Yes, you can get ‘simulator sickness’ from playing video games

Feeling unsettled and nauseous during a session of Need For Speed or Assassin’s Creed? We break down this ‘cybersickness’, and how you can alleviate your symptoms

March 01, 2021 04:51 pm | Updated March 02, 2021 01:26 pm IST - Hyderabad

A gamer holding a controller

A gamer holding a controller

The lockdown and the launches of gaming smartphones and the new Xbox and PlayStation consoles saw a groundswell of new and/or returning gamers. The immersive past-time became an outlet for many in a time of loneliness and distancing but it also brought an unhealthy product of its own: simulation or simulator sickness, a type of ‘cybersickness’.

Often coming in around 30 minutes into focussed game-play, the symptoms are similar to that of motion sickness: fatigue, uneasiness, dizziness, headaches and, if it gets worse, vomiting and subsequent weakness. The irony here is that unlike motion sickness, you are very much in one stationary position while playing.

So why does this happen?

Not all video games throw up — pun intended — simulator sickness; video games with verticality are often the culprits. Rooted in physics, verticality is all about the scale of spaces in a given game as well as the player’s ability and freedom to traverse them. It implies that a player has freedom of movement that extends to vertical planes through abilities, vehicles, or level design. So for example, in an Assassin’s Creed game you would be leaping from hundreds of metres after a synchronisation point atop a mountain or a cliff’s edge. In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, it is the webbing from building to building.

Screenshot from Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Screenshot from Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Motion parallax, another culprit, sees the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer. Racing games such as Need For Speed and Asphalt 9 leverage this and it, unfortunately, tends to induce eye strain, fatigue, and general discomfort over time.

The doc explains

Dr Vamsi Chalasani, a consulting neurologist in Vijayawada, is a fan of video games himself and explains the effects of such play-time on the mind. “Screens with a lot of glare push this cybersickness along, as these can induce persistent cluster headaches and migraines, which can inhibit appetite, leading to a host of other issues,” he explains.

He also points out those with anxiety and other stress-relevant mental health issues need to pace themselves while gaming. “The immersive and overwhelming nature of video games can further a lot of anxiety,” he elaborates, “especially with the swinging camera angles and some open-world settings where there’s a lot to take in, not just visually but audio-wise.”

Can it be avoided?

Do not do to your mind what you would not do to your body. Take breaks periodically, and make sure you are well-rested before and after gaming sessions. Also, what you eat before and after you play video games is extremely important; an acid-heavy diet with carbonated drinks is not advisable as that may exacerbate nausea. Stay hydrated with water and keep healthy snacks, such as nuts or fruit, on hand which slowly release energy. It also helps if the room you are playing in is cool and has proper ventilation.

Screenshot from Need For Speed

Screenshot from Need For Speed

Game designers are now migrating towards higher frame refresh rates — the smoother things run, the lesser chance of a ‘frame drop’ that is jarring to the eye. As users, we too can pitch in. Andre Rodrigues, a gamer and UX designer, recommends, “Essentially you want to adapt the visual of the game to the comfort of the human eye, so go into the game’s settings and tweak parameters such as field of view and camera bounce (this depends on game to game), chromatic apparition with lighting and shadow quality. It also helps to reduce details; some gamers favour a fully-detailed visual but this tanks the refresh rate which then induces the uneasiness — and be sure to check your monitor’s sharpness level too. That said, hardware with high refresh rates of 60 frames per second and above are advisable for a more natural motion; they tend to be more expensive but they are worth it.”

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