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Gaming With Phobias: How Does It Feel To Be A Gamer With Thanatophobia

Gaming With Phobias: How Does It Feel To Be A Gamer With Thanatophobia

Following suit on my wife's article about her struggles with thalassophobia, I'd like to talk about my experiences with gaming with thanatophobia. Looking up the word in Merriam-Webster, I found a simple yet all-encompassing description: fear of death. Whilst I'd love to make this a light-hearted yet informative article, I don't have my wife's phenomenal sense of humour, so I'll stick to informative!

What is thanatophobia?

cutie death It Takes Two screenshot 1

Interestingly, thanatophobia — a term coined by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology  — has two Greek roots: thanatos, which means death, and phobos, which means fear or terror. Simply put, the idea of death haunts those who struggle with this particular phobia, and it won't just cause panic at the thought of their own death and the process of dying but the death of their loved ones and the idea of grieving, too. 

How does it affect gaming?

Haven Park goodbye grandma dead screenshot 2

Whilst I do struggle with the thought of my own death — to the point where it caused me severe health anxiety — I can play games where there's a lot of violence, such as DOOM. Although this wasn't the case during the peak of my hypochondria (an illness anxiety disorder), now that I've gotten much better, I can detach myself from violence and gore. However, despite my newly-found stability, games where the narrative heavily focuses on accepting death — whether that be from a young yet ill or elderly protagonist — are impossible for me to play. 

The mere thought of booting up Old Man's Journey — a title with a narrative focus on the elderly protagonist coming to terms with loss and life — makes my chest feel incredibly tense, and I don't think I could focus at all if I even tried to. There have been several games I've wished I could play, but booting them up means risking panic.

Despite the terror that gets me at the idea of dying, those types of narratives are much easier to avoid and manoeuvre. It's the absolute horror I get at the thought of losing a loved one or going through grief that has really stifled my ability to enjoy many titles. There are many games I have avoided due to the plot of losing a spouse or loved one, but the actual problem isn't in the games I have had to avoid but rather in the games that blindside me with loss.

Lee Everett dying the walking dead clementine screenshot 1

The latest and best example of this was Haven Park — a charming indie title centred around rebuilding campsites, exploring an adorable island, and completing silly tasks and missions from campers. While the plot is about Flint — the kid protagonist — coming to terms with having to be the one to take care of his grandma's park, she is still alive and even talks to him at the beginning of the game. Due to my constant anxiety about death, I had an inkling that the grandma was going to die, and the thought constantly loomed over me like a dark cloud.

Because I had to put the game on pause for a few months and come back much later, I kind of forgot about the grandma's imminent death. Thanks to that, I got to enjoy the game for what it was; unfortunately, when I reached the peak of the mountain at the end of the game to meet her, I began feeling a sense of horrible dread. The scene is incredibly quick — Flint sits beside her, they have two or three sentences of dialogue, and then you find out the grandma died. It's safe to say I ended up crying pretty hard and having to step back for a while, and what had just been an enormous amount of excitement and love for the game had now turned into a horrible feeling of dread and terror.

Simple scenes — and even just the implication of death — can cause an immense amount of distress to me. Thankfully, I have gotten much better through exposure and therapy, but I honestly don't think there will ever come a time in which I will be able to sit down and play a game about grief or loss without having that gripping feeling of dread and panic. 

I hope I was able to shed some light on how gaming might be affected by the phobia of death! 

Violet Plata

Violet Plata

Staff Writer

Liable to jump at her own shadow.

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