A fear of spiders, or arachnophobia, is a common phobia worldwide. Does Playing Games With Spiders Reduce Arachnophobia. However, recent research has shed light on how one country, the Philippines, has a unique perspective on these eight-legged creatures. In a decade-long study that analyzed online newspaper coverage from over 80 countries, researchers discovered that arachnophobic sentiments are pervasive. This fear persists despite the fact that fewer than 0.5 percent of spider species pose any real harm to humans through their venom, and most of these species reside far from human habitats.
Does Playing Games With Spiders Reduce Arachnophobia?
Yet, there are exceptions to this fear, and the Philippines stands out as one of them. Entomologist Aimee Lynn Barrion-Dupo, one of the authors of the study, hails from the Philippines and shared her insights in an interview. Unlike most countries, where spiders are often portrayed as sources of venom and danger, in the Philippines, they are depicted as pets or even participants in the popular pastime known as “laro ng gagamba,” which translates to the “game of spiders.”
As someone who grew up in the Philippines, I am intimately familiar with this unique game. In Laguna province, where I spent my childhood, laro ng gagamba was a common pastime among kids in my neighborhood.
The game involved catching spiders, caring for them, and arranging fights between them. To begin, we ventured into the forests surrounding Mount Makiling, where we searched for the fiercest, strongest, and most unique spiders. These spiders were then housed in medicine bottles or matchboxes, where we would feed them ants, grasshoppers, and other insects until they were ready to compete.
When two of us were prepared for a spider duel, we’d position our arachnids on opposite ends of a “walis tingting,” a type of broomstick, with a referee holding it in the middle. With a gentle nudge, our spiders would walk toward each other and engage in combat. The winner of the match was determined swiftly, sometimes within seconds or at most a few minutes, when one spider was incapacitated, fell off the stick, or attempted to flee more than once.
Our spiders had distinct names based on their characteristics: “gagambang botchog” for round spiders, “gagambang pari” for priest-like spiders, and “gagambang ekis” for those with X-shaped markings. Occasionally, we’d give them nicknames based on their colors, such as “gagambang pula” for red spiders or “Voltes V” after a Japanese anime character.
This unique childhood game sparked an intriguing question: did laro ng gagamba desensitize us to spiders, making us less fearful of them compared to people in other parts of the world?
This question intrigued me not just due to nostalgia for my childhood but also as an anthropologist interested in human interactions with other species. I’ve always been fascinated by how we perceive and coexist with various creatures, including those we pit against each other and play with, from cockfighting in Bali to bullfighting in Spain and cricket fighting in China.
Delving deeper into the global fear of spiders, it becomes evident that human responses to these creatures are more complex than mere phobia. Arachnologist David Wise, for instance, studied folk tales from North America to Africa that portrayed spiders in a positive light. This suggests that not all societies share the same arachnophobia.
In the Philippines, there are several scholarly accounts of laro ng gagamba that showcase people’s close relationships with spiders. Some of these accounts parallel my childhood experiences, while others demonstrate the diversity and sophistication of the practice throughout the country.
One such account is from cultural anthropologist Ty Matejowsky, who conducted ethnographic research on spider wrestling in Pangasinan province in the early 2000s. He described how boys and young men collected, trained, and played with spiders, often involving monetary bets. While my own experience didn’t include gambling, Matejowsky saw the game as an introduction to “gambling culture” for many Filipinos. Does Playing Games With Spiders Reduce Arachnophobia. It’s worth noting that, contrary to his observation, I remember playing it with both boys and girls from my neighborhood.
Matejowsky also shed light on the players’ efforts to rehabilitate injured spiders after battles. Surprisingly, steps were taken to nurse injured spiders back to health before they could return to wrestling. For instance, players would place ampalaya (bitter gourd) leaves, believed to have restorative properties, in the spider’s box for a few days before reintroducing their regular diet of insects, bits of meat, and rice.
Barrion-Dupo, alongside two biologist colleagues, conducted a survey of 300 spider game players in Northern Mindanao from 2014 to 2015, revealing more insights into the practice. They found that gambling on laro ng gagamba matches could involve significant sums, reaching up to 10,000 pesos (around U.S. $180) at the time.
Intriguingly, the researchers also documented the various substances people fed to the spiders to prepare them for battle. The list included vitamins, supplements, dextrose, coconut water, meat, duck egg soup, jujube fruit, milk, honey, energy drinks, and even human breastmilk. These substances were typically placed on cotton balls in the boxes where the spiders were kept.
These details emphasize that laro ng gagamba is more than just a game; it involves a deep level of care and intimacy between humans and spiders. Matejowsky even described it as an “attachment” akin to the affection some people feel for more conventional pets.
Today, laro ng gagamba continues to be played in rural areas in some parts of the Philippines. Barrion-Dupo views the game as providing children with their first steps into science and natural history, fostering an appreciation not only for spiders but also for the environment at large.
However, the research conducted by Barrion-Dupo and her colleagues also highlights the potential negative impact of the game on various spider species. Gamers often capture mature reproductive females from the wild, and it turns out that female spiders are more aggressive than their male counterparts. To counter this, the researchers advocate for policies to restrict the game in order to prevent species decline.
While spiders are not frequently included in animal rights discussions in the Philippines, attitudes toward these creatures may change in the future. Some individuals are already advocating for the expansion of animal welfare concerns to encompass insects, spiders, and other invertebrates.
Even without active intervention, the popularity of laro ng gagamba appears to be waning. When I revisited my childhood neighborhood, I learned that none of the children ventured into the forests as we used to. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted outdoor activities, and many public green spaces were off-limits. Additionally, the prevalence of electronic gadgets and digital technologies has made children today more familiar with Spider-Man than with the spiders that share their environment.
Nevertheless, regardless of the fate of laro ng gagamba, I hold onto the hope that our familiarity with and fascination for spiders will endure.