Console-ing my Fear of Heights: Videogames and Phobias

Jonathan Gray's picture


Too much TV on this blog of late. Let’s shift gears.

I’ve been playing Prince of Persia on my PS3 lately. The other day I joked with my wife that it’s therapeutic, not because the fighting is cathartic (it’s not – the boss fights annoy and frustrate me), but because it forces me to face my fear of heights. It’s a little oddity of my experience with computer games that my fear of heights frequently transfers over to them. More after the fold …

The first time I experienced this was when playing one of the closing levels of Max Payne on the PS2, when Max was up at the top of very tall building, tip-toeing around the edges of it. My body went cold and my thumbs shook a bit as I tried to navigate Max to safety through wincing eyes and with shortened breath. It felt so odd that I was being frozen up by a fear of an avatar falling, and it reminded me of playing paintball at a few stag parties, where the fictional ploy of a war felt too real, and I’d hunker down for fear of getting hit by what, a tiny bit of paint.

Well, Prince of Persia multiplies these fears, since most of the game is played dangling from ceilings, poles, or walls, climbing massive walls, sliding down huge precipices, etc. For those who haven’t played, your character is a pretty nifty parkour practitioner, who can run along walls or ceilings, shimmy up cracks in cliffs, leap from pole to pole, and free the world from “the corruption.” So there’s no escaping heights. See above: picture from here.

My body temperature changes when playing the game. Not up but down. And it’s a mistake to play before sleeping, since it produces adrenalin. Even though one can fall a million times or more, and simply return to the previous platform from which one departed, the fear of falling is ever-present.

So part of me is amazed by games’ ability to tap into this fear, and part of me is appalled by myself that I allow it to do so. And yet, so very many games have ledges to teeter on the edge of, huge leaps to make, and sweeping backdrops of precipitous falls. Clearly game manufacturers have realized that there are many of us with a fear of heights, and that the rush of facing that fear is fodder for many a game or portion of a game. Especially as more and more games add “verticality” to what were previously horizontal sandboxes (I think here of Uncharted 2 letting you climb up things, Infamous offering a GTAish feel yet with the ability to go up and down, and others), laughing in the face of heights seems to be a key offering.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Tue, 03 Nov 2009 02:34:50 +0000