How Our Body Reacts To Video Games And Horror Movies

For those seeking thrills and excitement without leaving the comfort of their own home (okay, maybe they’ll go as far as the cinema), video games and horror movies top the list of favourite pastimes. Playing games and watching terrifying films can have a similar effect, and both represent an interesting paradox. On the surface, games and horror movies seem to generate stress, anxiety, fear, and tension, and yet we engage with them to relax, de-stress and have a good time.

How does this work? The answer lies in the remarkably similar way the two activities affect our bodies and, in particular, the chemicals that are released into our brains and nervous systems as a result. Both games and horror films simulate situations that would be highly unpleasant if they were happening to us in real life. The secret to enjoying them lies in being fully immersed in the experience while also knowing that it is only a simulation.


The most common chemical that floods our bodies when both playing games and watching horror films is dopamine. This creates an ecstatic but short-lived rush that’s meant to motivate us into action, rewarding positive behaviour from defending our lives to learning a new skill. It can be triggered by success or “wins” in all kinds of games, from Call Of Duty to Quickspin slots when flashing lights and music boost the “buzz” of a matching reel and consequent pay-out.

Dopamine is also generated by exciting scenes in horror films. We identify with the protagonist and feel a dopamine response when they respond to a threat. Interestingly, different kinds of fear can also generate dopamine, including paranoia. Getting a pleasurable rush from working out what’s really going on, however dark your conclusions, is something many of us will have experienced while watching a good horror film.


Adrenaline, the “fight or flight” chemical, is also often released into our bodies when we watch horror films, and when we play particularly high-energy video games. We also experience an adrenalin surge on amusement park rides like rollercoasters. It causes an increased heart rate and increased blood flow to our muscles. Our breathing speeds up. But a rush of adrenalin when we know we’re not in any real danger can be intensely pleasurable, often manifesting as laughter.


Created in the hypothalamus like dopamine, oxytocin is catalysed into a hormone released from the pituitary gland. This “trust chemical” is meant to encourage and reward social bonding and is often present when we play games or watch films that make us feel a sense of belonging. Multiplayer horror games are a strong example. If a game or a movie feels like an old friend, to the extent that when you put it on, it feels like coming home, this is probably down to the release of oxytocin.


Finally, there’s serotonin, which is what comes after an enjoyable experience. Serotonin gives us the rush of pleasure we feel when thinking back to a game or film we enjoyed. It, therefore, encourages us to go back and play, or watch, again.

Games and horror movies stimulate the brain and make our senses more alert. Next time you sit down to one or the other, remember that there’s a lot more going on than you think.