Life Lessons From Five Nights at Freddy’s Game

I am not a mobile game player. I am a financial analyst who writes papers on the mobile game industry that are freely available. Up to now I have spent little time thinking about why a particular game is popular.

Monitor Screenshot from Five Nights at Freddy's
Monitor Screenshot from Five Nights at Freddy’s

But, that all changed when I first saw screenshots (see above) of the immensely popular games Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) and FNAF2 by indie developer Scott Cawthon.

The basic premise of the game is that you are so desperate to find work that you begin looking at newsprint ads (a horrific event in and of itself today). You find the following:

Newsprint Ad from Five Night at Freddy's
Newsprint Ad from Five Night at Freddy’s

The job is for a night monitor at a Chuck E. Cheese style pizzeria featuring animatronic characters. You apply knowing full well that Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza had been closed due to foul smells coming from the animatronics. You also know that the pizzeria was the site where five missing children were last seen.

You get the job and your life as a monitor begins.

I choose to describe the job as monitor carefully. Your are a monitor, not a security guard that walks around. It was the specific intent of this game’s developer to have the player sit immobilized for a six hours stretch in front of a computer monitor (see above again) with clickable buttons for a network of cameras placed throughout the pizzeria.

Hmm…sitting in an office immobilized for hours at a stretch monitoring a business. That what I did for years as a general ledger accountant. That’s what securities traders, air traffic controllers, nuclear power plant engineers do.

And now with Cloud, SaaS and especially mobile, business monitoring will be added to just about every employee job description.

Life as a monitor. What’s that like? What life lesson does Five Nights at Freddy’s offer us?

Life as a monitor occasionally involves what gamers call the “jump scare.”

Jump Scare gif from FNAF, Five Nights at Freddy's
Jump Scare gif from FNAF, Five Nights at Freddy’s

Casting an even wider net, Five Nights at Freddy’s is about more than life as a monitor. It is about the mediated life of whether or not what was seen was real.

The mobile game’s heritage are the movies Rear Window and Blow Up. The player in FNAF shares the same issues as Jimmy Stewart and David Hemmings.

Below is a screenshot of a real life jump scare — the stock market Flash Crash of May 6th, 2010 where the Dow Jones stock index dropped 560 points in 4 minutes. On YouTube videos of this event, you actually can hear stock traders screaming each time the graph below added another down bar.

Flash Crash Screen of S&P 500 May 6  2010
Flash Crash Screen of S&P 500 May 6 2010

This choice to use the Flash Crash of 2010 as an example of a real life jump scare was intentional because its represented a false positive of trouble. It was due to a single trader mistakenly placing an order for 4 Billion shares instead of 4 Million shares. The market quickly recovered most of its losses later in the day.

There are two takeaways I get from comparing mobile game jump scares to real life jump scares. There are others you might have and I invite you to share them in the note to this paragraph.

The most important takeaway that I get is that we need to remind ourselves, and our game-playing kids, that game jump scares trigger a “game over” without real consequences or a need to act. The feeling accompanying a game jump scare is a quick adrenaline rush followed by relief.

A real life jump scare triggers initially a “sick to your stomach” feeling that settles into a depression until you honestly assess the possible consequences and begin to act.

The second takeaway for me is that there is a downside to the democratization of monitoring business intelligence data — jump scares (and jump-for-joys?) triggered by false signals of a business’s health.

Professionals who historically monitor business intelligence data have learned not to jump scare. Before reporting a disaster or break-out, they do something called account analysis. They look first for that $10 Million journal entry where the debits and credits are reversed. They look for that booking of a $50 Million order should have been booked as a $5 Million order.

I know that the democratization of monitoring is a net positive for business as well as for society. Democratization of just about anything is a net positive. It’s just that we need to learn to temper the impulse to jump scare when monsters first appear.