The Fight-or-Fight-Later Response


Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our body’s rapid response to acute stress, or fear. Through the various nerves that infiltrate all of our bodily organs, the sympathetic nervous system has near-instant access to regulation of the organs’ various processes. When we are confronted with something we fear the sympathetic nervous system, in concert with a specific region of our brain, activates the “fight-or-flight” response, interacting with these organs and priming them to respond by combating the fear, or fleeing it. However, within video game worlds, a different kind of fear response is apparent.

Olsson and Phelps explain in a 2007 paper published in Nature Neuroscience

“Learning to respond appropriately to environmental stimuli that predict potentially harmful events is an adaptive mechanism crucial to the survival of any organism.”
Our fears have developed significantly since our ancestors stood underneath an African sun many thousands of years ago. They likely feared prehistoric predators with teeth much larger than their own, whereas we have developed fears of terrorism and public speaking. Importantly, the physiological response remains the same. The heart beats faster, we become more alert, our blood vessels constrict. The fear response has hardly changed for eons and furthermore, interspecies variation is low.

Cool guys don’t look at explosions.

If we focus on those fears that present a direct threat to our survival – our fear of heights, snakes, spiders and even gangs or terrorism – we begin to understand that death is a potential end point of these things. Yet in video games, death is often only a pause in the action, a hurdle that must be jumped. Without a serious endpoint, it can be argued that the emotional response to any hazardous or harmful in-game event is dampened. After all, I don’t feel quite so bad being shot through the skull in a game of Modern Warfare if I will simply get another life in a matter of seconds. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the player and their on-screen character cannot share emotion; it simply means that the fear response is unnecessary for ensuring survival in-game.

As such, if the fear response is simply a mechanism crucial to survival, what good is it during play?

Here’s an admission: I am afraid of flying.* I still get on planes and I manage well enough once I am actually in the air, but I have seen too many episodes of Air Crash Investigation to ever feel truly safe. I’ve conditioned my brain to believe that flying threatens my survival. When I sit in my seat and buckle up, I feel ill. Nauseous. My heart begins to pound and my breathing gets a little shallow. It becomes hard to swallow. I hate that feeling.


I have played many games that simulate flight but never experienced the same feeling. Although it may seem, at first, quite obvious to respond with “well duh, you’re not in a plane”, isn’t it more pertinent to ask “why does the brain only respond to this stimuli when I am physically participating in the event?” If video games can incite sadness, anger, remorse or regret, than why is fear different? Is it purely about environmental stimulation?

It comes back to the idea of predicting ‘potentially harmful events’ and the inability for video games to truly threaten our survival. In the case of flying a plane, or even being a passenger in a plane, within a game, my personal survival will not be threatened. In this case, the fight-or-flight response remains inactive. Yet, it is true that videogames don’t render the fight-or-flight response useless; instead, they often manipulate it so we only have one real option. In video games, we can only fight. Fleeing (‘flight’) is a temporary delay. For instance, if we look at Bioshock 2, we do not have the option to avoid the Big Sisters, arguably the game’s most difficult and threatening enemy. The game conditions us to fear this creature by social observation and by the harrowing screeches and blurred vision that pre-empt a Big Sister attack. We know we should fear them, so our fight-or-flight response will kick in as we confront her, knowing that she is potentially harmful to our character. However, the response is altered to disregard “flight” altogether as we must destroy the Big Sister to progress.

Extending this further, more open-world games such as Fallout may allow us to flee for extended periods of time or from certain foes. Although this seems like the classical activation of the fight-or-flight mechanism, it acts in a different way. You may be able to flee from a group of Raiders in the desert, but the nature of such a game usually means that you will again have to fight them. I am yet to hear of someone who fled every fight in Fallout and reached the end of the game.

The big sister you’ve always not wanted.

Video games change how we respond to our fears because they constantly ask us to confront them. Fear is an unavoidable device that is used to drive us onward, to survive. Fear, in the real-world, drives survival by activating a physiological response. Within the realities of our various game-worlds, fear drives survival by asking us to overcome it. To compensate for this, video games have a get-out clause: the ability for us to not feel harm and not experience the consequences of death.** They create an entirely new response: the “fight-or-fight-later” response. We may not be able to confront our fears immediately, but we can eventually dispel them as we become stronger and more skilled.

As a result, video games may have untapped potential in fear conditioning and fear extinction: the process of overcoming phobias. To assess this, studies would have to be performed to see how people respond to physical fears rendered in a digital world. Are people that are afraid of spiders in real life, afraid of them in-game? And does this fear activate the same neural networks, chemical signals and hormones that the physical fear does? First-hand experience suggests that it varies by individual, but the power for such an application and rationale for research is apparent.

* A second admission is I hate the fact that my fear, flight, shares its name with an actual response to fear and thus my fear of flight activates the fight-or-flight response. Confusing enough?

** The idea of permadeath circumvents this problem too because even though your game may end, you are only a few clicks away from beginning anew. Death may be more of a consequence in permadeath scenarios, but it is still only a hurdle.

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