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Why Games Give Some People Motion Sickness And What You Can Do About It

Around 30 seconds into playing Doom Eternal, I’m feeling dizzy, my eyes are getting heavy, and my stomach is in knots. I can’t savor the sight of any pink guts spilling across my screen or the clamoring heavy metal soundtrack because I already want to puke. But I knew this was coming. I, like many other poor, sensitive souls, get motion sick when playing certain video games.

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To be more exact, I experience visually-induced motion sickness, which Behrang Keshavarz, a cognitive psychologist and scientist at Toronto Rehab’s KITE Institute, told me involves all the familiar symptoms of traditional motion sickness—headaches, dizziness, nausea—just without the physical movement. There’s only the incorrect sensation of movement.

When you’re playing an active first-person game, “your eyes are telling you that you’re potentially moving, but the rest of the body is telling you, you know, you’re not really moving, you’re sitting still and playing a video game,” Keshavarz said. “There is a conflict that the brain has to solve between what you see and what the rest of the body’s senses are telling you.”

Whether it’s on land, on sea, or with an Oculus strapped to your head, motion sickness is unpleasant and unwanted. But there are five general tips you can try the next time your brain is tearing you and your PS5 apart.

1. Realize it’s not your fault 

Motion sickness may make you feel like something is wrong with you (our using the word “sickness” to describe the transient condition doesn’t necessarily help), especially if all your friends are gunning through Rainbow Six Siege with ease. But you can still be a great gamer, and if you give yourself some grace, the condition is manageable.

Ignore all the Reddit replies urging nauseous gamers to go to their eye doctor or check if they have covid and know that motion sickness is “a completely normal response that every healthy person can get.”

“It’s just a response of the body,” Keshavarz said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

2. Get used to it, gently

After accepting that our fallible bodies are complicated and sometimes resistant to Overwatch, you can try your hand at adapting to games, known as habituation.

“You expose yourself to the nauseating stimulus over and over again,” in this case, a video game, “and at some point, your brain and your body ‘habituates,’ which means you get less sick over time,” Keshavarz said. “If a video game is causing any type of visually-induced motion sickness or ‘gaming sickness,’ you can technically train your body to get used to it.”

But it isn’t an overnight process, and much like motion sickness, the details of habituation can be highly individualized. “Some people may get used to the video game very quickly. For others, it may take much longer, and there’s a small percentage of people who do not habituate at all. That’s the second downside of habituation,” Keshavarz said.

He concedes that it isn’t very convenient, since intentionally and repeatedly making yourself feel ill isn’t super conducive to daily tasks. But habituation is proven to work in many cases.

Reddit user Lee, who used to experience headaches and nausea from first-person shooters and uses she/they pronouns, said,“Portal was the first non-isometric game I’d ever played. But by the time Portal 2 came out, I found I’d gotten a lot more accustomed to the first-person perspective.”

“For people who are struggling with motion sickness, I think that gradually increasing your exposure over time can be helpful, as long as you don’t overdo it,” she said.

Keshavarz agrees, you should never push yourself too hard. “Once motion sickness builds up, it usually just keeps going,” Keshavarz said. “It’s very likely that if you just keep going, you will get to the point where you feel really miserable and start vomiting. The more effective way [to go about building tolerance] would be getting yourself some rest until you feel recovered. And then you can start it again and try it again. And you will see that you will be able to last longer the next time than you were the first time.”

Another gamer, Solare, who sometimes experiences a spinning sensation when playing Ark: Survival Evolved, told me she finds this approach helpful.

“When I’m starting to feel the mild symptoms [of motion sickness], I either go into a different room to meditate or, if it’s daytime outside, I’ll go out and spend time for a walk around the neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t immediately jump back to resume gaming or computing activities unless it’s really necessary, but I do make sure I’m feeling 100 percent better before doing so.” So plow ahead, carefully.

3. Consider the tech

In the spirit of being kind to your sickly self, you can make the habituation process a bit easier by tweaking some of your tech.

“So, for instance, in the context of virtual reality,” Keshavarz said, “there’s a whole set in Unity called Ginger VR, and they have a few elements that you can just include in your VR experience to make sure that people get less sick,” like a downloadable virtual nose that provides a “rest-frame” for users’ vision and an image lock function.

For non-VR, first-person games, both Keshavarz and one motion sick gamer, Reddit user Miltrivd, endorsed limiting your field of view, or FOV. Keshavarz said that a smaller FOV will give you a better sense of where you’re positioned in the virtual space and make you feel less disoriented. You can accomplish this by sitting a healthy distance away from the screen and reducing your total FOV.

Miltrivd, who experiences motion sickness while playing FPS games and those with low frame and refresh rates, also said that “60 frames per second [games] are a good minimum for third person games,” and at around 80 frames per second, he feels triggering visual qualities like motion blur and chromatic aberration are decreased.

I was interested to know if those fishbowl-looking motion sickness goggles I’ve been seeing on TikTok, which are meant to provide an artificial horizon as a fixation point, much like the virtual nose, or other gadgets like acupressure wristbands could be as useful in playing games as some people report them to be on boats.

For the wristbands, Keshavarz said that there isn’t “sufficient evidence to say from a scientific perspective that they do help” with motion sickness, and the glasses aren’t necessarily helpful in establishing a fixation point when playing a quickly moving game. They do, however, “work when you’re on a ship or in a car,” he said.

But, again, “simulation sickness is pretty much down to the individual,” Miltrivd noted. “There’s no absolute recipe for it.” Taking time to figure out what’s unsettling you can still lead to a helpful fix, which could be as simple as changing your game’s frame rate settings or sitting a bit further away from your dear monitor.

4. Go all natural

Lee and Solare both recommend ginger tea as a natural way to alleviate nausea, and ginger is indeed proven to assist with nausea and vomiting. It has been for centuries. To get in on this age-old method of keeping your lunch down, you can ask your doctor how much raw ginger they’d recommend you take (the FDA suggests up to four grams a day is safe), or try more diluted forms of ginger in candies or tea. Solare recommends Tazo’s turmeric bliss blend or Traditional Medicinals’ ginger aid tea.

5. And, if you must, play something else

First-person games aren’t the be-all, end-all of gaming, and there are plenty of games that don’t have their same approach to FOV and movement. Lee said that “‘walking sims’ like Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable are fine because the camera’s movement is very even,” and that isometric RPGs and point-and-clicks are always sickness-friendly options for them.

“I guess one upside of motion sickness has been learning to love other perspectives and graphical styles,” she said. “So I play a lot of older RPGs, and I find that I really appreciate studios like Klei or Wadjet Eye for making games that are very stylish without emphasizing graphical fidelity.”

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