How to Deal With Motion Sickness Caused by Video Games

Excited brothers playing video games on sofa
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It's a rotten experience: you're enjoying your brand spankin' new video game, possibly one that you've anticipated playing for months, when all of a sudden, nausea creeps in, then a monster headache, and then possibly fatigue/or dizziness. If you're especially unlucky, vomiting will follow. Congratulations, you are officially a sufferer of motion sickness.

Motion sickness that's triggered by video games is more correctly referred to as "simulator sickness," since, unlike traditional cases of motion sickness, your queasiness isn't triggered by actual movement. Tomato, tomahto--whatever you want to call the feeling, it's still awful.

But why are we afflicted by motion sickness? More importantly, if you're an avid gamer, how can you avoid suffering its greasy, stomach-flipping touch?

What Causes Motion Sickness?

Put simply, motion sickness is a feeling of ill health that's brought on through a conflict between our eyes and our inner ear. When your inner ear senses movement, but your eyes are observing a relatively static environment in the immediate vicinity (standing on the deck of a ship is a good example), nausea and headaches sometimes follow, coupled with vomiting.

But why does it happen? Scientists generally believe that the affliction is a holdover from the days when our ancient ancestors used to snuffle along the forest floor for our food. We'd occasionally eat something toxic, and hallucinations would follow. Our brains would say, "Whoa, this isn't right," and would urge the body to purge the offending agent.

Nowadays, when our inner ear and our eyes get their wires crossed--like the aforementioned ship scenario--our brain assumes we're going through one of those old-fashioned hallucinations, and encourages our stomachs to hurl up the bad food that we never actually ate. Motion sickness was even a problem for sea-worthy civilizations like the Vikings and the Romans.

Motion sickness that's triggered by video games--a.k.a., simulator sickness--is believed to exist because of the same inner-ear conflict that causes the better-known miseries of seasickness and airsickness.

When you play a video game, you're typically stationary on a couch, but your eyes are still observing on-screen movement, which might make your brain unhappy. Scientists have yet to confirm the reasons why we suffer from simulator sickness, but everybody is in agreement that it's not fun to go through. One thing we know for sure: simulator sickness isn't exclusive to video games. According to a report published in August 2007 issue of Popular Mechanics, "A 1995 report by the U.S. Army Research Institute found that almost half the military pilots who used flight simulators developed aftereffects--and 10 percent of those respondents had symptoms lasting more than 4 hours."

Who Suffers From Motion Sickness?

It's hard to pin down the number of people who suffer from motion sickness. After all, a person who easily gets sick on airplanes might not have a problem in a car, and a person who never gets seasick may still have a problem playing 3D video games. The Borden Institute for Military Medical Research and Education estimates that approximately 33% of Americans suffer from motion sickness when they travel by land, sea, or air, but that number jumps considerably when a craft encounters turbulence or rough waves.

Simulator sickness instigated by video games is a pretty new phenomenon. Early console games were typically side-scrolling adventures, or else they were viewed from a top-down perspective. It wasn't until the late '90s and the advent of the PlayStation, N64, and 3D polygon graphics that people really started complaining about queasiness (though the PC market had a head start on the complaints thanks to 3D corridor-crawling games like 1992's Wolfenstein 3D and 1993's DOOM). Again, we don't have any specific numbers, but simulator sickness can afflict any person of any age, race, or gender.

Should I Be Concerned If I and/or My Child Experiences Motion Sickness While Playing a Video Game?

Obviously, it can be very concerning if your child engages in a little gaming and suddenly begins to complain about headaches and nausea. While these complaints should not be ignored by any means, don't panic: according to health and news website and its guide to managing motion sickness, "There are no serious complications of motion sickness to worry about unless vomiting continues to the point where you become dehydrated."

The "Consumer Safety" portion of Nintendo's website even addresses the problem of motion sickness clearly: "Playing video games can cause motion sickness in some players." It also offers a simple solution: "If you or your child feel dizzy or nauseous when playing video games, stop playing and rest. Do not drive or engage in other demanding activity until you feel better."

Nintendo does advise that children who have suffered a seizure while playing a video game should see a doctor as soon as possible before continuing play.

How Can I Deal With Motion Sickness?

If your symptoms of motion sickness are severe--seizures, frequent and/or heavy vomiting, extreme dizziness--you should definitely consult a doctor before resuming your gaming career. If the symptoms are mild, however, and you've narrowed them down to motion sickness and not another cause, then there are a few things you can do to make your gaming experience more comfortable.

Turn off the 3D display (if you're playing a Nintendo 3DS) -- The Nintendo 3DS can display 3D images without the aid of special glasses, which is a cool feature to behold. But that added depth might be murder on people who are easily made motion sick. If you're having problems, it might not be a bad idea to disable the 3DS's 3D display. Almost every game on the 3DS can be played without the 3D display, so all you're missing out on are some extra-fancy special effects.

Try gaming on an empty stomach -- It's nice to settle down for some gaming after a big meal, but if you're a sufferer of motion sickness, it may not be the smartest idea.

Give yourself an hour or so to digest your food before playing a video game, especially if you've just eaten a lot of heavy, oily fare.

Don't play games in the car! -- Reading in the car is a well-known trigger for car sickness because your eyes are moving, your ears sense movement, and your body is stationary. That's why playing a handheld game while you're on the go can also be a real whammy.

Take frequent breaks -- You can actually "adapt" to 3D games that make you feel queasy but don't force it. Limit yourself to short play sessions with frequent breaks, and then play a little more, or at least for as long as you still feel OK.

Try wearing acupressure bands while playing -- Acupressure bands/bracelets like TravelBands and SeaBands have been scientifically proven to lessen or eliminate nausea and vomiting in pregnant women who are suffering from morning sickness, as well as travelers who get burpy on the sea or in the sky. If you have problems with simulator sickness brought on by video games, they're definitely worth a try.

Acupressure bracelets have been approved by the FDA as a treatment for nausea. They're also drug-free, have no side effects, are relatively inexpensive, and can be bought at almost any drug store.

Limit yourself to 2D games -- If the worst simply comes down to the worst and nothing seems to alleviate your simulator sickness, cheer up. The Nintendo DS and 3DS both have sizable libraries of great 2D games that can be purchased at retail, or downloaded via the Nintendo DSi Shop and/or the Nintendo 3DS Shop. Some suggestions for great 2D games include:​​

Shantae: Risky's Revenge
Mutant Mudds
Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap
Kirby Mass Attack
Cave Story
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story

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