Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Queasy About the Future

Sometimes, video games make me sick. Not in a moral or philosophical way (although watching the E3 press conferences can erode one's faith in humanity), but literally: every so often, games give me a mean case of motion sickness. I was reminded of this unhappy fact by some games I've been playing recently as well as a few news items from E3. If current trends continue, it looks like I and other nauseous gamers should prepare ourselves for some rough water.

As my parents could tell you, my childhood was full of queasy car rides. I suppose that makes me a typical case, as Web MD claims that kids between 5 and 12 are especially prone to motion sickness. As I've grown older, I have conquered the epic challenges of reading on a plane and sitting backwards on BART. However, every so often, I'll lose my sea legs, usually because of a video game.

Unlike my travel-induced motion sickness, my gaming-induced motion sickness has actually grown worse over the years. While the Wikipedia page has a suspicious lack of citations, the general consensus is that motion sickness is caused when your sense of motion and your sense of sight contradict each other. With the rise of first-person and 3D environments, an increasing number of games are showing me images that befuddle my sense of balance. In the old days of blocky, flat characters I didn't have to worry about camera speed or head bob. Now, even the most innocuous game can send me on an unwanted ride.

The most irritating thing about motion sickness is that I have no idea what games will trigger it. Stacking, a game I love, is one of the most recent games to get the best of me. Something about the speed at which the dolls scamper and the perspective shifts when entering new dolls makes me sweat. Conversely, I'm solid as a rock when playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, a game specifically devoted to dizzying challenges.

First person games are traditionally rough for those with motion sickness. Much to my dismay, I start to feel that familiar twinge in my stomach when playing Valve games. Maybe it's something about the Source engine or maybe it's just a leftover psychosomatic association from one bad experience, but everything from Left 4 Dead to Portal gives me a headache if I play for too long. Again, it's hard to find any rhyme or reason regarding which games will affect me: I've never had a problem with the frenetic Call of Duty or Halo games. Unlike many folks, I sprinted through Mirror's Edge quite comfortably.

Modern display technology also presents new and innovative ways of inducing vertigo. At its E3 press conference, Sony heavily promoted its 3D displays and made a point of highlighting all the games that utilized them. The Nintendo 3DS' premier feature turns the handheld into a mobile headache machine for many players. We just didn't have to worry about this stuff in the days of game cartridges and 19 inch CRT TVs.

It doesn't look like the foreseeable future will be getting any less turbulent. Technological advances and innovative game design will inevitably lead to dizzying new titles. I'm looking forward to such experiences, I just have to remember to stock up on gum and crack a window before I dive into Portal 2.

Give me an excuse to stare at stationary screen for few more minutes: What games give you spins and what do you do to combat them?


  1. Echo these sentiments. Certainly it's something that's grown with age for me. Meanwhile many games are adopting highly stylised camera movements - the new Tomb Raider looks like a total disaster for motion sickness. And this new generation of Kinect games look like trouble as well, similar to Red Steel 2 with violent first-person movement.

    Still nothing beats the vertigo I get in Mario 64.

  2. I don't get set off by particular engines as much as erratic camera behavior. A camera that suddenly can't deal with my character moving into a cramped space (first person games tend to be exempt from this) frequently causes me to grope for the pause button and take a break.

    The spectator case is a bit different -- I had a lot of trouble watching a friend play Mirror's Edge and later L.A. Noire, despite being fine playing them myself. I usually did ok until the shear between what he did while playing and what I would have done instead reached some critical threshold, at which point I had to look away for a bit. Part of it may be that I find myself compensating for questionable camera tracking quite a bit with the right stick in most games; he's very new to current-generation gaming so for the most part he just lets the camera drift where it wants.

    The line for my wife, on the other hand, seems to be engine-based. She's fine with most things but can't deal with anything built on the Quake 2 engine. The original Half-Life and Q2DM made her incredibly queasy, but nothing else before or after has reliably done so.

  3. I feel bad for you all. It sounds like you have a disability. I'm blessed with an immunity to most game-induced nausea. There have been a few exceptions though, most notably the original Half-Life, which I could never play more than an hour at a time.

  4. I've heard more than one person note that Source games seem to especially bring upon those bouts of motion sickness. My suspicion is that the default field of view that the Source engine uses (75 degrees, I think) is a lower than other games. You can try changing the FoV and see if it helps. It used to be just a console command, but I think it's a slider now in the Video Options, possibly due to this problem (although I don't know if that's only for the PC versions).

    There's a bunch of forum threads in various places, check out this and this.

  5. I've never had motion sickness with games, although, Fear 2 gave me headaches like crazy (really on theme, now that I think about it), perhaps due to the lighting effects.

  6. Thanks for all the comments, folks. Glad to know I'm not the only one!

    Your experiences make me the science behind this stuff. There must be some sort of quantitative rules (like what Nels said about the field of view) that can predict a game's effects. It's just strange that so many people are affected by such a wide variety of games.

  7. I'm usually pretty immune to that shit, however I remember weird cases where I got sick when playing Super Mario Sunshine. Could've just been the quality of the game though ;)

    It is strange that apparently no one was able to point the finger on what triggers 3d Sickness yet, however I also heard of people getting sick a lot when playing Source Engine games, so you're definitely not alone.

    You probably know, that Kojima has pretty bad motion sickness, apparently this is the reason why they didn't implement a standard over the shoulder camera in MGS3 at first.

  8. The only time I ever got some motion sickness was when I played the original System Shock some years back on an XP system which didn't work too well with the game. Sometimes the movement keys would lock up, so the player kept moving on for a while.
    So once the "turn left" key gets stuck, and the picture starts turning in quick circles. Made me a bit dizzy. But elsewhere? Never happened.