Games, and phobias

People are scared of things, usually in ways that might not make sense to others. Games can capitalize on these simple fears in ways you might not expect…but also they can be a ‘safe’ environment to confront things you might not be able to deal with otherwise.

I’ve seen many do this, and I’ve attempted to do it before…with poor results. My latest endeavor with that was:


What is, very clearly a quality game, made well, its visuals and atmosphere are well designed, the gameplay loop if you’re into survival is fairly steady and good…and also it drives down hard on a fear of mine.

I’m terrified of the ocean, of deep, open water. I’m not sure when this phobia started, but there it is. In sort of an effort to have fun and see what my friends enjoyed about the game, I got it while it was free on the epic store.

This was my first mistake.

My endeavor with this game lasted around 3-4 hours give or take. I spent time doing all the things around the ‘safe’ area which constantly had me on edge, due to the noises and atmosphere, every little thing making me jump or tense up in fear. Legitimately triggering fight or flight reactions…mine happen to be fight so it lead to some kind of amusing moments of me trying to knife fight a fish…

But all in all I took breaks, I spent time setting up a base, and I felt satisfied with my progress… I even crafted a little submersible vehicle, that has a cute name, the sea moth. Feeling a bit more bold, I take this thing, and go over a ridge, my first time using it, my first time exploring this area… its darkish, but not too dark.

And the moment I crest it, there is a roar, and instantly panic. The next moment, there is a giant monster grappling onto my sub, and I had a panic attack so severe I actually closed the game and uninstalled it.

And I’m curious, for those out there who have fears, do you try and confront them in games, or deal with them?

Do you strictly avoid them?

If you do engage with them in games, how do you fare with that? What are your experiences with it?


I am not a person with phobias personally, but I have long been fascinated by horror films and can certainly see some parallels for the potential catharsis one could get from experiencing their phobia in a ‘safe’ environment. While I can understand how one would continue to have a negative reaction (and it sounds like, J_Atlas, you are unkeen to get back to Subnautica), it does seem like it would have some potential as an exploratory vessel.

Of course, I am not a psychologist – so I may be entirely wrong in my assumptions here!


I have arachnophobia, but weirdly enough it isn’t triggered at all by games. Movies don’t really do it either (I think because I know it’s a controlled situation), but youtube videos can still kinda trigger it.

I played Subnautica and dont share your phobia, but still felt a tightness in my chest just reading your recounting.


Well, first of all, you definitely just saved me the time and anxiety of checking out Subnautica, so thank you for that.

I definitely avoid games that have moments of you being chased by things you can’t fight or see. I’ve avoided many a game because of this. I remember immediately quitting The Mirror’s Edge because of a section where you all of a sudden where being chased by other runners as opposed to being just shot at. And just in general I have a low tolerance for stuff that’s meant to be freaky.

That said, I did decide to face those fears with a video game a number of years ago, and that game was Resident Evil 4. I decided that I was going to sit down and play one scary game all the way through and with the lights off. And it was a really great experience. It felt good to challenge myself and to enjoy a different type of game/media than I was used to. But now that I did that, I don’t feel the need to prove it to myself anymore. I just stick with what I know I’ll like for the most part.


Oh wow, that sounds like it was quite the experience.

I have a fear of heights (I don’t think it’s quite full-on phobia) that only sometimes surfaces when I play games. A notable example I can think of is some of the crane/skyscraper climbing sequences in Dying Light. Another couple are from Souls games, and they remain some of my least favorite areas in those games because of their high elevation and very narrow ledges. Specifically I’m talking Valley of Defilement area 1 and Tower of Latria area 2 in Demon’s Souls, and Blightown in Dark Souls.

Now I did beat all of those games, but you can bet your sweet bippy you’ve never seen someone tiptoe SO slowly over some platforms.

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I couldn’t progress past the underwater sewer boss in Shadows of the Empire for a long time because I didn’t want to jump down there and fight it. I eventually had my N64 over at a friends house one night and got through it then.


I feel you all about the Subnautica thing. The only thing scarier than that game’s environment is its horrendous inventory system. But as someone who wants to experience games that clearly do some remarkable things in our sphere, I really enjoyed watching Joseph Anderson’s streams of the game. He plays the game at a good clip and isn’t a shouty type, thank god. For me, having the proxy there, it’s like the Bad Scary Thing will happen to someone else, so I’m safe. I rec trying something like that.

My own anecdote is Metal Gear Solid 3 and apiphobia. I’m deathly afraid of bees and wasps, especially the sound they make. So, I’m like 20 and I’m sitting up at night playing MGS3 with headphones on so I don’t wake my household.

Hey. Did y’all know that good ol’ Kojima made it so that when the Pain sics his wasps on you and they crawl over your first person POV, the sound is carefully constructed so it sounds like they’re crawling over your ears? GOOD OLD KOJIMA DETAIL WORK EH.

I shrieked and threw my headphones off and finished the boss fight with the sound just completely muted. WHY.


I am also afraid of spiders, and games don’t usually trigger it for me. I don’t really care about frost spiders in Skyrim or those jumpy ones from Witcher 3. There is one exception: there is a scene in Resident Evil 2 where you enter a sewer, and the game’s fixed camera angle shows Leon at the far end of the screen with a giant tarantula on a wall facing the screen right up close. That freaked me out and it took a long time for me to push through and play that part. I don’t even remember what happened, but that screen has stayed with me for decades.

I have a weird in-game phobia that I don’t have in any other circumstance: massive underwater objects in non-underwater games. Things like swimming around and under massive tankers in GTA 5 or Watch Dogs, or the sperm whales in AC Odyssey. I have no problem doing the underwater gameplay, I’m not afraid of drowning any more than any right-thinking person should be, and the sharks or whatever in AC Odyssey don’t bother me, but I find these massive objects that are no threat whatsoever to be immensely intimidating.

eta: there is a recent episode of Because Science where Kyle Hill tries to explain “Spidey-sense” using actual spider physiology, and let me tell you: they are amazing. The hairs on their legs are theoretically sensitive enough to detect the movement of a single photon, although their brains filter out the most sensitive sensations. Still terrified of them, but I definitely have a newfound respect for them.


I definitely get the Subnautica fears and the one you describe of “giant underwater objects,” even if they are zero threat.

Just imagining diving into a body of water, looking down, and seeing some dark shape down at the edges of visibility in the depths freaks me right out. Even if it’s literally an immobile, non-living structure of some kind. That sort of dark giganticness in an environment where you already aren’t really supposed to be…shudder

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I have a much more mild phobia of deep water and I’ve still been able to enjoy Subnautica, despite that tension. In the game, I have been getting gradually bolder and more comfortable. Of course, you can bet there are plenty of areas where I only ever leave my Seamoth for frantic, terrified 4-second periods.

That said, I don’t think it’s really affected my phobia IRL. I suspect I’ll still be really on edge whenever I next go snorkelling, and I suspect I’ll continue to be way too terrified to learn to scuba dive. I completely relate to the terror of “there is an enormous dark shape beneath me”, and would probably lose my shit if I was ever actually in the water with a sea creature of any size.

Anyway, all of this is a little odd considering I grew up swimming on swim teams (since I was like 6, I think?). I wonder if I became so comfortable with swimming in pools that oceans/lakes/deep water just feel too unknown and out of my control?


I’m with you 100%. Fuck the ocean. Like, I respect its valuable work keeping the biosphere working and all, but it can stay the hell away from me.

I own at least two copies of Subnautica from different sources and people keep talking about why it’s good and I believe them. But, I’ve so far avoided making the mistake of playing it myself.

I still vividly remember the moment in Halflife when I realized the dark pools of water I’d been walking back and forth over were in fact the way forward and that the spear gun I’d recently picked up meant they certainly weren’t empty. I almost stopped playing.

The only upside to this is that when I hear people asking for a no spiders mode or the removal of some other non-central game element that didn’t register as at all frightening to me, I can think of the depths of the ocean and say “this is a very reasonable request”.

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Just wanted to join in on the ocean-hate.

I was playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and a whale jumped out of the water and was big enough that if it had landed on my boat it would have been destroyed. As far as I know, that can’t happen in game, but knowing it could happen in real life spooks me.

I know someone who said I could use video games to conquer my fear of heights, but I’ve never had that phobia in video games. In real life, being up high and/or looking up at a height is disorienting and terrifying. Even in movies and sometimes even animated things, I find looking up at the sky incredibly vertigo- (and thus panic-) inducing. In video games I don’t have that problem at all, so I haven’t really been able to conquer it. I did have a moment recently playing the Hokkaido level from Hitman 2016, which takes place in an area with views from a mountaintop, and my main thought was, “this is gorgeous; too bad if I went here in real life I would probably have a panic attack and collapse.”


That’s interesting! I too have a moderate fear of heights that isn’t activated at all heights in video games. I wonder why that one is so much harder for virtual environments to trigger than The Ocean Fear (:tm:)

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While I was away, I realized that a thing that does give me vertigo and therefore can trigger my anxiety is when games make you run on the ceiling. Those scenes in Doctor Strange where everything was turning did a similar thing. I’m very glad for the ability in Smash Bros Ultimate to use a sticker to not have to deal with screen flipping! However, there are plenty of games where this weird gravity doesn’t bother me as much - like in Super Mario Galaxy, or in Sonic Adventure 2, where it messes with my head a bit but doesn’t make me literally dizzy. But I remember a couple games where I had to take deep breaths to get through a few disorienting sections - if I remember the names of the games I’ll come back and say what they were!

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Probably avoid Gravity Rush then. Neat game, but almost certainly not for you. Your character’s powers mean falling is almost always your friend rather than your enemy, but even when executing maneuvers that are safe and necessary it uses camera moves and character animation to make it seem more out of control.

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I don’t have any water phobias in real life, but these amphibious enemies in the original Turok called Leapers scared the hell out of me. I think the first time you encounter them they’re jumping out of waist-high water you’re wading through, and later you have to fight them in full-on underwater sections, using only your knife. Since then underwater sections have given me the willies - even glimpsing that big eel in Ocarina of Time.

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So, that VR game about standing on a plank REALLY DOES mess with your vertigo and fear of heights. It’s amazing how something so simple can convey so much anxiety and fear in a VR experience. I went on a trip to Japan with Super Bunnyhop, a friend of mine from High School, and we played the game at a VR arcade:

You can hear me laughing like an idiot in the background.


Since I was a kid I’ve had a phobia of bees/wasps (or all manner of flying bugs that sting) and though I haven’t encountered any games that really set off that phobia in the past, playing around with a PSVR kit over winter has definitely shown me that it may be convincing-enough of an illusion to set off those triggers. I played the intro to RE7 a few days ago and even just the moments where flies or cockroaches get up in your face was enough to make me squirm. Having played the game I know there’s a boss encounter involving a lot of large, flying insects and I am not looking forward to it.


Yesterday I fought the Kretan bull in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I’m generally pretty afraid of animals in real life and not at all in games (for example, I love video game puppers of all shapes and sizes but irl big, jumpy dogs spook me). But something about how it had horns as big as my character and just looked like a thing that I knew could/does exist in the world activated this really visceral stress. I’ve fought plenty of monsters as big or bigger than my character before in games, including an endless parade of open-world bears (which I absolutely fear in real life and not in games) but something about this bull in particular felt too close for comfort. Here are some screencaps of a Youtube video to give a better sense of the scale of this creature. Note that the pictures don’t spook me, nor did the video - just the visceral experience of fighting this behemoth. Still, I’ll put them in spoilers in case it does make others uncomfortable.

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Funny thing, very funny, but not for me.
I am afraid of height. I didn’t know that was a problem which would touch gaming. Unfortunately, it started to trouble me some years ago - my character was standing at the edge of the abyss when I felt my knees started to tremble. In Minecraft, with pixel nonrealistic graphics!
The problem is still with me - I am afraid of height, even in games.