Day #220: Drowning in Virtual Worlds

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I remember reading a few years ago about a woman with a very unique phobia – she was completely unable to make left turns while driving. It seemed odd to me until it was explained how the last left turn she made resulted in a rather serious accident, one that clearly traumatized her from that point on. Despite this, she continued to live a rather normal life, planning every route in a way that she’d only ever need to take right turns, even if it added hours to her commute. I think of her story often and reference it whenever I try to explain my own experiences with what many would see as an irrational phobia. I’m an excellent driver, thankfully. No, my particular issue is one that seems to come up a little too often when playing video games.

I am absolutely terrified of water.

Similar to the aforementioned woman, my fear was born out of trauma. I almost drowned once. Well, correction: I did drown. I was actually dead for a bit. I always joke with people that I’m similar to a video game character in that I seemingly have several lives that I’ve already used; the only explanation for how I still manage to be here in spite of some overwhelming situations. Over the years, I’ve gotten better, to the point that I can lead a rather normal life, though I still turn into an Olympic sprinter whenever I’m caught in the rain.

The virtual world, on the other hand, still presents some issues. Unlike in life, where it’s rather simple and easy to avoid large bodies of water, sometimes it’s the only path available. One of my favorite games of all time, the original Tomb Raider, features lengthy sections that require you to navigate very cramped spaces whilst underwater. Moments like these still cause my chest to tighten and my breathing to get more erratic. Often I find myself holding my breath along with the character, rushing to find the surface. There’s a particularly horrible level in Tomb Raider 2 that begins with Lara already underwater in the dark. And then there’s a game like Inside

Even in the earlier days, when Sonic the Hedgehog would need to rush from one air bubble to the next, it would drive me into a panic; the accelerated music not helping as I watched Sonic drown over and over. In the modern context, we’ve been able to make that sense of immersion even stronger, and along with that, the fear, even if not intentionally. In an age where “color-blind” mode is becoming an increasingly more common feature, it would be perhaps naive of me to expect someone to cater to my particular condition, especially considering its rarity, but maybe they don’t need to. Maybe just the continued exposure to those situations, even in the context of danger, can be therapeutic on its own.

Take a game like Abzu, for example. It presents this scenario that I have such an overwhelming fear of in the least threatening way possible. You can’t die. There are no enemies. Yet, you still spend the entirety of the game underwater. Watching it in motion stirs within me a combination of anxiety and appreciation, a want that I have to experience something while not quite knowing if I could handle it. But what if I could?

I’m certainly not implying that a video game alone would have the power to erase my phobia, but I think about the potential of interacting with the things that scare us in increasingly more immersive worlds; about the very real possibility that one day I will be able to go swimming in VR, and it will look and maybe even feel close enough to the real thing.

Maybe that’ll help me one day. Failing that, maybe it’ll help someone just like me.

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