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Video games and motion sickness… Why me?

Hardly a half hour of play in my old favorite, Quake 3, and already I’m turning green… It wasn’t always like this – I used to be able to play all manners of immersive video games with the guys, for hours on end, without stopping. And now, here I sit in my apartment, queasy and uneasy, after a few rounds of bot matches. The insult, the despair! Am I defective?

I can’t remember exactly where I turned the corner on motion sickness. I know as a kid I had no issues riding on a boat. Around my mid-twenties (I’m 31 at this time,) I started getting seasick on dive trips. This isn’t uncommon, mind you – but it was new to me. If I had a choice between a bad headache and nausea, I would take the headache, and seasickness brings on a terrible case of nausea – ranking up there with bad alcohol poisoning. Perhaps it’s just another trick of aging.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been queasy from what is called “simulator sickness,” which differs from motion sickness, apparently, but it certainly comes more quickly than it used to. I don’t play as often, and my computer displays have become larger and larger over the years, and the framerates faster, so perhaps there has been an amplifying effect there. Taking short breaks doesn’t seem to help, and it takes awhile for the queasiness to subside afterward.

So this is a great disappointment. I take great pleasure in the rapid reflex action of Quake and its ilk. To be denied that by a physical ailment is a sad introduction to the gradual decline of aging. :/ Although I suspect I’ll have more significant challenges in the future – the sort that can’t be avoided by closing a program.

I did a little research on the matter, courtesy of a Google search. The links are posted at the bottom of the article here. What I’ve learned so far:

1. The military has been studying simulator sickness for decades. More than half of military pilots suffer from it using a flight simulator.

2. Some theories think that earlier games were not realistic enough to fool the nervous system. With the advanced graphics and framerates, the computer confuses the nervous system, kicking off this foul reaction.

3. I don’t get sick at all when using Second Life, which has arguably lower quality graphics than Quake 3, but substantially less action and reaction involved. This may lend some creedence to the Salon article’s mention that researchers believe that games demanding a lot of reaction contribute to sim sickness.

4. There are a lot of theories about how to thwart simulator sickness, but no definitive way. Alcohol doesn’t help, according to the loonygames article, neither does Dramamine or it’s related family of motion sickness remedies.

I’ve had a really, really great childhood with video games of all kinds. From 1996 to 2001, I was a part of a very active gaming group with regular LAN parties and online games. Playing nonstop through a weekend wasn’t uncommon. Sleep deprivation was a bigger issue than simulator sickness.

Nowadays, I play for nostalgia and the sheer enjoyment of twitch-play. But the high price of an unhappy stomach and that overwhelming nausea are too much to pay. For now, I suspect I’ll have to keep my sessions short, but I’m optimistic that I’ll find a balance.

Fortunately for those of us suffering from simulator sickness, there is much research going on to identify the specific cues that trigger the sickness response. The issue may be mitigated by simple changes to game designs, including static visual cues or more bizarre immersion techniques. Perhaps a drug solution will come along to supress the response.

If you suffer from simulator sickness, I’d love to hear from you, and what you’ve found works or does not work to combat the issue.

References:
http://www.loonygames.com/content/1.2/feat/index2.php – A basic article about the topic
http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/08/11/sim_sickness/index.html – Salon’s article is comprehensive, including interviews with various researchers on the topic.

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