Spiders. They scuttle, they crawl, they sit and they stare. They’re not more scared of you than you are of them, for no arachnophobe has ever run up to one and tried to climb up its leg. Some will say they’re misunderstood. They are of course wrong, their brains rewired by pro-arachnid propaganda like Charlotte’s Web – a story which, in reality, would have had poor little Wilbur sitting under the words “MMM, BACON” as Charlotte fondled her spinerettes.

Games though take the fear to the next level, scaling it up from a black terror the size of the hand of a non-arachnophobe saying “Really? Something this little?” to monstrosities that would make Shelob a little nervous to leave the web. Cow sized killers, hungry for adventurer flesh. Huge spider gods and slimy hybrids. Often, much to the horror of RPG players especially, treated as no big deal. Skyrim. World of Warcraft. Vindictus. Just three games of many that have taken this most terror-inducing of nightmares… and decided “Sure, let’s put that in the tutorial area.”

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Our Survey Says…

Virtual arachnophobia is a surprisingly wide-spread phenomena though, and made no better by sufferers knowing exactly how silly it is. They’re just pixels on a screen. Yes. We’re aware. However, that satisfying sniper shot, that sexy leading lady or gentlemen and that glorious vista from the top of the mountain are just pixels too, and if they can make us happy or impressed, there’s no reason that a few hairy pixels with fangs can’t trigger what psychologists refer to as an atavistic response to perceived stimulus, but most regular arachnophobes just call an “Oh shit!” moment.

The details though have never really been studied, with developers rarely sympathetic. I thought it was time to dig a little deeper though, running a survey using Google Docs and Twitter to gather up peoples’ experiences. How common was the problem? What actually triggered it? Over the course of a week, I got over 50 responses. It should go without saying that we’re in the realm of anonymous anecdotes rather than hard, clinical science here, but the results were still interesting. For the record, survey respondents were primarily, though not exclusively male, scattered throughout the age brackets, but with the largest set being ages 21-30.

“I was forced by a sideshow emcee to take a living tarantula in my hands, age 6. I am 42 now.”

First up, was the fear of spiders actually based on a real world bad experience? The answer was generally no, with a few stories of the “I once woke up to find one on my bed” variety. A few had suffered from nightmare fuel, including “had one thrown in my face” and “was forced by a sideshow emcee to take a living tarantula in my hands, age 6. I am 42 now.” On a scale of 1-10 though, of how affected they were by in-game and real-life spiders, they didn’t rate their fear any stronger than the people who were simply creeped out on the existence of the eight-legged ones.


Fear of an Eight Legged Menace

Those numbers averaged at a fear rating of 4.3/10 for virtual spiders, and 5.92/10 for real ones – as you’d expect, the real variety’s ability to scuttle over your face beating the virtual one’s ability to take entirely too many fireballs to theirs. The survey also collected some more detailed information though, on exactly what peoples in-game responses consisted of. The response was often physical rather than merely a psychological tut of disapproval – shakes, revulsion, even pain at times.

For example: “Depends on the size and complexity; for some reason, the low-poly arachnids in Torchlight don’t freak me out as much. Also depends how long it takes to kill ‘em – a quick fight doesn’t bother me as much as a boss battle,” offered one reply. “Generally my reactions range from a brief Oh God! to cold flashes and a physical, full-body shudder.”

“Even the thought of spiders will make me feel itchy, as if they’re crawling over me – especially in my hair,” said another. “In-game spiders will have the same effect if they’re scaled appropriately small for my character (or there’s a swarm of them).”

And if you don’t think you’re susceptible… maybe you’ve just not played the right game yet. Limbo, maybe. Or Skyrim. “I never really had a problem with virtual spiders until now, in fact I thought it was comical how people got creeped out by spiders in games,” admitted one responder. “Then I started seeing the Skyrim spiders and realized they were really fucking bothering me. Fortunately the smaller ones go down really quick. The big ceiling droppers are another story.”

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Crawling to the Top

Which were the worst of the worst? Oddly, there was little consensus on that. The Frostbite Spiders of Skyrim were the most common suggestion, getting 10 votes, though that can be partially explained by them being one of the more recent examples in a mainstream game.

“I wish I could explain why – perhaps the horrid little spikes all over them? The fact you’re playing in first person? The way they drop on your head? I don’t know,” said one respondent. “Whatever it was, they alone are the reason I’m answering this poll.”

Second place went to the tarantulas from the Resident Evil series, with 7 votes. After that, things fractured. Amongst the games with more than one vote were the highly aggressive spiders of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and the ‘surprise’ spiders of Dragon Age 2 – their party piece being to appear in front of the camera with a loud hiss. Strangely not mentioned often was the infamous giant spider from indie game Limbo, which even managed to scare non-arachnophobes.

“It’s not so much the appearance of the spider that causes me to fear it, but more not understanding its behaviour. I’m just not sure what those spidery guys and girls are up to when they crawl across my desk.”

But what of the wider world? Is the fear of in-game spiders just down to a general anxiety towards creepy crawlies? Apparently not. Asked “Are there any other monster types that have caused you trouble?”, almost half flat-out said no. Only two enemy types put in repeat appearances – the headcrabs of Half-Life, particularly the spider-like poison variety, and scorpions, specifically the giant Radscorpions of Fallout 3′s blasted wasteland. Another arachnid, in fact, with distinctly alien behavior from our point of view. As one responder put it, “It’s not so much the appearance of the spider that causes me to fear it, but more not understanding its behavior. I’m just not sure what those spidery guys and girls are up to when they crawl across my desk.”

On the Hunt

Okay, so let’s dig into that a little. In games, unlike most real-life situations humans will be involved in, spiders are usually aggressive, life-threatening monsters. What if they’re not – if they’re more a Charlotte than a Shelob? Does that make a difference? Turns out… yes. At least, in theory, for most respondents – even if nobody could think of a perfect example to point to.

“Once you were riding the ones in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow it was slightly better as at least I knew it couldn’t attack me anymore,” suggested one, getting the closest. “I didn’t like using the spider familiar in Neverwinter Nights (small and realistic), but didn’t mind having a spider pet in World of Warcraft (oversized and cartoon-like),” said another.

That wasn’t universal though, with one responder saying that she couldn’t even make shape-shifting witch Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins shift into her spider form, and more than one pointing out that ‘friendly’ and ‘spider’ are words that fit oddly well next to ‘betrayal’. “It seems like the kind of creature that would turn on you as a plot point, doesn’t it? It’s a matter of trust…”

Hypothetically then, there’s at least a chance for some common ground – though a relationship that likely needs work on both sides. What if we skip that though? Is a dead spider a good spider? Do their fangs lose their sting once smashed, or no longer a threat to a high-level character? The answer is a little surprising – most of our self-proclaimed arachnophobes said yes.


Future Shocks

What then if we’re not dealing with real spiders, but robots? Many future worlds borrow arachnid designs for their robots and other technologies, including sentries and battle tanks and repair bots. They may not have the hair and the fangs, but they have the same basic silhouette, movement and are still just a collection of pixels on a screen . Do they trigger the same fear response?

Not even close.

“Robot spiders are less scary than spiders, and also way cooler. I strongly support them,” declared one responder. From another: “A Robot Spider is simply a robot built in the shape of a spider. You could have a Mecha-Spider the size of a skyscraper and it wouldn’t bother me.” Another still: “Robot spiders aren’t scary to me because in my eyes they’d lack the same predatory, ambush or trap hunter instincts of an animal or animal/demon hybrid. Nothing created by a man is going to be as scary as what comes out of Mother Nature’s horror-infested womb.”

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“Robot spiders are less scary than spiders, and also way cooler.
I strongly support them,”

This wasn’t a universal response, but it wasn’t far off. A couple admitted to having an immediate ‘urk’ response, especially to scuttling animation, but were firmly in the minority. For most, a robot spider was nothing more than a tool – and no more a symbol of fear than the logo on Peter Parker’s shirt. Says one: “I think evolution has programmed us to recognize a natural spider and be afraid of it because it’s going to kill us and laugh about the fact over a mug of liquified organs.”

Digital Raid Spray

Robots then can probably be forgiven their inspirations, at least for the moment, and unless their designers start bolting on extra eyes and hairy epidermal layers just to mess with people. Their skittering organic brethren though remain a threat both to hardy adventurers really wishing they could sub-contract the ‘spider temple of the spider god’ bit of their quests, and players for whom the eight-legged ones’ presence can so easily render a great game utterly unplayable.

On the PC, at least there are often options. System Shock 2, Dragon Age and Skyrim are just three games where modders have gone in and fixed the problem in various ways. In System Shock 2, that meant simply turning them invisible, silencing their hissings, and killing them as soon as they spawned. It led to a few funny moments, yes, including a trap unceremoniously turned into an empty room with now pointless vents of doom, but crucially: no bloody spiders!

Dragon Age and Skyrim modders left them in, but altered the models. For Dragon Age and its sequel, one version turned them into dogs, another into bears – though arguably that just looked as creepy as the spiders. “The animations have been intentionally mismatched,” boasts the modder of the dog version. “Why? ‘Cause that’s how I roll.” Well, quite. Skyrim modders though really went crazy, with the option to turn them into bears… or bizarre, broken-spined Spider-Man. Spider-Men, technically, since it was rare to run across just one Frostbite spider at once.

Games supporting mods tend to see “No Spider” mods very quickly after release – if not as fast as inevitable nude mods, which tend to break the land-speed record to be the first to perv things up. Despite that though, no developer has ever offered a simple “No Spiders” toggle. Indeed, they keep getting worse. The upcoming The Elder Scrolls Online too really goes out of its way to make them horrible, with spiders that devour each others’ corpses, and a chance that spiders you kill will be pregnant and erupt into their vengeful young. There are also spider demons, spider infested caves, and Zenimax Online Studios hasn’t officially denied that the Collector’s Edition will actually be delivered by a specially trained tarantula. Admittedly, so far no-one’s actually asked.

Still, while arachnophobes may not be able to get rid of their fear, at least now they can know that no, they’re not alone. One day, perhaps the world will acknowledge what needs to be done, and discover a new era of skitter-free enlightenment. Failing that, there’s always asking a friend to get past the icky bits, or – as many out there ultimately do – pushing past the horror, one level at a time, and being glad that at least spiders are a reasonably respectable thing to be afraid of. It could be so much worse. Imagine if it was elves. Or space marines. We’d have nothing to play…

Illustrations by Terry Mack

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biopic_ah

About the author

Richard Cobbett learned everything he needed to know from old adventures, which is why he hasn’t dared cross a main road or leave the house without a newspaper and a pencil since 1992. He also writes amusing words about games, and is less cynical than he pretends. Mostly.

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