Artwork from the Xbox video game Grounded.
Artwork courtesy of Microsoft
Games

Spiders Are a Popular Video Game Monster. They're Also an Accessibility Problem

The developers of 'Grounded' made spiders the big enemy of their new game, then suddenly realized a bunch of people were too scared to play it. They decided to find a real solution.
August 11, 2020, 1:00pm

Editor’s Note: There are NO images of spiders in this piece. Because this is a story about a phobia, we have decided to avoid including any imagery that might trigger it.

When you first start Grounded, a stylish new survival game from RPG developer Obsidian where shrunken players explore a backyard full of unexpected dangers, the game asks a surprising question: Are you afraid of spiders?

“This game contains spiders that are often much larger than the player,” the game informs players. “If you’re super not okay with that, you can enable Arachnophobia Safe Mode in the Accessibility options. This is a visual-only setting that does not affect gameplay or difficulty.”

From there, it’s super easy to jump in and move a slider that changes and deforms the look of the game’s spiders from something monstrous into blobs with two bulging eyes. A small but important touch: you don’t even have to see the original design for a spider; the game forces the player to enable “spider preview.” You can adjust the slider without ever looking.

In a 1994 study of UK adults conducted by Davy, 18% of men and 32% of women said they were scared of spiders. A separate 1996 study conducted by Mats Fredrikson and other researchers found 3.5% of the general US population reported a spider phobia. The idea that so many potential players might not play your game is a huge red flag in an increasingly crowded marketplace. These days, you want to make it easier to play a game, and yet spiders are one of the most common enemy types in lots of different video games.

A lot of games have spiders, but not many let you do anything but kill them.

The first trailer for Grounded ended with a jump scare, as a huge spider descended on the player, crouching back in preparation for making them lunch. Cartoonish, yes, but terrifying, and it quickly became clear this might present a real problem for the developers at Obsidian.

“The moment that spider jump scare came out,” said Grounded technical director Jerrick Flores in a recent interview, “to [some players] it's like, ‘Oh, I'm not just scared, I'm fearful of my physical self, in the real world. And because of that, I can't play this game. I just can't.’”

Accessibility has slowly become more important in recent years. Many games now, for example, include colorblind modes by default, and Microsoft even designed an entire controller to facilitate players with disabilities. One of 2020’s biggest games, The Last of Us Part II, includes dozens of accessibility options that radically change how the game looks and plays, such as a text-to-speech option and high-contrast mode for the visually impaired.

We may not traditionally think of something like arachnophobia being related to accessibility, but if the mere presence of a spider prevents someone from playing, what’s the difference?

Inclusion, Not Exclusion

Earlier this year, Grounded game director Adam Brennecke signed off on exploring a way to accommodate players with arachnophobia, but he had an important caveat: it had to be a customization made by the player that still allowed them to play with everyone else. Grounded is a multiplayer game, and ostracizing players would go against their philosophy.

“You don't have to join a special arachnophobia server and game mode,” said Brennecke, “we wanted to have everyone be able to play the same game experience.”

The problem for the team at Obsidian: there were precious few games to learn from. Which isn’t to suggest they were the first people to think about removing spiders from a video game. A Google search for “remove spiders mod” reveals a lot of people looking for ways to delete spiders from video games, most notably the very popular The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game where you were forced to fight spiders almost every time you entered a dark cave.

Some might remember the mod that humorously turned the game’s spiders into bears.

But far and away the most popular mod seems to be Insects Begone, which not only removes spiders from Skyrim, but goes as far as to remove their webs from the world, too.

“This mod takes no half measures, it takes a 'Burn the ground and salt the earth' approach to Chaurus [a grotesque insect enemy] and Spiders in Skyrim,” reads the mod’s description.

The mod’s creator did not respond to VICE Games’ requests for comment, but it wasn’t hard to find evidence of people who literally would not have played Skyrim without its help. Reddit user BHova555 experiences arachnophobia, and “can't even look at a picture of a spider without having a visceral reaction.” BHova555 tried having their girlfriend play the game when a spider showed up, tried looking up videos of each cave on YouTube and avoiding ones with spiders in it, and eventually hit a story quest that, of course, included a spider.

The result was that BHova555 stopped playing Skyrim until they stumbled upon the mod and suddenly found it was possible to play a game they personally consider a “masterpiece.”

Most solutions to the spider problem are hacks and mods, and that’s true of the few games that do acknowledge arachnophobia as a potential issue for players. The popular open world factory building game Satisfactory involves players walking around an unknown world and collecting resources for their creations, and that sometimes involves getting into fights, too.

One day, Satisfactory programmer and community manager Jace Varlet came into work and realized a spider-like creature had been added. Someone at the studio had arachnophobia, and Varlet tried to put themselves in their shoes. They would have to worry about walking around the office and getting triggered by a random computer monitor, and they wouldn’t be able to playtest the game.

Varlet raised the potential issue in a company meeting and it was met with some pushback.

“The pushback was sort of in the sense that ‘well, a lot of work was put into this spider thing,’” said Varlet.

Fortunately for Varlet, being a programmer means he’s uniquely positioned to take work into his own hands, and so over the course of a day, he added an arachnophobia mode. The result is unorthodox: the game replaces the spider enemies with a big photo of a glitchy cat.

It’s technically using the same animations and AI—it just no longer looks like a spider. The feature ended up sticking around and has seen a “huge response” from the community.

“We get a lot of people saying ‘oh, I put the cats on, but they're just as scary,” said Valert. “There's like a difference between being scared of something and having your brain going like haywire over the fact that you've seen this thing. You cannot cope.”

But Satisfactory_’s solution to arachnophobia is, more than anything, a hack. It doesn’t try to really understand what developers could do to accommodate players. The _Grounded team at Obsidian wanted to go a few steps further, and this is where the 2018 acquisition of the studio by Microsoft really came in handy. The Xbox department has a dedicated internal research team that works hand-in-hand with developers on unexpected issues like this.

It’s Not Flicking a Switch

“I remember when we came to the first meeting with [the research team],” said Grounded programmer Brian Macintosh, “I was hoping I was just gonna ask like, ‘Okay, so what piece of the spider is [scary]? Can we just [remove] the legs? Is that gonna be good?’ And then you were like ‘Nope, it's not gonna be that easy.’

The “you” in this situation were researchers Blake Pellman and Deanna Adams, both of whom were tasked with investigating _Grounded’_s spider problem. They came properly equipped because they’re both afraid of spiders, too. (“Spider sensitive” was the term they used to describe people who find themselves repulsed by spiders but not clinically phobic.)

“Our first [research project] that we ran for Grounded was a horror movie,” said Adams, “where we would be watching the participants play and every time they would get close to a spider, especially like a sleeping spider, we'd be like, ‘oh, god, don't wake it.’ Thank god we're soundproof and the participants couldn't hear us squirming.”

How have you dealt with playing a game with triggering elements? Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Patrick Klepek securely on Signal on 224-707-1561, or email patrick.klepek@vice.com.

Despite much of the population admitting spiders scare them, little is known about why. The research, according to Pellman, suggests potentially an evolutionary defensive reaction to prevent disease. Animal-based phobias, however, tend to specifically involve “fear” or “disgust.” What’s unique about spiders is how they often trigger both reactions, despite humans generally not having to fear a spider is going to hurt them. Is it the way they move? The number of eyes? The lack of conclusions initially made it difficult to generate ideas.

“It's different for each person what actually triggers that [fear],” said Pellman, “but as soon as someone interprets something is a spider, it's going to set off that reaction.”

To learn more, Adams and Pellman started a series of experiments. One involved showing people the spider from Grounded doing various actions: dropping down from a web, walking around, attacking the player’s face. This allowed them to gauge what triggered “ah, spider!”

“One of the big things [in] feedback we discussed was just the eyes,” said Adams.

This is why the arachnophobia mode they eventually designed focuses on the eyes. The original model has eight eyes, but if you pare the creature all the way down, there’s just two.

The next experiment involved honing in on these elements, seeing what they could add and remove to prompt different levels of fear among people who self-identified as sensitive. This involved a questionnaire that showed different character models Obsidian had developed, in order from least spider-like to most spider-like.

The researchers noted that anyone participating in the study could opt out at any time because of the reality that they were “asking people with extreme sensitivities to spiders to look at spiders.”

One unsurprising note: when the creepy audio designed for the spiders in Grounded was introduced to people, it increased fear response in participants by a whopping 20%, despite real-life spiders not actually making any detectable noise when humans encounter them!

The fruits of the collaboration was something not really seen in games before: a properly researched approach to working with players dealing with a traumatizing phobia. The idea to make players aware of the feature before they start playing was a decision made later.

“If the player gets into the game and colorblind mode isn't on and they're colorblind, then they just see ‘ah, I can't distinguish these things. I'm gonna go find the setting and change it,’” said Macintosh. “But with this, if someone gets in there, [if] they're arachnophobic and they run into a spider, they're just gonna nope all the way out of the game probably and not come back.”

The research for Grounded is put into a large database for all internal Xbox projects, with the intention of allowing other studios to implement similar ideas without doing the same work.

What Helps One, Helps All

Interestingly enough, another high-profile Xbox game, Sea of Thieves, also accidentally addressed another overlooked phobia with a recent accessibility update. Thalassophobia, a phobia involving large bodies of water or the inability to see below the surface, comes up over and over again when people talk about playing the seafaring game, even if they’re able to get over it because the vast majority of Sea of Thieves does not take place underwater.

“I fell off the ship a few times during beta and the panic definitely set in,” wrote one user in 2018. “Watching the ship sail into the distance, knowing there are sharks in the water somewhere, and that giant empty area below me. Oof.”

The recent Sea of Thieves update includes the ability to play the entire game with a single analog stick, part of developer Rare’s ongoing efforts to include more accessibility features. In developing single stick play, it became clear that single stick players might fall from a height great enough to send them deep into the water and have no way to escape.

“Single stick players were inadvertently sent to die should they find themselves beneath the waves,” said Sea of Thieves lead engineer James Thomas.

The solution was to have players float in the water automatically. After it was implemented, one of Rare’s accessibility collaborators, AbleGamers director of community Craig Kaufman, pointed out something important.

“He told us how some of his friends had been afraid to play because of their fear of being stuck underwater,” said Thomas. “It's a happy accident that trying to resolve one accessibility issue actually opened up a resolution for another. It's a sentiment we push internally: don't assume an option will only help a specific group. If we give players a series of choices they can adapt the game to how best suits them.”

The end result, whether by accident or intent, is more people being able to play a game, and among the developers I talked to, they often cited feeling emboldened the more they added.

When designer David Galindo released Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, players were unhappy with the game. There were missing features, a result of the game’s tough development, and the sequel was a lot harder. As negative Steam reviews poured in, Galindo was desperate for ways to please his audience, and one early success was adding more difficulty options.

“So that had me wondering,” said Galindo, “what other features were people wanting but not necessarily asking for?”

He noticed a deleted Steam post where someone wished the game didn’t have dead insects because of a personal phobia. Galindo added an option to remove the dead insects—and a few hundred people flicked the option on.

When it came time to develop Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! the goal was to double down on this idea and “make the most accessible game I could possibly make.” The third installment allows players to mute gun shots (“a response to those involved in school shootings with PTSD”), change police siren sounds (“a result of the BLM movement”), colorblind features, motion sickness tweaks, and more. Galindo even added an audio option to turn off car and engine noises because a player spoke to a traumatic experience. Another player had migraines triggered by a certain visual effect, so Galindo added the option to turn it off.

In all these cases, from spiders to police sirens, is a broader definition of accessibility.

Satisfactory programmer and community manager Jace Varlet, however, hopes all this just means more people, including his studio, think a little longer about the whole spider thing.

“One thing to consider is, ‘are we going to add any more spider-like things?’” said Varlet. “I mean, but maybe? We have arachnophobia mode now. But if we go forward to other games, like I don't know, do we need spiders? Which I think all developers should ask! [laughs] I think all developers should be like “Do we need spiders?”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).