It's become something of a ritual this past week for me. Go to Google. Filter results for 'Last 24 Hours'. Type 'Shadow of Mordor Spiders'. Hit search and hope I don't find what I've dreaded for months.
I've feared Spiders for as long as I can remember - which, as an avid fan of sci-fi and particularly of Fantasy, has meant that often enjoying the escapism I love most means facing what I fear most. Every time I've sat down to watch Return of the King or The Desolation of Smaug, I clamp my eyes shut during Shelob's and the Mirkwood scenes and try to drown out the chittering sounds of Middle-Earth's eight-legged denizens. I cancelled my preorder for Skyrim after seeing the Giant Frostbite Spider in a trailer. Flung a controller across the room when I first encountered Dragon Age II's monstrous spiders. Not even Sci-Fi can escape the creepy crawlies - god knows what I'll do tomorrow when the latest episode of Doctor Who features Giant Moon Spiders (because of course it does).
Giant spiders have long been a trope of genre work, mainly thanks to Tolkien's work and his huge impact on traditional fantasy over the decades, but really it's only been in the last decade or so that it's really started to bother me as much as real-world encounters with Spiders do. Part of it's the huge advances in technology that have enhanced Spiders on screen into heavily detailed - and creepily, realistically well animated - CG monstrosities, but it's also the way I tend to consume Sci-Fi and fantasy has changed too. The spiders I read about as a child in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were just words on pages, imaginary images that weren't tangible to me - weren't real enough to really scare me. Spiders in D&D were just tokens and dice rolls, not actual creatures. When they came over to the big screen and TV it was petrifying, but easy enough for me to close my eyes and block the noises out, or skip the scene ahead. But now that I play a lot of video games, the presence of a Spider stops being a passive fear and becomes a tangible threat - usually one that has to be dealt with to progress.
The interactivity of the medium is what heightens the emotional response to a video game - be it an adrenaline rush in a fast-paced shooter or racing game, sadness at a heart-rending moment in the story, or in this case, fear upon encountering a digital spider in an RPG or any other fantasy game. The simple idea that controlling your avatar, your protagonist makes a difference might seem like an odd disconnect, but it works somehow - like the spiders are attacking that avatar, and by extension, me, triggering my phobia. It's not just arachnophobes who can be affected, either. I know people who are scared of heights who get physically uncomfortable watching Assassin's Creed's heroes deftly leap off rooftops into conveniently-placed Hay piles, for example. It's an inherently unique response only a game can have, the sort of interconnectedness between avatar and player that can evoke responses similar events in other media won't. But for someone with a phobia like that, it's equally a frustrating and uncomfortable one that makes games I would've otherwise enjoyed an absolute nightmare to play.
(For some reason World of Warcraft's creepy crawlers don't bother me so much, but man, EFF THE NOISE THEY MAKE WHEN YOU AGGRO THEM.)
I'd like to say that my years playing video games has helped me get over my fear, but in all honesty, I can't really say it has - maybe I've been able to tolerate them for longer, at least in digital form, but they still creep the hell out of me. But at least, as technology and games have taken leaps and bounds, other suffers have started to band together - take this recent news about a crowdsourced wiki that tries to catalogue the various triggers and phobias people find in games so people know what to avoid. Sure, it's not going to help tackle those fears, but it's a step in the right direction for helping to try and deal with phobias in these interactive worlds. Who knows, one day we might actually use the medium to help deal with phobias and ultimately cure people of some of their fears - I could totally imagine some sort of Oculus Rift VR demo that depicts a Spider you can place in your 'digital' palm, as some sort of stepping stone to phobia treatments that do that sort of thing in the real world already. It's an interesting little quibble to face as a medium still in its relative infancy expands and develops - and one that's definitely unique to it.
For now though, I still have to try and balance my love of Fantasy and Sci-Fi with my arachnophobia. At least my results searching for Shadows of Mordor didn't turn up anything. Small steps and all that.
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