0 In Psychology of Gaming

Why does playing Thumper stress me out?

Thumper gave me so many feelings when it was released last October. A video game about a cyberbeetle cruising solo on a souped-up Rainbow Road doesn’t sound stressful, but it is. It fucking is.

Despite how deeply and viscerally Thumper stresses its players the fuck out, we still play it. Some of us, religiously. We putter through the first level, making childlike comparisons to other rhythm games, Dance Dance Revolution or PaRappa the Rapper. The second you flub a sequence, buzz into a wall, or come face to face with your first mini-boss, those days of naive innocence are lost. Everything about Thumper—music, sound effects, character monster designs, environment—seems designed to make you physically recoil from the impact of it.

Have you felt what I’m describing? It’s called a vasovagal syncope. When triggered, it causes the sufferer to experience nausea, lightheadedness, or to even pass out for anywhere between a couple of minutes to several hours. Not unlike astrophysicist Summer Ash, whose post-surgery heart palpitations caused over a dozen people to either faint or nearly faint, simply by listening to its beating.

Players have reported bruising their thumbs, but as far as I know, no one’s full-on fainted yet. Still, I tried to pinpoint exactly what part of the game causes the player so much anxiety. The short answer is, fucking all of it. Let me count the ways.

THE SOUNDTRACK

Much of Thumper’s stress-inducing power lies in its music. Its soundtrack was scored by Lightning Bolt’s Brian Gibson, who also co-designed the game itself. This dude says it best:

Completely independent of the game, it is a staggering work of sonic heights. It roars, it pummels, it screams, it stomps your face. It is a room full of science fiction score composers on anabolic steroids beating the shit out of each other with Moogs, keyboards, and drum machines.

Dissonant chords inspire tension and restlessness. The soundtrack is chock-full of flatted fifths and tritones, which, if you’re up on your music theory, are also known as the Devil’s Triads.

THE STIMULI

Vasovagal syncope can be caused by anything from menstrual cramps to standing up a teensy bit too fast. Out of a couple dozen listed triggers on the Wikipedia page, these apply to Thumper:

  • Prolonged standing or upright sitting: like with any video game, you’re likely sitting straight up in your seat as you smash your fingers into le controller.
  • Stress: just ask literally everyone on Twitter who’s played it.
  • Painful or unpleasant experience: that awful sound your cyberbeetle makes when you crash him into a wall. Most beetles just go splat, but noooo. Also, can we talk about the skull monster that’s out for your tiny cyberbeetle hide?
  • Stimulants: playing any video game produces the same chemicals in your brain that one would ingest from, say, ingesting LSD.

THE REWAR…THE PUNISHMENT

What’s your reward for beating all your friends at Super Smash Brothers? Bragging rights, a cool pose at the end of the match. League of Legends? Honors, and points to cash in for new items. Thumper?

There is no reward. You grind until you die. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

The actual reward when playing Thumper is in challenging yourself to save the weird cyberbeetle from certain doom, even though you’d struggled with the same level possibly dozens of times before. Greg Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, describes games as a means to “fool us into doing the hard work of learning how to survive.”

In his book, Toppo explains that when we succeed at taking risks and predicting outcomes, our brains generate dopamine, the natural, organic, grass-fed neurotransmitter that makes us feel as great as the risks we took to acquire it.

When faced with a challenge, our brain also produces serotonin, the “molecule of happiness” that helps us cope with stress. Toppo posits that our hunter-gatherer brains cope with a modern, lucid lifestyle by simulating panic, and thrill: skiing, horseback riding, mountain climbing, dancing, and yeah, video gaming too. All of these things give us a spike of excitement, a dash of adventure, and hopefully, a new problem to solve and conquer.

I won’t pretend to know jack shit about neuroscience. Most articles about vasovagal syncope are locked behind academic paywalls for bigger, brainer brainiacs to access, but if you’ve ever found yourself playing this game for hours on end and wondering why you aren’t a ball of nerves afterward, it may be because Thumper-induced stress is, well…primally cathartic. Have you thanked your video game developer today?

Wanna take this feeling of intense discomfort on the road? Get the Thumper soundtrack for free on Spotify.

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