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Ashley Davis avatar 6:02 PM on 05.23.2008  (server time)
Irrational Fears and Video Games: A Girl's Strange Phobia of Virtual Water

Everyone is afraid of something. A person's fears can be nearly insignificant, only showing themselves as an unpleasant little butterfly in the stomach from time to time. On the other hand, they can be so intense that they garner control over the things they say or do, and can become an obstacle that can possibly be a hindrance on life.

We as gamers are well aware that in recent years, video games have steadily become more and more of an extension of the real world. The usage of our interests, ideas, and morals as elements of game play has become pretty standard fare. All this considered, it makes perfect sense that our fears can also play a big role in the way our games progress and play. In fact, an entire genre of video games is dedicated to the spooking of its players. These survival horror games are very popular, well-received, and are a great example of a positive use of one's fears to create a unique and immersive experience.

On the other hand, things may work the other way around when fears are put into play. Just as an intense phobia can prevent a person from living their lives to the fullest, they can also prevent the full enjoyment that would normally be had while playing a game. A lot of the time, though, it's not just what is meant to be frightening that is frightening. Some people suffer from irrational fears. I am one of those people.

Horror games have never really appealed to me because I'm not the sort of person who enjoys being scared. This is probably due to the fact that so many things cause me anxiety in real life, the thought of feeling the same way through a game negates the fun that I could possibly have playing it. I have plenty of fears. Spiders freak me out, I despise climbing tall ladders; they are mostly the standard fare. But there is one fear that stands out among the others due to its strangeness: I am terrified to go into water. But not actual water. Only while playing video games does this fear manifest itself.

It is an intense enough phobia to sometimes prevent me from finishing a game that I find absolutely brilliant otherwise, and greatly hinders the quality of game play in many other cases. I find it very odd how I am able to go to the beach and float in the ocean all day, only slightly fearful of having a foot stung by a jelly fish, when there could be dangerous things lurking beneath the waves. But when I am presented with a swimming level in a game, where dangers are present but not actually life threatening, I begin to panic. I often choose to skip swimming levels altogether if it is possible, and if there is no way around getting my feet wet, I feel forced to just give up.

Take Shadow of the Colossus, for example. Undeniably one of the greatest video games made in modern times, and one of my absolute favorites, yet I have never beaten it. Why? Because whenever I edge near the pool containing the seventh colossi, Hydrus, I choke and can't make myself jump in. The anxiety that I feel, looking down at the dark water and not knowing what lies beneath, flusters me to the point where I can not make myself progress any further.

This fear is something that has been with me for a little over the past decade of my gaming life. As much as I despise myself for having developed such a trivial fear that can sometimes ruin video games for me, it is a behavior that I have always found interesting. Prior to writing my story, full of curiosity, I took to the internet in search of others like myself. The quest proved somewhat fruitful, as I managed to discover a few discussions on the topic of irrational fears and gaming. As odd as it may sound to some people, it seems that there are many others whose gaming experiences are affected by irrational fears; certain settings, characters, and even sounds that are not meant to be frightening can somehow manage to trigger feelings of fearfulness. Water levels are apparently one of the most common unintentional fear inducers, though in most cases, it is merely an extension of a person's real-life water phobia.

From what I've found, people are quick to assume that gamers who have a distaste for swimming in games were adversely affected by the early entries in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. It certainly seems to be the case for many of them. A lot of children had their first experience with "drowning" through these games, as most characters before Sonic could either hold their breath indefinitely, or were completely destroyed any time they so much as looked at water. But with Sonic, children were presented with a character whose mortality became clear once submerged for twenty seconds. Some thought the accompanying music to be utterly terrifying, some became panicked that the game was secretly counting down their lives the entire time they were submerged, and the rest combined both of these factors into one unpleasant experience that may have very well scarred them for life. This scarring, of course, varies in degree of severity from person to person.

As for myself, Sonic the Hedgehog games were a very huge part of my earliest gaming, and his games were my first experience with virtual drowning. But unlike most others of my kind, his inability to breathe underwater never really affected me at all. So if it is not having death loom over my shoulder once I dive in, why am I so fearful of virtual water, and only virtual water? Perhaps there is no real answer; after all, it is an irrational fear. But there are some past experiences that I have had that could possibly shed some light on the matter.

The most dreaded cluster of letters a dolphin will ever know.

In the first years, things were simple. I often find myself yearning for these old days, where underwater levels simply meant hopping slowly across an ocean blue backdrop, and enemies were clearly defined and placed. I never feared water in those days. The only 2D games whose water levels frightened me, and where I believe my phobia originated, were the first two in a series that took place entirely underwater - the Ecco the Dolphin games.

Ecco was slightly eerie to me from the get-go. The mixture of creepy music and dolphins saying odd things sort of put me off. But I never could have guessed that the stuff my nightmares are made of could begin with such an innocent question, asked by an adorable dolphin no less: "How high in the sky can you fly?" The answer to which, of course, is, "Oh my god why is the sky flashing red and everything being sucked into space?" With a beginning like that, things could only continue to careen downhill. I would soon meet up with such lovable fellows as gigantic trilobites, spider crabs, and sharks, all popping up out of nowhere to rip off my sweet little dolphin face. To a young child who had never before witnessed such, it was pretty unsettling, and I did not like it at all.

Nevertheless, I was filled with the silly, childish determination to progress further into the game, mostly because I had never not finished a game prior to this point in time. I began to experiment on the password screen for easy access into further levels. After a short period of time, and finding that the ridiculous AAAAAAAA code took you to the third level of the game, I entered the dreaded NNNNNNNN - the password that transports you to the level before the final fight with the Vortex Queen. Being a very sheltered eight year old child, I believe that unexpectedly stumbling into something like Welcome to the Machine did quite a number on my mind. I panicked, shut everything off, and never touched the game again. I was only forced to repeat the horror once more after receiving Ecco: The Tides of Time as a Christmas gift a little further down the road. In an attempt to be polite, I hesitantly played a little in front of the relative who had purchased the game for me. As much as I wanted to show my appreciation for the gift, I could not carry on the charade for very long. I got to about the third level before I had to excuse myself, run to my room to try and choke my heart back down my throat while no one was looking.

A few years passed, other games were played, and I had no other scary confrontations with water for a while. I had almost forgotten about the whole Ecco fiasco, until the Playstation, Nintendo 64, and its platformers came along. You may already be familiar with my immeasurable love for such games, and the fact that anything could pry itself between me and them may come as a shock. I do love my 3D platformers, I really do. But this is my dark secret. Every single one has at least one swimming level to muck it all up for me, and because of them, I do not believe I have ever fully completed any of these games entirely on my own. Somehow, these are the games that still affect me terribly, even today. While I would rather not actually play the game, I can watch videos of Ecco game play and only feel slightly unnerved. But I still have so much trouble with three-dimensional water worlds. The addition of depth, combined with the foggy graphics of these games gave swimming levels a much higher degree of unintentional terror. My first experience with this, of course, was Super Mario 64's Jolly Roger Bay. This was the first of two mainly underwater levels in the game, and home to the one true bane of my existence: Unagi the Eel.

I carelessly dove into the blue, eventually making my way down towards the sunken ship. And suddenly, the murky waters give way to a pair of beady little eyes and two rows of teeth peeking out from the ship's cabin. Like the enemies of Ecco past, here was a horrifying creature that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Something in me snapped at that very moment, something that screamed, "I don't like this!" The same feeling of panic came rushing back, only this time, it hit me even harder. Luckily, the way that Super Mario 64 is structured allowed me to bypass both of the underwater levels entirely, but I can not say that I have ever collected all 120 Power Stars. I don't think I have ever even visited Dire, Dire Docks out of the silly notion that Unagi will reappear; I know he does not, in fact, I know there is nothing like him in the second water stage, but I just can't make myself hop through that picture and take the dive.

He may be a fish out of water, but I like him more this way.

Though most of the stories I recall that fit into the history of my strange phobia involve some gigantic creature that lives beneath the waves, one might think that my fear actually stems from them, and not the water itself. It is a possibility that I have often considered, and I would love to end it there and have the solution as to why I react to water levels in the way that I do. However, there is one special case that makes for a strange twist, and it lies within Banjo-Kazooie.

By the time the game got into my hands, the initial unease I felt for water levels had grown into an actual phobia. Sadly, I must say that I could never fully enjoy Banjo-Kazooie because of all the damn swimming that had to be done in the game. Snacker the Shark got me off on the wrong foot, with his threats to chomp down on me dare I jump into the waters of Treasure Trove Cove. I had panic attacks any time I slipped into the murky waters of Rusty Bucket Bay. Then, of course, there was Clanker's Cavern. The initial time that I swam through the first tunnel of the level and found myself face to face with the gigantic mechanical whale, well, you can probably guess what my reaction was. The usual heart-jumping-out-of-throat, followed by the quick shutting off of the television and console.

Again, I became thoroughly aggravated because I loved the rest of the game so much and wanted desperately to progress further into it. I made several attempts, but fear had such a grip on me that I could not even stand the thought of swimming through that tunnel and facing the rusty giant again. I eventually called upon the aid of an older cousin to complete the level while I sat nearby, eyes tightly shut. He was the only person available who was capable of performing such a task, as neither of my sisters ever really took to gaming and had no interest in the game whatsoever. Unfortunately, my cousin was also quite a mean boy who made use of every opportunity to scare the daylights out of me. After having completed the first task (unlocking Clanker's anchor) he told me that he had made Clanker swim away and the water drain out, which of course was a horrible lie. Being an incredibly gullible child, I opened my eyes to see that he had parked bear and bird directly in front of Clanker's toothy grin. My reaction this time was surprisingly different, much to my terrible cousin's chagrin. I was shocked, but only because I did not feel scared. It seemed that Clanker no longer appeared frightening simply because he had risen to the water's surface. I still did not want to dive down below, but I was at least able to collect enough of the other Jiggies to be able to move on to the next world.

With all of this in mind, let us recap: water is the variable that must be present for fright to occur. Fear keeps its grip on me whenever it, variable one, comes into play. Monstrous undersea beasts, or the possibility thereof, is the second variable. Variable two, in some cases like Clanker's, can exist without the first (being submerged); if this is so, most feelings of anxiousness towards variable two are nullified. But because variable two is partially the possibility that variable two does exist, variable one always contains some degree of variable two. And it all started, perhaps, with a little dash of childhood trauma that happened to snowball into something way larger than it ever should have been. Pretty confusing stuff, but it is me trying to make sense of my own mind, so that sort of thing should be expected.

Everyone has fears, but only a fraction of people let theirs get in the way of the things they love. I, unfortunately, am one of those people. This is all something I have kept to myself for many years, because it is silly, and I know it. But I felt that I had to come out with it to pursue further information. Now that I have shared my story, I end with the hopes of readers sharing their own. Though I poured over any similar anecdotes I happened to come across, my appetite for knowledge on the subject of irrational fears and gaming was barely fed. And so I ask you: Has there ever been anything that you have experienced within a video game that has ever frightened you, but should not have? Has anything ever stopped you from finishing a sub-quest, level, or even an entire game? Have you ever developed a real-life fear because of something in a game, or vice-versa?

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