In an attempt to completely destroy any reader interest the headline of this post may have generated, let’s start with two facts about myself:
1) I am a fan of dorky fantasy RPGs in the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age vein.
2) I am arachnophobic.
It’s a source of constant frustration that the above two facts aren’t really reconcilable with one another. In fact, I often feel like they are constantly in conflict. One of my most vivid gaming memories occurred during the opening hours of Dragon Age: Origins, a game that, aside from its generous helping of spidery bits, seemed designed specifically to push all of my nerdiest buttons. Unfortunately, this memory was not a pleasant one and almost made me put the game away for good.
I was ready to become a new world’s champion; its saviour. I would solve all of its problems from the looming threat of nefarious invaders to the petty bickering between a barmaid and tender. I would blaze a trail through the fantastical countryside, gaining priceless loot and leaving a trail of dead in my wake. I had a staff that could shoot fire and lightning. I had facial tattoos. I had just outwitted and then defeated a fucking demon. I was ready.
I had completed my apprenticeship and was a full-blown mage. I was eager to get out and explore, but first I had to deal with some niggling tasks. “No matter,” I thought. Any problem could be quickly solved with a well-placed blast of lightning from my staff and then I’d be on my way. I jumped into a cellar with vigour. I would clean up someone’s mess, find some items and gain some valuable experience before my true adventure began.
But then, oh no, the illusion is broken. Suddenly I’m no longer the sprightly young elf with ridiculous looking robes. Instead I’m a grown ass man who just had to pause the game and look away from the TV screen while I recomposed myself after coming face-to-face with a giant, nightmarish spider. Even a completely artificial rendering of an eight-legged horror is enough to make my heart jump through my skull and my limbs to uncontrollably pull themselves closer to my body.
Nonetheless, I pulled myself together and burned that fucker to death. I moved on cautiously thinking that so long as I saw them coming, kept my feet tucked safely away from the gap under the couch and silently repeated a mantra that it was a just a game I’d be okay. Then one of the damned things—at least as big as my avatar—dropped on me from the ceiling. This time I let out an audible gasp, paused the game and again looked away from the screen. I could feel sweat forming on my brow. My heart felt like it was seconds away from bursting. My breathing was clipped. I rode it out, returning to the mantra and reminding myself that soon I would graduate from spiders and vermin to Dark Spawn, Blood Mages and Highwaymen.
Eventually, after frequent pauses to regain my breath and curl myself into a tighter ball I got to a part of the cellar that my map assured me was the end. Unfortunately, before I could leave I had to deal with the last of the spiders. While I had made it most of the way only having to battle one or two at a time, in perfect video game fashion, the last area was populated by a horde of four or five. Once they saw me they advanced, their many legs scurrying them towards my now fleeing elf in a sickingly realistic fashion. I continued to run, throwing fireballs and lightning bolts over my shoulder sporadically. The creatures soon caught up to me and I was forced to make my stand. I looked somewhat above and to the right of the screen and tried to remember which buttons corresponded to which attacks. Foolishly I returned my gaze to the screen only to see the mandibles and errant legs of one of the spiders thrash at me from behind. Again I was forced to pause and look away. Minutes passed before I let the scene resume, this time not even trying to keep part of the screen in my peripheral vision as I urgently cast spells.
The change in music soon told me that my character had died in a fashion that is quite literally my worst nightmare. A menu popped up onscreen urging me to reload and try again. It didn’t take much consideration before I turned my console off. As much as I was excited to play the rest of the game, Dragon Age sat on the shelf until I could wrangle fellow RLWP wordbeast Kyle into clearing out the cellar for me while I busied my senses elsewhere. Even knowing what was coming I just couldn’t put myself through that ordeal again.
Playing through the remainder of Origins and especially its spider-happy sequel I now know that the cellar that gave me so much trouble was an arachnophobe’s heaven compared to what I would come to run screaming from, throwing large area spells behind me while leaving my teammates to do the brunt of the damage.
I wish I could say this was an uncommon experience, but anyone who’s spent any time with swords and sorcery RPGs knows that giant spiders are a ubiquitous early enemy in many games (or in Dragon Age 2‘s case, throughout the whole fucking thing). Hell, even the upcoming Elder Scolls V: Skyrim, which takes place in the cold, inhospitable for arachnids, Nordic regions of the Elder Scrolls world, has already started trumpeting the creepiness of the giant spiders my Argonian thief will have to attempt to avoid.
As much as I loathe the ubiquity of spider villains in the games I like to play, their inclusion actually makes a lot of sense, at least according to my cursory, wikipedia-fueled research. When I experience an increase in my heartrate, perspiration and heavy breathing at the sight of a spider, real or digital, it’s my amygdala’s doing. When presented with the image, or hell, even the thought of an eight-legged terror, my amygdala gets to work secreting hormones that make me a nervous wreck. The reaction speed from my amygdala is also faster than, say, my logical thought process that tells myself it’s just a video game and actual five foot tall spiders aren’t going to drop on me from above, so when I see one of the things in a game or, god forbid, real life I tense (see: Figuring out Phobia, by Lea Winerman, American Psychological Association, July 2005 Vol 36 No 7). I pause the game. I look away.
However, not everyone has my response when confronted with the spiders in Dragon Age. Most people just kill them and move on. The amygdala could have something to do with that as well. In addition to fear, the little brain almond is linked to aggression (See: Violence and Aggression — The Dana Guide, by Antonio Damasio, The Dana Guide to Brain Health, 2007). So instead of having his brain tell him to find a nice, clean corner at the bottom of the ocean to curl up in when confronted with a spider, Kyle, for example, is overcome with an urge to make the damn things dead, which is a good feeling to induce in a player of a game like Dragon Age where in order to progress through the game the player must employ a kill everything until I can kill anything strategy. This is especially useful in the early parts of games where a player could theoretically (though highly unlikely in game as meticulously designed to please longtime RPG nerds as Origins) be unfamiliar with the experience grind of fighting things required from most RPGs. Game designers won’t have to interrupt the game to tell players that those horrendously large spiders rushing towards them aren’t doing so in order to offer cupcakes as a first overture towards becoming BFFs. Most people will see the spiders and instinctively want to kill them. The players’ desires and those of the developers are synchronous. Smart. So the spiders get killed. Their horrible corpses are looted. Experience is gained. Levels are upped and many hours later players have graduated from slaying spiders to fighting dragons and felling armies while trying to score with bisexual elves, bitchy witches and dopily charming everymen with awful haircuts who are secretly royalty.
It’s possible though that the benefit of having spiders in games might be outweighed by a rather significant disadvantage. A 1992 study (you’ll have to excuse me for not finding a more current study. Part of being arachnophobic involves having significant anxiety in typing anything spider-related into a search bar due to the resultant images) found that over 50 percent of women and nearly 20 percent of men in Western societies have some form of arachnophobia (See: Targeting Fear of Spiders with Control-, Acceptance-, and Information-Based Approaches: An Analogue Comparison, by Alexander Wagener and Robert Zettle, University if Witchita). Other estimates suggest that roughly 40 percent of people who play video games are women. Of course, trying to mash the percentages of people who suffer from arachnophobia together with general video game demographic information isn’t going to result in any meaningful results as there is clearly quite a big difference between SingStar and a hardcore piece of nerd bait like Dragon Age and many other variables involved, but the numbers do suggest that there are likely to be a fair few people out there who continue to be a little uncomfortable with having to stick swords into so many damn spiders during their few leisure hours.
It bears noting that just because someone is afraid of spiders in real life doesn’t mean that this fear necessarily translates over to such things as video games, so these numbers are not necessarily representative of the percentage of people who, like me, hyperventilate on the couch when faced with a digital giant spider. It isn’t, after all, a real giant spider and for some people that abstraction could be enough to stop their brain for pumping out its crazy-terrified chemicals.
I’m not suggesting that my experiences fleeing from spiders in RPGs and then having to talk myself down in order to keep playing is serious or generalizable to the broader population to such an extent that game developers should stop putting spiders into their games. As I’ve said, the inclusion of my nightmare creatures makes a good amount of sense and for all I know my fellow arachnophobes happily rush head first into the many spider dens of Dragon Age and the like because they are able to divorce their real life fear from its digitization. It’s just the type of thing that I’d love to see game designers put more thought into. I know that whether someone actually plays the game is not nearly as important to a company as whether they buy it, but I think it goes without saying that most designers wouldn’t want to have the enemies a player encounters during their first quest produce such primal terror that a game is put back on the shelf for weeks like what happened with me and Origins. Surely there must another creature out there that elicits the same kind of “you die now” aggression within a high percentage of players without causing the risk of fear-quitting a game that isn’t designed to make its players afraid. Like scorpions. Or ants. It certainly seems like it would be something worth investigating. The first studio to release a game with a spiders/ants toggle button in the options will have my lifelong gratitude. Fucking ants.