Simulation Sickness – Causes and Cures for Game Headaches – Extra Credits
Have you ever tried to introduce someone to video games for the first time, and after a few minutes of playing, they tell you that looking at the screen makes them queasy? Well, it’s not just all in their head. (Well, it is, but it’s not all just made up.) It’s a well-documented phenomena called “simulation sickness”. Today we’ll be talking about it, how to avoid it, and why it matters today more than ever before. The basic idea behind simulation sickness is that your brain is getting mixed-up signals. You’re getting all this perceptual data that tells you you’re moving, but your vestibular system (or inner ear) doesn’t detect any movement. At least, that’s the theory. There haven’t been enough studies yet to really say anything conclusive about this, other than that it exists (which the military proved handily with fighter pilots running simulations in the 90s). Personally though, that explanation makes sense to me because simulation sickness is most pronounced with first-person games or third-person games with really close cameras. A person who has no problem playing Bejeweled or Final Fantasy may encounter a feeling of nausea when playing something like Bioshock or Gears of War or even Minecraft. And that seems totally reasonable to me. Trying to project yourself into someone else’s perspective and looking through their perspective while not actually physically being in their body is a very weird thing. In fact, it’s such a weird thing that some of you who played lots of games may still have trouble with it. What little research has been done on the subject says that the vast majority of us can acclimatize to the disembodied motion of games, but some noticeable percentage of people either never fully acclimate or do so very slowly. Still, if you don’t play a lot of first-person games and they tend to make you feel a little sick, know that it probably will get better over time. Now, I’m not saying go make yourself ill playing games. But if this is something that you really want as part of your life, yet feel like you can’t participate in it because of simulation sickness, don’t worry. You will probably be able to eventually. It’s likely to get easier over time. But if you’re one of those whose body just can’t adjust and games matter that much to you that you’re gonna play anyway, Here’s a few things that should make it easier for you. First: turn off the screen bob when the character moves. You know that bobbing camera motion that you get whenever your character takes a step? It seems like it exacerbates simulation sickness problems for a lot of people. Many first-person games offer this as a toggleable option. In fact, designers, if you’re listening: ALWAYS make this a toggleable option in first-person games. Consider it an accessibility option. Second: dim your screen. I know this sounds odd, but it’s one of the few things that most of the research we found seems to agree on. People using dimmer screens experience less simulation sickness, even if simulation sickness was something they were often prone to. Third: if the games settings allow it, try adjusting the game’s field of view (or FoV) settings. Some PC gamers have found that a wider field of view setting can help to reduce feelings of nausea in first-person games. When you’re playing games on A PC and sitting that close to the play screen, adjusting the amount of in-game peripheral vision can sometimes make a big difference. Fourth: turn down your lights. The findings on this one are a bit fuzzy, but I’ve seen some suggest that playing in a dark environment can help. Fifth: limit your playtime. I know it’s hard when you’re totally immersed in a game, but if you can keep playtime down to about 20 minutes or so at a stretch before taking a short break, the effects shouldn’t be quite as bad. Sixth: avoid caffeine. Now this one I only found one resource for, and the sample presented wasn’t enough to be a definitive exploration of the effects of caffeine on simulation sickness. But I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case some of you find that it helps. Caffeine is a stimulant and a vasoconstrictor, so who knows. Maybe it can mess with your inner ear. And finally Seventh, I also saw a number of anecdotes about how Dramamine or other over-the-counter anti-motion sickness medicines helps to alleviate the effects, But I don’t know how comfortable I’d be taking anything that comes in the form of a pill so I could play video games. Still, some people say that can help. Hopefully, some of those suggestions will be of use to those of you who are dealing with these symptoms or trying to help others do so. So why do we bring up all of this now? Well, in part it’s because more people than ever are picking up games as adults, and so didn’t get to acclimatize to simulation sickness when they were young. But it’s also because James has been doing a fair bit of work with developers working with the Oculus Rift, and simulation sickness is something that becomes much more pronounced on head-mounted devices like that. When you’re that close to the screen and the objective of the device is to make you feel as though you’re actually in the experience, it really intensifies the effects. With the Rift, James has seen even people who don’t usually suffer from simulation sickness starting to feel ill. Now the Oculus is awesome for vehicular experiences like flying a starfighter, but companies that James has worked with that are trying to do things like put you in the boots of a soldier are actively working to solve this problem. And if the Oculus has any real market success, it’ll become a major design question. it’s also an open question with tablet devices. I’ve heard lots of reports of people experiencing some form of simulation sickness while trying to use a tablet in a moving vehicle. And so, as the prevalence of tablets increases, and as the experience on our mobile devices becomes more immersive, it’s going to be something that we have to understand how to design around. It’s not an impossible task, And many more solutions will be found in the future. The folks at Oculus are already working on ways to mitigate simulation sickness with the device, and many game companies are experimenting with settings or options that will help reduce its effects. Hopefully by this time next year, w e’ll be able to do a follow-up episode about all the design solutions to this problem. But for right now, all we can do is look for those solutions and try to find ways as players to make this problem more bearable. For those of you looking for a place to start with this, or looking to better understand how to design around it, I recommend looking at the camerawork in Journey. In general, you’ll find simulation sickness is less of a problem in Journey because its third-person camera is more distant from the character, but James spent an evening talking to one of their experienced designers about how much effort they put into making sure the game caused as little simulation sickness as possible. Probably worth studying the results. With examples like these, and all the work that’s being done at game companies across the globe, hopefully everyone will be able to enjoy gaming without such ill effects soon. See you next week.