How Gaming Helps Me Get Over My Fear Of Flying

My Apple iPad 2. Crisp display with a density of 132 ppi. Reacts to multi-touch gestures. Contains accelerometer, gyroscope. Reacts to involuntary shakes in hands. Enough battery life to last the majority of a cross country flight. Reacts poorly to excessive, clammy sweating. Does not register uncontrolled clenching of fists/jaw. Eight-megapixel front-facing camera accurately captures wild desperation in eyes, ghostly pallor, but leaves out racing thoughts, mounting dread, cavalcade of head voices.

Plays games. Games help. Flying sucks. But it sucks more without approved electronic devices.

I am definitely not alone in my fear of flying. This common fear affects up to one-third of Americans, and I think the fact that it's so widespread has led to a kind of dismissive attitude towards it. Either it's treated as a joke, or as something that only pills can fix. Practical ways of dealing with fear of flying get short shrift. In the scheme of things there are much worse problems, but that doesn't make it insignificant. Flying today is unavoidable, and can be a huge source of stress.

It's certainly not a panacea, but recently I've come to find that playing games on my iPad can alleviate my fear of flying more than watching movies, certainly more than reading a book, and somehow even more than my beloved comic books. I know that trying to be prescriptive about phobias is difficult, and what's often most helpful for me is just hearing about someone else's experience. So in that spirit, I'd like to talk about how games help.

Why I'm Afraid

Several years ago on a flight from Idaho into California the plane I was on encountered an unexpected coastal storm. We were preparing to land, and at relatively low altitude. In the small plane the turbulence was very violent. Passengers were pretty distressed, myself included, and only more so when alarms started sounding from the cockpit, including a pleasant female robo-voice repeating "wind shear, wind shear."

You don't want to see me when I fly. Shaking, sweating, crying: it's not pretty.

Wind shear, I later learned, is abrupt and dramatic shift in wind speed and direction. Imagine a strong wind blowing at your face only to suddenly be pushing you forward. Weirdly enough, it's not good for flying. I totally lost my cool and started furtively texting friends and family that I loved them—yes, my phone was on. Thankfully, after bouncing around and then plummeting towards the ground for a little while, the plane was able to recover enough to divert to another airport. Believe it or not, we encountered the same problem at the second landing site which led to another round of panicked out-loud cabin prayers and a final diversion to LAX.

And that's it. No injuries, no in-cabin fire or water landing. Millions of people have gone through the same thing, but for some reason I couldn't shrug it off. Hell, when we were finally landing at LAX I could see at least a dozen planes flying parallel to us, refugees from other airstrips. We landed, the pilot was kind enough to announce that he had been flying since Vietnam and it was the worst landing he'd ever done, and we got off the plane. I had to fly back across the country four days later. It wasn't easy anymore.

You don't want to see me when I fly. Shaking, sweating, crying: it's not pretty. The fear is slowly improving, but I still get intense anxiety while flying, and up to a week or more before and afterwards. I dream about it. Frequently. When I see planes flying above me, I get scared. Even watching people fly in movies or TV puts me on edge.

This is all, of course, before I get on the plane. Once there not only do I scare myself—half to death, my heart tells me—but also the poor people who have to sit beside me. I've tried a lot of things to help it, chemicals included. But it's that precious, wonderful time when you're sealed for hours in a tube miles above ground/ocean/comfort that help is desperately needed and surprisingly spare.

Games Put You In Control

I had tried playing my 3DS while flying in the past, but it didn't work for several reasons. 3D was totally out of the question, and concentrating on the small screen made me prohibitively self-conscious about what I was doing. But mostly it was the DS's heavy reliance on the stylus: one errant altitude drop and I'd end up stress-jabbing that bad boy right into my thigh. I don't own a Vita so I'll reserve judgement there. It wasn't until I inherited a friend's old iPad that I found a way to game in midair.

The first therapeutic experience I had with a game while flying was Capcom's Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. I turned to the game on a cross-country jaunt instead of A) watching Ted, B) dragging my fingernails across my pant legs repeatedly, C) hyperventilating in the bathroom, or D) chugging tiny bottles of hooch.

TIPS FOR FLIERS - What gamers can do when they're feeling afraid.

  • DO: Play a game that will engage you on multiple fronts, and remember to crank up your headphones.
  • DO: Play a game that puts a little fun in death—no The Walking Dead.
  • DO: Play a game you're already good at. Feel like a winner again!
  • DO: Play a game with a strong but lighthearted story. Nothing says distraction like a compelling narrative.
  • DON'T: Play anything really frustrating. If you're peeved on the ground, you'll be apoplectic up there.

In Ghost Trick you control Sissel, a mysterious man with wonderful hair, who's recently been relieved of his life and is trying to solve his own murder using things called "Ghost Tricks." Sissel's spirit can go back in time and possess objects, manipulating them to change his future. Playing, I felt the surety of my own demise slide a little further away. "What are these beautiful magicks?!" I thought to myself.

In a game good for flying, death is reversible, avoidable, and altogether Not That Bad. Of course, most games feature a "back from the dead" mechanic, but it helps if your character doesn't just reappear a lá Mario. After all, who's that new Mario? Is he the same? Did he retain the sentience of the previous one? If Mario was on a plane and it crashed, would he just pop out of a warp pipe back at the departure gate? Existentially, it's a nightmare. Ghost Trick, on the other hand, has death and life a mere button click away, your character's consciousness sliding seamlessly between the two. Even better, the world of the dead is packed with colorful characters like a talking lamp and a cuddly dog named Missile who—hey we're already past Des Moines? All right!

Best of all, playing it allowed me to feel like I was in charge. A major contributor to my fear of flying is feeling that I have no control, especially concerning death. Not that I have it otherwise, but no one said this was rational. After an hour of Ghost Trick, every time the plane made a noise and sent me into a frenzy, I would imagine how, like Sissel, I could "trick" my way over to the offending part and repair it in a jiffy. This fantasy was made all the easier because over the past two years I've taken an unhealthy amount of time familiarizing myself with aircraft construction, aerodynamics, and the most frequent contributors to... incidents. So I knew (or at least could fudge) exactly what bolt, flap, or gauge needed tricking. Ridiculous, yes, but an amount of levity that can be hard to come by in time of panic. Speaking of levity...

Games Make The Afterlife Seem Fun

Replace your flying fears with fashion in Square Enix's The World Ends With You! The JRPG was originally released in 2008 on the DS, but I prefer the newer touch version. The touch version's deep-but-swift combat is just hard enough to be distracting, but intuitive and malleable enough to not be frustrating. As in Ghost Trick, the protagonist Neku is trapped in an afterlife. This one is a funky high-fashion Shibuya. He's participating in the "Reaper's Game," a sort of seven-day alternate reality game, to win his life back.

On a flight I noticed not only did it have the aforementioned agency angle, but it also made my initial fear look like a dynamic world of fun and friends. The world of the game is so cool that one of the main characters even volunteers himself for it. I am not religious, at all. I do not believe in an afterlife. But I don't dismiss the adage that everyone finds god in a foxhole. Any lie, any fantasy you can sell to yourself is a boon.

So for the duration of a flight, my harried brain had no trouble adopting the belief that engine failure would leave me somewhere exciting (as a diehard LOST fan, I've indulged similar fantasies in the past). Fully functional, tres exciting, and full of Important Lessons, the afterlife of TWEWY is the place to be. It's chock full of secret ramens, haute couture, math puns (so many math puns...), and crazy as hell music. Music so crazy and incessant you might just get hypnotized. Distracted, even.

How Gaming Helps Me Get Over My Fear Of Flying

Games Engage Multiple Senses

One thing about fear is you have to pay attention to it. Rarely is it a feeling simmering in the background, instead preferring to vice grip your brain. Trains of thought are quickly interrupted by the base, brute, repetitive "you are not safe. You will not leave this plane. You will perish in this outfit. No one here knows who you are. Why in the world did you board this thing. You poor, dead idiot." Rolls off the tongue.

Playing games on my iPad, especially with the headphones turned up, works to pry a few of those five fingers from around my grey matter, sense by sense. The best example I can think of here is Osmos, the powerfully soothing PC game which made its way onto touch platforms some years ago. In Osmos, you control a sphere through tranquil environments, consuming smaller spheres and dodging currents, obstacles, and more. It's like a bare bones Katamari on ludes. I appreciated Osmos before, but I never really loved it until I played it whilst flying.

The almost synesthetic mix of sound, visuals, and touch was able to elbow out some of my fear for sheer lack of real estate. Cloud front: I didn't see you. Whistling noise: I didn't hear you. Turbulence: what turbulence? It was a proactive approach, attacking the problem on multiple fronts. Quite literally, I couldn't yank out my own hair if I was too busy beautifully absorbing smaller motes and drifting away to flowing ambient music. Osmos: you won't have a heart attack!

Games Make You Feel Competent

An aspect of my fear of flying that I never would have predicted is the embarrassment involved. When I'm flying alone, I often spend several hours before a flight walking around the airport, dragging my bag behind me because I'm too nervous to sit. True or not, I think by the end some of the restaurant hosts begin to recognize me. Onboard is no better. When I look around the plane, everyone looks so placid that quite frankly I feel like a loser. All I have to do is sit down: how can I be so bad at it? All of these games and more can hand you back some of your dignity through small victories. The fear doesn't totally neuter you, you can still put up a high score damnit!

I don't want to be afraid on planes, and I certainly don't like it. But I also can't pretend it's something that's just going to go away on its own.

A little digital pat on the back can be just the thing when the girl next to you is whispering to her boyfriend in the aisle seat that you're acting weird. When that guy might be judging your jelly legs as you walk down the aisle. When your seat mate is aggravated at you for taking up the window space because staring straight through it helps just that much. I don't mean to be strange or annoying. Regaining my self-esteem makes me feel less small, and more in charge of my own emotions. You get to win. It feels nice.

Just Avoid The Frustrating Ones

You'll notice I've left out mobile gaming's bread and butter, bite sized puzzlers. I've played as much Where's My Water? as the next guy who plays a lot of Where's My Water? (and may own a Swampy plush hey who said that). At home or on the subway, I'll gladly spend a long time trying to direct that stream of water into a subterranean crocodile's bathtub, collecting all the rubber ducks along the way. But when that "fasten seatbelt" sign flashes on, the victory of 3 stars seems mighty pyrrhic.

What at sea level would be frustration expands at high altitude into self-loathing and acknowledgement of the pointlessness of the earth. Because of course that bird would stop rolling one pixel away from the final pig. What else would happen? Now let's look out the window until a pitot tube malfunctions and inexorably alters the aircraft's angle of attack, leading to aerodynamic stall. Zero stars. Best to stick to story-driven games, or at least a puzzler that puts tranquility above difficulty. Otherwise you just might end up freaking out. Even more.


I don't want to be afraid on planes, and I certainly don't like it. But I also can't pretend it's something that's just going to go away on its own. I spent enough time doing that. Discovering a way to at least partially fight a phobia can feel like a light at the end of the tunnel, however dim.