necessarily beneficial: Your immune system gets overactive, leading to allergies and general inflammation. Your stress responses spike much higher. Your body can afford the stress. You might say that comfort is the source of anxiety—this is not incompatible with Kierkegaardian dread. When food is easy to get, and we move around in gas-powered vehicles, our brains have more energy than they know what to do with. The struggle to survive is old, but chronic stress is a modern feeling, much like the lite fear, the fun fear (high arousal, pleasant valence), we now use to alleviate stress. Even artificial fear can get the bad feelings out of our system.

Maybe after many centuries of facing constant natural danger, our bodies are built to expect some level of ambient danger. Too much safety and comfort feels wrong, so we go looking for some simulated threat. Or maybe it’s just cathartic to scream, when you’re pretty sure death isn’t imminent. Maybe it’s just good theater.


Before I start watching a scary movie, I always turn off all the lights. It goes without saying that I watch scary movies at night. I want to be as scared as possible, of course—I want shadowy regions in the room that my mind can misinterpret, so I can think I see something moving and get spooked. This is all part of the ritual, like lighting candles for a séance. (That’s the first step of a séance, according to wikiHow: “Creating the right atmosphere.” The second step, fittingly, is inviting some guests who believe that séances work.)

You might call it a ritual, or you might call it a game. In the philosophy of games, this sort of ritualized space is known as “the magic circle,” a phrase that comes from a passage in historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Huizinga believed that most of what we think of as culture is elaborate playing—sports but also war; theater but also religion. These specialized cultures have ritual settings—arenas and battlefields, stages and temples, card tables—“all in form and function play-grounds.” And in these magic circles, “special rules obtain.” The magic circle can be spatial—the dark couch in front of the TV, for example—but more so, the circle is a mindset we willingly step into, a space where we follow new rules and take leave of reality.

“To play a game,” writes the philosopher Bernard Suits, “is to voluntarily take on unnecessary obstacles for the sake of making possible the activity of overcoming them.” This is a neat summation of why we play games—for the pleasure of triumph over adversity, never mind that we introduced the adversity. The unnecessary obstacles can be very simple: the rules in a low-stakes game. The obstacles in Tetris, for example, are the random distributions of the different shapes of falling blocks (the seven “Tetrominoes”) and their increasing speed as you advance through the game. The faster the level, the harder it is, and the more fun it is, to achieve a “Tetris line clear,” or four lines of blocks at once. (What’s unusual about Tetris is that you can’t beat the game; the levels just keep speeding up until you “die.”) But games might also have higher stakes, as in drag racing, or American football.

Looked at in Suits’s terms, watching a scary movie is a kind of game. It’s a way of taking on unnecessary fear. There is, for many people, some pleasure in the fear. We like the fear itself—the heightened physical arousal. But we also feel pleasure when we overcome the fear—by finishing the movie and going to sleep, hopefully not having nightmares forever. Haunted houses and roller coasters are also forms of games. A roller coaster isn’t just formless fun, if such a thing exists; it’s a kind of game, a finite engagement with fear, which offers both the pleasure of playing and the pleasure of winning. I like this kind of game—I like allowing myself to feel just enough fear that I know I can overcome it. The ski lift, the ropes course, those sheer-drop rides—for me those were too much fear, too much trembling, to be fun. I’m not Philippe Petit, who once said of his stunt at the World Trade Center, “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk!” He saw those buildings, at that time the tallest in the world, and the gaping void between them, as a game he could win. 

In order for something to feel like a game, we need to adopt what Suits called the “lusory attitude.” This means we accept the arbitrary rules, “even though those rules often make the experience more challenging, in order to facilitate the resulting experience of play.” The lusory attitude, the magic circle—I like how these terms feel like spells in themselves, like secret codes to skip a level. I have a friend who approaches uncomfortable situations or difficult conversations, like asking for a raise, by telling himself, Just win—as though it’s a game, as though the stakes disappear when you exit the room. That’s the lusory attitude—also related to the suspension of disbelief, which is arguably more of an instinct than a skill. We use this ability to get lost in a movie, to convincingly pretend to believe in the movie’s imaginary world. We’re pretending for our own sake, of course, because caring about fake people and whether they find love, whether they live or die, feels good. This is how games work too. We convince ourselves that the world of the game, as defined by the rules, really matters.

In his book Man, Play and Games, the sociologist Roger Caillois describes four types of play: competition (or agôn); chance (or alea—the Latin word for “dice”); mimicry/mimesis; and vertigo (ilinx). In this framework, poker involves both chance and competition. Ilinx (Greek for “whirlpool”—I’m struck by how playful gaming jargon, all jargon, can be) accounts for the fun of altered perception: for getting drunk as well as for roller coasters. But roller coasters also incorporate mimicry—the theater of screaming, screaming the way girls in slasher films scream, or the way we imagine we might scream in actual danger. For that matter, so does getting drunk. The alcohol gives us permission to laugh more theatrically, to act stupider, to take more risks, to be more violent—the rules of the game of getting drunk vary slightly by culture. But part of the game is mimetic. When I got drunk in college, I acted like my drunk college friends, euphoric, outlandish. Now I act the way my parents used to act, or I act like mildly drunk but sophisticated women in movies.

The philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, who has an interest in “Suitsian games,” or games that involve (fake) struggles and (fake) obstacles, believes that in “striving play,” winning is not the real goal. Rather, we convincingly pretend—again, for ourselves—to care about winning, but what we really care about is the playing. The struggle is the point. Games are “morally transformative technologies,” in that they alter the valence of struggle. Obstacles become opportunities for acts of creativity, of strength, of grace and beauty. The struggle is now aesthetic. In a game’s magic circle, we develop new skills to help us overcome the arbitrary, necessary obstacles that make the goal elusive, and therefore attractive. Nguyen calls these game-specific skills “agential mindsets.” These new types of agency can help us in the real world, too, even after we’ve dropped the lusory attitude. A good game provides a new mindset, a portable worldview.

Games can feel like a refuge or escape from our real-world problems, because we get to choose problems we know we can solve. There’s a beautiful simplicity within the magic circle—even very complex games are less complex than real life, where we have many reasons to be scared. We likely fear death, our own death and other people’s deaths; we fear incalculable loss. We fear personal pain and even inconvenience, and in the same day, the end of civilization. We fear cancer, microplastics, failing infrastructure, runaway AI, nuclear bombs. In fear games, we choose new objects of fear as substitutes for real fears. We can magically fear one thing at a time—falling, or ghosts. We need not even believe in ghosts to play at being-afraid-of-ghosts. We convincingly pretend. To “win” at a fear game, to conquer fake fear, the skill we need is fake courage. 

The ropes course I partially ventured on was situated over a zoo. If you were “braver” than I, you reached a zip line extending over an alligator pit—ha ha. The course offered artificial fear, but also artificial safety. I don’t mean the course was dangerous. On the zip lines, as on the rest of the course, there was no way to fall. I mean safety, in real life, is never that contrived. We don’t have to invent threats so that we can then be protected from them. The real threats are already there. 


Not long ago I saw a news story about a man who was walking through an amusement park with his family when he noticed a “large crack” in a roller coaster that was actively carrying riders. It was a modern steel “giga coaster,” meaning a coaster with drops of over three hundred feet. There was a GIF in the article—as the car runs by on the track, the two parts of a support pole come entirely apart for a moment, a crack you can see the sky through—looping over and over. For a few days I wasted all my free time watching videos of rides that had to be shut down after horrifying accidents. I read about a woman who lost both her legs when the car she was in slammed into another car that had been left standing empty on the track. I learned that multiple people have died after falling from drop-tower rides. I thought, Well, maybe I’ll never ride a roller coaster again.

Around the same time, I read an unrelated story about airline “close calls”—near collisions of planes in the air, which are much more common than I’d realized. “On the afternoon of July 2, a Southwest Airlines pilot had to abort a landing at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport,” The New York Times reported in 2023. “A Delta Air Lines 737 was preparing to take off on the same runway. The sudden maneuver avoided a possible collision by seconds.” The Times investigation found that similar near accidents are happening, on average, multiple times a week. Sources in the article blame this disturbing situation on staffing shortages and extreme fatigue. “The margin for safety has eroded tenfold,” one air traffic controller wrote in a report to the FAA. “Morale is rock bottom.” A longtime captain and former fighter pilot is quoted: “Honestly, this stuff scares the crap out of me.” In the comments section, which has thousands of comments, multiple people trace the blame back to Ronald Reagan, who broke up the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981.

I collect this kind of story, the kind that reveals a crack in reality. They give me that skin-tingling feeling, a flutter in the chest. We tell ourselves that roller coasters are perfectly safe and that planes don’t crash. I don’t want it not to be true; I don’t want to die on a plane. So why do I like the stories? It’s like I want my sense of reality to be destabilized. It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, a game in which the complex world falls away and I focus on a single threat. A single strange-but-very-real threat. I can stop riding roller coasters, obviously, but it’s harder to avoid planes or other forms of transportation. Trains do get derailed. Bridges do collapse. So the threats are very real—but not immediate. Not for me, when I’m reading the news, when I’m sitting at my desk.

Is there anything useful about that feeling, I wonder? That artificial fear, or fear at a distance? Might practicing fear be a good idea? It seems more useful than anxiety—if anxiety is just the brain burning energy it doesn’t really need, because you’re not currently starving, or trying to outrun a lion. These may be just concepts, words I attach to agitation, but when I call the feeling anxiety, I’m mapping it alongside paralysis and existential dread. I associate anxiety with stasis, with insomnia, lying supine in bed. Fear, on the contrary, is a vertical feeling. It’s activating. If I’m scared, I want to be moving. 

What did I learn from the ropes course, if anything? I think it did make me slightly braver. At least I proved to myself I could perch in a thirty-foot tree without crying or throwing up. But what if the straps hadn’t seemed so secure? What if there had been some crack in the system? (Surely, eventually, there will be, since there are cracks in everything?) Even “knowing” I was “perfectly” safe didn’t stop me from sweating and clenching every muscle. Maybe the use of fear games is not to inure ourselves to danger so that nothing is scary anymore, but to embrace fear as a real state that sends us necessary signals. Maybe it’s a way of taking fear seriously. Maybe what I learned from the ropes course was knowing when to quit. 

Or maybe I’m projecting grand meaning where there isn’t much, and I just didn’t want to look pathetic in front of my work friends. 

What I’d like to think—what I hope is true—is that I seek out fear because I seek activation. But at some point, in order to believe that story, I’d need to overcome real fear. That would be something outside the magic circle—fear of something I’m not sure I can overcome.


There was a time when I couldn’t watch horror movies alone—that was too hard a level in the game. I’ve built up my tolerance for horror movies over the years, and when my husband went away on a trip this past October, I watched several, including the original Psycho, which I had never seen. Its big moves are familiar at this point, too much to be truly scary. But it provided good atmosphere for thinking about fear. I had a lot of post-Psycho thoughts. 

The thing about a horror movie is, I’m never afraid of the movie per se, not as an adult—the movie is fake. But there is some fear, some risk at play. What I fear is getting too scared for pleasure—too scared for the game. Usually, the fear is contained by the length of the movie. When I turn it off and turn on the lights, the fear dissipates, disappears. But there have been rare times when it hasn’t—times when some mechanism tripped, and I stayed spooked for hours. That’s what I’m afraid of when I watch a scary movie. I’m afraid of my own fear, that it might get away from me. What if I invite in more fear than I can handle? 

What if I’m only pretending I’m not a coward?

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