Fears, Phobias, and Video Games


I was browsing through the steam sale the other day and stumbled on Subnautica, a game I’ve only heard great things about that I would very much like to give a shot. The only problem is, I have a pretty big fear of open water. I’m super uncomfortable in pretty much any part of a game that has you diving deep underwater or exploring shipwrecks or anything like that, and it’s a bummer.

I remember back in the day I almost couldn’t get through the electric eel Colossus in SOTC, didn’t get a crucial piece of loot from a shipwreck in the Witcher 3, and had to really brace myself to raise the submerged B-29 Bomber from the bottom of Lake Mead in Fallout: New Vegas, a game I absolutely had to see and do everything in. Thankfully it’s usually only side activities that involve this sort of thing which is nice, but it still sort of gets me down when I feel like I’m missing out on exploring parts of a world because I can’t brave the murky depths.

Has a fear of yours ever kept you from enjoying or progressing in a game? Has a particular part or sequence frightened you so much you had to stop playing? Has a game ever helped you get over something like this?


Friend, I am here for you.

I have the exact same issue with Subnautica. I played it for a number of hours, palms literally sweaty (knees weak, etc) and every sound or twitch in the water and my heart rate would escalate. The smaller violent creatures were bad enough but going into the deep dark areas was unbearable, I was attacked several times by the Leviathan and it was too much - I uninstalled. I actually sweat thinking about going back to it.

I feel like people always say how horrific Mario 64s underwater eel was for them and I remember it being unnerving but never this bad. The other thing that comes to mind is the shark/fish monsters in Half-Life 2. Honestly not many other games stand out as triggering any sort of thalassophobia so I’m kinda dumbfounded by it all but I definitely understand how you feel!


I thought maybe it would be helpful as some sort of like immersion therapy but then I saw that screenshot on the steam page of that giant-ass monster skeleton on the ocean floor and realized that nope I’m actually super good, thanks anyway. There’s a robot-shark boss fight in Ty the Tasmanian Tiger for the PS2 that I think was the first instance of this sort of thing I can recall. Freaked me out quite a bit as a kid, left a lasting impression apparently.


On the topic of using games to get over your fears, I recently had the pleasure of studying under a graduate student who is working on making VR experiences to help treat PTSD with veterans. To oversimplify their research, they essentially try to create an experience that contains the stimuli and triggers that are affecting the individual in order to slowly normalize their reactions.

An important point that they made was that they would slowly increase the stimuli over many different sessions–usually by manually customizing the levels to add more sound or visuals. Too extreme of a scenario might overwhelm the patient, or even worse, reinforce the trauma.

If there’s a game that slowly/briefly introduces you to a particular fear over time it might actually have merit as immersion therapy. However, something that takes advantage of those phobias for player effect could end poorly–so I’d urge caution on that front.

Also… I never beat Kirby 64 because I was too afraid of the water levels. As a kid I had those first few levels mastered pretty well!


That’s incredible. Must be a really daunting undertaking from a development perspective. Out of curiosity, did this particular student you were with have a background in the technical side of things, or were they on the road to becoming a mental health professional? I imagine something like that would be unbelievably tricky to get right without proper consultation every step of the way. That’s great though, wish there was more of a spotlight on things like that. Disheartening to see things like this fly under the radar but games like Life is Strange: BTS are out here winning “Games for Change” awards after engaging in shitty labor practices.


Saw the topic title and came to talk about the intense anxiety I felt in Mario 64 and the Bomber from Fallout New Vegas but y’all are on top of that.

I also really hate water that is sometimes infested with violent fish in open world games. Slaughterfish were pretty uncommon in Skyrim but I was afraid every time I went in the water. Crossing a river was way more frightening than any dragon in that game for me. Same thing happened in Fallout 4, but I don’t think there’s even anything that can kill you underwater in that game.

I did love Abzu, though. No air-management or enemies really helped me finally have fun in water.


I usually avoid media that’s meant to scare me. I just never get any enjoyment out of it, and puts me in a high level of anxiety for hours afterwards. So when I come across a moment of fear or scariness in a game it really affects me.

I remember the beginning of Bioshock having a big effect on me. The setting of Rapture was just so eerie. It was so dark and the Splicer legit made my skin crawl and put me on edge. Once I got a few plasmids and weapons I felt more at ease, and it wasn’t a problem anymore. But I still remember when you first get the shotgun I believe. Once you pick it up the room goes dark, and you can hear some Splicer taking. I had to pause it, do some deep breathing, and psyche myself up so I could play again.

I’ve also found that Prey is having the same effect if not stronger on me. I feel like I’m constantly on edge, don’t have enough ammo, and can die so easily. I love the idea of the Mimics as an enemy, but god damn do they stress me out. Even when I see it turn into an object I stress where the next one with pop up. It’s thrown me off so much that I’m not playing my usual stealth way with these type of games. I’m just walking around the desolate space station, worrying about every object possibly turning into an enemy. I really want to keep playing because it seems very interesting (plus Danielle’s love of it has me interested too), but I can’t play for very long or it feels like I’m having an anxiety attack.


If I’m remembering correctly, they were coming at it from the prospective mental health professional. Their specific study was cognitive science but their focus in particular was trauma. They were getting help from the technical VR club on campus for their setup, which was also very cool. With VR becoming more common hopefully experiences like that can be more widespread!


This was was always the sort of thing that got me excited about the potential of VR, and why I still keep my fingers crossed it gets cheaper and more accessible instead of fading away into obscurity. A utility used by professionals to achieve something like that is way more interesting than using it to walk around Skyrim yet again. Thanks for sharing all this btw!


I think I’ve talked about this here before but I have some pretty bad arachnophobia, so most games with spiders i just can’t deal with. I’m playing Hollow Knight right now and the Deepnest area is making my skin crawl, even with the cartoony visuals minimizing the realism of it.

There are a few exceptions where I’ll power through, however. I’ve played Bloodborne to completion more times than I know, and that involves both a spider boss battle (which I am actually fine with) and a brief area in the late game with large, realistic looking spiders that drop onto you and some of them have human heads and it’s awful and fucked up to even think about now. I even went through all of the chalice dungeons, which have a much higher volume of spiders to deal with. More recently, the Quelaag boss from Dark Souls is a woman/spider hybrid, but I was fine with that too. Half Life 2 felt like a big moment for me, getting through Ravenholm and dealing with the headcrabs was taxing. The normal ones suck but are tolerable, but the poison ones are complete nightmares. I don’t think I looked at the screen once when I would unload a clip into them. But I made it through and finished the game from there, and that felt like a really big accomplishment for me personally.

I still haven’t beat Skyrim though, fuck that.


Reminded me, the demon fish in Far Cry 4 were too much. Hard pass.

I should’ve mentioned I also love ABZU, and that’s a big exception to my situation. It goes out of it’s way to make the whole thing feel like more of a whimsical aquarium tour with little to no challenge which went a long way. It’s weird, I can enjoy watching a documentary like Blue Planet and totally appreciate the vastness and the beauty of sea life and all that, but the moment I’m playing something and feel like there may be some sort of looming threat I don’t want any part of it.


I don’t recommend Subnautica if you have thalassophobia. I actually turned the game off and stopped playing for about a week after I was attacked by the leviathan the first time. It ate my ship (I didn’t have countermeasures installed), and I had to swim home. I am not hot on spiders either, so being attacked by the crabsquids was not fun. Ditto for being sucked out of my nice safe ship by the watchers.


The spiders in Skyrim continue to scare me after years of playing the game. Every time I start a new run I shudder going through the first major dungeon. I’ve a fear of spiders in real life, and just seeing how they move and jump in the game makes me avoid them or find a way to kill them that means I don’t need to see them up close.

It’s one of the few times I’ve had a game instill such a strong response from me, which is why it doesn’t particularly bother me. Being repeatedly exposed to something you find absolutely terrifying but know objectively can’t harm you can be a fascinating experience.


I have a bad fear of heights and I still get shaky thinking about crossing that suspension bridge in Half-Life 2. Most of the time heights in video games don’t phase me too much but that bridge is awful. I don’t know why.


I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder with agoraphobia which makes what scares me in games pretty random. I can get through Dead Space and feel totally relaxed and fine, but the courier in Skyrim freaks me the fuck out. He appears out of nowhere to give you quests or money that somebody died. There’s also any game where everyone always looks directly at me no matter what. That’s freaky as hell.

Overall though, games are usually barren and depopulated enough that I can effectively use them as escapism and a way to decompress.


i struggle a lot with social anxiety, so most games with online multiplayer scare the shit out of me. i’m good with games with limited interaction like Dark Souls or asynchronous multiplayer, but i legit can’t handle games that require real-time communication with strangers


The math of “I could beat this boss by summoning another human being, but then I’d have to interact with another human being” is the bane of every soulsbourne game


same. i’ve disappointed my real father enough, i can’t handle embarrassing myself in front of Giant Dad too


It’s weird in that i usually have no issues dealing with things in games that really bother me in person. I wouldn’t say I have a “fear” of rodents in the sense that I’m worried or scared by them, they just make me profoundly uncomfortable. Even in a cage or separated by glass, the way they move in particular makes me on edge and really, really unhappy. The little skittering legs, the featureless eyes, the tiny hands, and especially the sharp teeth. I’d rather put my hand on a hot stove than hold a mouse.

In games though, they don’t even register. Huge rat monsters or hordes of tiny vermin, it makes no difference they don’t even make the needle twitch a little. I think in my particular case it might be an uncanny valley thing. I’ve yet to see the virtual rodent that captures the the way they move in real life so it just doesn’t trigger that same reaction.


No specific phobias, but my nerves are absolutely shot playing scary video games. I love horror books & shows & movies! But… I cannot mess with horror games. I played hours of Silent Hill 4, before reaching a subway level with tons of ghosts, and my anxiety just snapped — I ran screaming through the whole level, got hopelessly lost, then turned off the game and never played again. The beginning of Bioshock also scared me too much for me to continue playing. I want to play Prey thx to Danielle’s gushing, but I’m worried that I’ll have a similar experience as the commenter above and won’t be able to handle it.

I was also VERY GLAD to see y’all mention the Mario 64 eel and the robot shark!! Those things were carved into my memory as a kid. Jeez.