I’ve been a full time video game critic for the past six and a half years, which has involved playing a lot of different genres of video games, on screens very close to my face, for extended periods of time. For me, probably the toughest aspect of that is the fact I routinely struggle with motion sickness, particularly in first person games.
Around ⅓ of the global population suffers from acute motion sickness, making it one of the most common conditions that could impact a person’s ability to play video games. As such, it’s an important area of gaming accessibility to think about, as the last thing you want is someone who’s loving your game to have to walk away because they feel ill.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about motion sickness. We’re going to talk about what it is, what causes it, how game developers can lessen the risk of it occurring, and how players can improve their experience outside of in game settings.
First up, what is motion sickness? Well, the human body is really good at telling, without the use of visual information, if it is moving or not. To simplify, there’s fluid in your ears that moves around when you move, telling your brain that you are moving. However, if you trick your eyes into thinking you are moving, but the fluid in your ears doesn’t say you are moving, or vice versa, then your brain gets mixed signals. This is when people typically become motion sick.
In the real world, this is why a lot of people can’t read a book while in the back of a car, their eyes are focused on something unmoving, while their body knows it is moving. In video games, we have the opposite issue. Sometimes the video game we are looking at will make it look like we are moving, when we are not, and cause motion sickness.
Motion sickness typically impacts people less when they are in control of movement, meaning someone playing a game is less likely to experience motion sickness than someone watching that game get played, but for many gamers being in control isn’t enough to prevent nausea symptoms.
While some people are more susceptible than others to motion sickness when gaming, everyone has the capability to become motion sick if presented with the right material. Imagine for example a VR game where your player is meant to be walking around, but all of your head movements in game were slightly delayed, and occasionally your head movements would invert. You’d probably feel motion sick fast no matter your personal tolerance.
So, what kinds of games most commonly cause motion sickness? Well, first person games are a far more common trigger for motion sickness than third person games. While we don’t know the exact cause, the most common explanation is that in third person games cameras are typically more stable, with a wider field of view, and centred around an exterior perspective. In a third person game you’re not seeing through a person’s perspective, and as such the brain seems to have an easier time telling that the movement it is seeing is not meant to be a signal that the player’s actual body is moving.
So, if you’re a player who suffers from motion sickness, or a game developer who wants to lessen the impact of motion sickness in players, what can be done to help? Well, there are some in-game settings that can be really useful for combating motion sickness, but there are also ways the player can change their playing environment to help alleviate the issue.
In terms of in-game settings that can help alleviate motion sickness, there’s a couple of key options which are becoming more common in games over time, but I would really like to see them become standards in our industry.
First up is having a toggle for head bob. Basically, some first person video games attempt to immerse players more fully in their worlds by having the camera move slightly up and down as the player walks through the game, to simulate actually walking. This is a HUGE motion sickness trigger, and should ideally always be able to be turned off in settings. This is a huge personal issue for me gaming, and I have had to stop playing games I loved because of this.
Next is Field of View sliders. For anyone unaware, an FOV slider basically adjusts how wide an angle of the world can be seen by the player in their first person perspective. A wider Field of View is less realistic, but allows the player to see more at one time. FOV sliders have been pretty common for a while on PC games, but they really need to become more of a standard on console games, as increasing the player’s POV can go a long way to alleviating motion sickness.
Additionally, allowing the player to lock your game’s framerate at something lower but more stable than your default may help, as in many cases framerate instability can be a trigger for motion sickness. Ideally people with motion sickness could play all their video games at a locked 60FPS, but failing that a locked framerate option is often more useful than a higher but variable framerate.
Additionally, the ability to reduce or turn off motion blur can really help reduce motion sickness experiences. While this exists in first person games to replicate the authentic real world experience of looking around, it’s one of the more useful settings toggles you can offer motionsick players.
On top of that, allowing players to tweak their camera sensitivity can really help alleviate motion sickness.
But, there’s also a variety of player end solutions that can help to reduce motion sickness when gaming, many of which are pretty easy to implement.
Firstly, and this may seem obvious, but sitting further back from your screen if possible will likely help with motion sickness, as will playing in a more well lit room, ideally with that light source coming from behind the screen. Give your brain all the help it can get contextualising that the movement on screen it is seeing is not you moving, as this can help to alleviate symptoms. Also, try coming back to that same game after some rest, as a lack of sleep is a very common trigger for motion sickness.
If you have already found yourself becoming motion sick while playing a game, opening a window and having a glass of water can help. I know an open window in the car used to help with my travelling motion sickness, and having an open window when I first person game seems to help too.
Additionally, if you’re going to push through it and keep playing, try to focus on static elements of the screen, such as your crosshairs, as focusing on an unmoving part of the screen can sometimes help.
You can also look into over the counter motion sickness treatment options, as many designed for travel in vehicles can also help when gaming. Mileage will vary from person to person, but consider Ginger capsules, motion sickness wristbands, or perhaps the most easy to access, chewing gum. The running theory is that the up and down movement of chewing gives you a sense of movement happening which helps alleviate the symptoms and, I know for myself, it’s the only way I can play first person games with mandatory head bob.
Motion Sickness acutely affects one third of people globally, and that’s a big group with simple accessibility needs that right now is simply not being properly supported. We know the in game settings that will help, and most of them should really be defaults in our industry. I get that FOV sliders take up some system resources, but wherever possible these settings options should be in every first person game.
The solution to playing games as someone with motion sickness is ultimately to look for the above settings where you can, but to also try and do things outside of the game to help yourself. Research anti nausea or motion sickness remedies and give them a try. Don’t play pressed right up to the screen in a dark room. Get plenty of sleep.
Motion Sickness support in video games is a very fixable problem. I really hope that game developers take it seriously enough to ensure, over the coming years, it becomes less of a problem for ⅓ of worldwide gamers.