Why we need slower, smoother games

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

My husband updated my graphics card again. I know, not because I watched him take apart my computer in his underpants again, but because waves of nausea are hitting me with decreasing frequency as I try to make it through ten minutes of House Flipper. I can't play games with a lot of quick movements and immersive graphics without downing a couple of Dramamine.

It's an issue because I love video games and I'm a games journalist who is supposed to play and write about said games. It's gotten to the point where I frantically seek out good lo-fi indie pixel art titles. I need games I can play and finish, with good storylines and combat and dialogue options, and on top of all of that, they must have static, slow graphics systems.

So why does this happen? According to one source, it’s all about human evolution and gaming evolution. We owe our ability to know where we are in physical space to a constant feedback loop between our eyes, inner ears, and general sensory system.

When there is a disruption in this feedback loop, the result is nausea of the moderate to severe variety. Doctors call this phenomenon "cue conflict", and the general consensus seems to be that the "cue conflict" acts like a poison in the body and the nausea is the body trying to expel the poison.

(Image credit: Fullbright)

While humans have evolved slowly, video games have changed at a lightning fast pace. Gone are the days of 2D graphics and static backgrounds. Video games create living worlds with 3D characters and scenery and it's enough to send the slow-evolving human body reeling. 

While sitting at a desktop or in front of the television, the eyes perceive movement from the immersive scenes on the screen while the body remains still. The disconnect causes the aforementioned "cue conflict", and a pause break is needed.

I know there are ways to get around the quick-snap movement in many games. I can play Minecraft if I turn off bobbing. I can play House Flipper if I turn down the mouse sensitivity. 

But there are whole genres of games that I cannot play, like first-person-shooters or battle royale games. What is Call of Duty even like? I don't know, couldn't tell you. Even storytelling games like The Last Of Us 2 have too much running, and the scenes are too immersive for my delicate constitution.

Not alone

I know I'm not alone in this. I've found comfort in Googling "House Flipper nausea" and finding message boards and Reddit posts about ways other players deal with motion sickness. 

The solutions range from modifying settings, to creating mods to let you modify the settings, to turning off the game completely and going to read a book. On the Dramamine website, the company offers several ways to limit video game sickness, including taking frequent breaks, and playing or watching games for just a few minutes at a time.

Another way to limit video game nausea is to adjust your field of view (FOV). We humans have 180 degrees of vision. Typical console games have a 60 degree field of view, while PC games have a field of view that gets up to 100 degrees or more. 

When there is a discrepancy between the field of view on the screen and your real-life field of view, headaches and nausea can occur. Adjusting the FOV in the video configuration menu can help alleviate some of the nausea symptoms. The closer you are to the screen, the higher the field of view setting should be to limit headaches and nausea.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

You can also fend off video game nausea by using the old "horizon trick". While on long car trips, I would frequently experience motion sickness as a child, and my dad would tell me to stare straight ahead at the horizon for a while. I was cured! 

I thought my dad was a genius (still do) but really it's just a way to recalibrate your inner ear and allow your body to properly perceive movement. You can apply this to video games by taking small breaks to realign your body and eyesight. You can look down at a table or look up at a figure on a shelf.

Having a well-lit playing space is also helpful because it increases visual references in your environment, which can help limit motion sickness. You can still have cool LED lights around your battle station. Even with dimmed lighting you'll be able to make out points of reference like your desk, a TV stand, or the edge of the screen.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How game devs can help

One easy way for developers to make their games more motion sensitive friendly is to create a point of reference in-game, whether it's the player's weapon or the character's hands. A reticle or dot in the center of the screen can also act as a focus point. Many games already have this feature, but it may not be automatically enabled, so check through the game's settings for reference points.

Another way to make games more accessible across the board is to have higher frame rates. Choppy, snappy, and unnatural movement can cause nausea and headaches because the brain is reacting to what you expect to happen rather than the stuttering motion on the screen. 

There are some console games that allow you to choose how much detail you want to see on the screen, thus affecting the frame rate, but that's still not a universal feature. PC games tend to have more options for lowering the graphics quality which can give you smoother motion, and less cue conflict.

I'd love for more games to offer the ability to drastically lower the mouse sensitivity and modify the movement settings. I realise it's a tall ask for all first-person games to have a third-person camera view as well, but I'd certainly play more if that were a standard option. Until then, I'll be at my well-lit desk, endlessly adjusting my field of view settings with a box of anti-nausea pills at the ready.