Shock and Yaw: Motion Sickness in Video Games
Modern video gaming often makes me sick. Oh the games are wonderful, the developers lovely and (despite the odd depressing controversy based in utter nonsense) the industry is the healthiest and most pleasingly diverse it’s ever been. There are more games of high quality being released than ever and more skill and ambition employed than many would have thought possible a decade ago. I just wish I could play all the fantastic looking games without knowing that doing so will often make me sick to the stomach. So roll with me friends, it’s time we talk about motion sickness.
2013’s rebooted Tomb Raider is a game that I would like to play. I’ve tried to on several occasions yet every time I get to about thirty minutes in and have to stop myself and go lie down in a dark room whilst trying not to throw up. I feel old and pathetic and question the life choices that brought me to be wilfully making myself sick just to play a game. There are other games that don’t make me feel ill so I should just play them. There, problem solved. No dramas. Except I still really want to play a game that I heard a lot of my friends raving about. A game that I bought myself yet can’t play. A search of the game’s various forums shows that I’m far from the only one having difficulty.
Tomb Raider features a lot of shaky cam action, head bobbing, rolling view points and all sorts of jerking around, a phenomenon that I will hence forth call wibbly-wobbly camera syndrome. This is problematic for people that get motion sickness (or simulation sickness if you prefer). The issue is generally thought to be a result of cue conflict theory, an imbalance in your thinky organ caused by conflicting input. If your eyes are telling you that you’re rolling about and jumping around all over the place, but the vestibular system in your ears (responsible for your sense of balance) tells you that you’re sitting perfectly still, the conflicting information can cause your brain to become confused and bring on feelings of nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Your brain just doesn’t know if it’s coming or going and it’s rather unpleasant, especially if I’m just trying to enjoy an entertainment product. If a game features a lot of wibbly-wobbly camera motion that is telling your eyes that you are in constant quick jerking or violent movement, this will cause an imbalance with your sense of balance and leave you feeling sick.
This year saw the rebooting of another classic franchise, Thief. I was a big fan of the original games and so was naturally very keen to see what the new instalment could do. Then I saw it in motion and decided I’d give it a wider berth until it was less of a risky purchase. A ten minute preview video left my stomach churning and any desire to play the game evaporating quickly after seeing the exaggerated head movements and shaky cam. I did end up with a copy of the game recently after a sale on Steam. As feared, the game is one of the more sickening games I’ve played, right up there with the likes of notorious motion sickness triggering games like Mirror’s Edge and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. I’m determined to power through Thief, I want to experience the reboot of one of my favourite series, but it’s punishing. It’s also a problem I come across more frequently as games employ more elaborate camera motions than they ever used to.
As games have grown and matured, it seems that developers are chasing a more and more cinematic experience in their work. They want to draw the player in and let them drink in the world they’ve so lovingly created. One tactic to help accomplish this is to make the character’s view point less passive and react more to stimuli going in the world, to help lessen the gulf between how the character experiences the game and how the player does. So we get tricks like the screen jerking when reloading a gun, thus emphasising the effort required by the character and reinforcing the power and weight of the weapon. We have the screen shaking as our character gets attacked by a monster to enhance the horror of the situation. The field of view narrowing as you sprint to focus your vision and your viewpoint rolls with exaggerated yaw as you turn. Unfortunately these kinds of tricks and unnatural movements create dissonance with your senses as you are still just sat in a chair and not actually experiencing this things. Coupled with modern game’s propensity for having low FOVs and heavy mouse acceleration (that results in a lag between your movements on your mouse and movement on the screen), this creates a perfect storm for motion sickness.
A lot of the time the jerky head movements, exaggerated swaying and shaking makes no sense. Thief would have me believe that picking up an object involves my whole body jerking forward and down before sliding back into position. When I actually pick up an object, I just put my hand forward and pick it up. Trying to replicate in the real world Thief’s character movements, it quickly becomes apparent how silly I look and how unreal it all is. I can’t imagine how much more energy poor Garrett (of Thief) gets if all his body movements are so elaborate.
Motion sickness is far from an uncommon issue for people. Many people actively avoid first and third person games specifically because they know motion sickness will hinder their enjoyment. Up to 50% of people experience some sort of simulation sickness, as suggested by a study from the University of Minnesota. The U.S. Army also reported half of its pilots suffer sickness from their simulators. One of the biggest concerns for VR devices like the Oculus Rift is the frequent reports of motion sickness in its users; head mounted displays in general have a very high prevalence of motion sickness. Motion sickness does present a barrier to many people for getting into certain games.
The very nature of video games means that motion sickness will always be a course for irritation and annoyance to players, but its effects can be lessened and make games playable for people prone to motion sickness. Allowing players to adjust the FOV and turn off mouse smoothing helps, being able to turn off head-bobbing and wibbly-wobbly cameras and shaking would help even more. Needing to trawl through obscure configuration files and manually changing settings just to get a game you’ve bought to be playable is becoming a routine chore when playing modern first/third person games. A little bit more consideration from developers about how their camera could cause motion sickness would go a long way to helping out. Some people like a more active camera, and that’s fine, but giving players the ability to tone down unnecessary camera movement would allow a greater audience that could otherwise be put off. I probably won’t ever be able to stomach playing Tomb Raider, I just hope that in the future unstomachable games will remain the exception rather than the rule.