Not interested in explanations? Fast travel to the tl;dr 🚀
Some people experience headaches or become nauseous when playing first-person video games. According to them, it is similar to motion sickness and seasickness, “things are moving all over the place” being a recurring sentence.
Symptoms match with virtual reality sickness. It occurs when the player is disoriented: there is a decorrelation between simulation (what the player sees) and expectation (what the player thinks should happen). The greater the decorrelation, the more mental compensation required, which causes the symptoms.
Doctors recommend the same treatment as for motion sickness (good sleep quality, ingestion of mint or ginger, etc.). On top of that, I noticed it is possible to alleviate and sometimes even eliminate it completely by improving gaming conditions.
I don’t have any evidence other than anecdotal, but I’ve already helped a few people with these tips, and most of them won’t cost you anything to try 😉
Note: in the rest of this article, I will assume PC games, but parallels can easily be drawn for console games.
First-person video games simulate various effects to mimic real camera lenses. Some of these effects can cause player disorientation.
It is usually possible to disable them directly from graphics settings (do not be afraid to explore advanced graphics options). When not possible, there sometimes is a manual solution (example: disable motion blur on Metro Exodus via configuration file).
Motion blur is the blur appearing around moving objects when pausing a film or on a photograph. It appears when a captured object is moving faster than the capture lens’ exposure time.
Blur gives an impression of speed to a still image, and smooths out a sequence of successive images. For example, a sequence of images at 24 frames per second (standard projection speed for a film) would appear visually staggered without motion blur. The more FPS increases, the less a powerful motion blur is required to smooth the sequence.
When simulated motion blur is too strong or poorly located, entire parts of the screen may blend in at the slightest movement of the camera, causing all visual cues to disappear. Hence the famous “things are moving all over the place”.
Motion blur is often the main culprit for disorientation in first-person games: turn it off first.
The depth of field (DOF) is the distance interval where an image remains sharp, while it becomes blurry in closer or more distant planes. It mainly depends on the characteristics and settings of the lens.
In a first-person shooter, it can be noticed when aiming with a weapon: the foreground and the background are blurred, while the mid-plane where the reticle is located remains perfectly clear.
Depth of field can be used to encourage players to focus on the main plane, in the center. Unfortunately it can cause visual cues in outside planes to disappear, especially if the effect is very pronounced.
Vignetting and chromatic aberration are two effects appearing on low quality lenses, where the edges of the image are darkened (vignetting) and lines seem to blur or even split into several colors, like a rainbow (chromatic aberration). In video games, they are used to give a retro look.
Although much less annoying, they can also make visual cues harder to hang onto, and promote disorientation.
First-person shooters allow you to aim down sights (ADS, or iron sights): the camera shifts to behind weapons sights/scope, and zooms in.
If the zoom effect is too strong, and the game requires frequent switching between normal mode and aiming mode, this can lead to disorientation. Although quite rare, it is sometimes possible to adjust zoom level (from settings or via sights/scope customization).
First-person games sometimes mimic the slight head swaying (also known as head bobbing or camera shake) occurring when moving on foot.
This effect can induce a boat-like rolling feeling. It can rarely be disabled, but it does happen (example: GTA V).
The more stable and fluid the game, the easier the immersion, and the less need to mentally compensate. We therefore aim for a FPS that is both stable and as large as possible (within display frequency limit).
Increasing FPS while remaining stable seems to be very effective: I was able to observe on the same game a person experiencing motion sickness fairly quickly at 30 FPS, but with no issues at 144 FPS.
Stability takes precedence over maximum fluidity. It is not enough to ensure an average of 90 FPS with a minimum of 60, then rub our hands because we have a 60 Hz screen: we have to limit the dips and be constant in all circumstances.
Any sudden deviation from FPS average will be felt in the game. This is called micro stuttering: an irregularity in rendering times (frametimes) induces an irregular game experience feeling, even if FPS dips remain higher than display frequency (i.e. dips will not be seen).
We will therefore try to make the maximum and minimum FPS converge.
Enable FPS limiter and set it slightly above display refresh rate (e.g. 70 FPS for 60 Hz or 150 FPS for 144 Hz):
Manage 3D settings>
Max Frame Rate
Frame Rate Target Control
To increase FPS, the simplest solution is to play with graphics options. Fine-tuning them is not easy: it would require several articles to go into details. We can nevertheless identify some general principles that will net a satisfying result.
The strategy is to prioritize reducing intensive but not-so-important-for-orientation graphics settings, and leave important settings to be reduced only as a last resort.
Vertical synchronization (V-Sync) is used to synchronize frames sent by the graphics card with the display refresh rate. When disabled, one may experience screen tearing. When enabled, it induces input lag (delay between a physical action and the game’s reaction, e.g. delay between mouse movement and camera reaction) .
For motion sickness, neither screen tearing nor input lag are desirable, both being potential sources of disorientation, though screen tearing is usually more problematic.
In practice, the easiest way is to test both cases (enabled / disabled), in particular because impact and implementation can vary from one game to another.
In a first person game, the field of view (FOV) determines the field of the camera visible to the player.
If too small, it limits use of peripheral vision for spatial orientation. If the game allows adjustment, try to increase it.
In shooter games, the default reticle is usually a gray cross.
If the game allows it to be changed, a bright-colored dot-shaped reticle can facilitate orientation (fixed visual cue and easy to keep track of).
I recommend a light green dot: usually pops out very well regardless of scenery.
Mouse or joystick input control the camera, and some settings may help making it more intuitive.
Acceleration is when the distance the pointer moves not only depends on the physical distance traveled by the mouse, but also on its speed. Acceleration will cause the pointer to move a greater screen distance if the mouse is moved quickly than if it is moved slowly.
This effect can be counterintuitive in first-person games, as it works against muscle memory by decorrelating camera movement from physical mouse travel distance.
Software mouse acceleration is operated by Windows and enabled by default. To disable it: ⊞ Win + R >
Pointer Options > uncheck
Enhance pointer precision.
If you have a gaming mouse, the mouse driver is likely to offer hardware acceleration as well. It is usually disabled by default, but this is not always the case. If necessary, disable it from the mouse driver control panel.
I recommend anyone playing competitive games to turn off acceleration: it helps being more precise, especially when hip firing.
Mouse or joystick sensitivity has a direct influence on camera speed. Lowering sensitivity can help keeping track of visual cues during camera movement.
If finances allow, better hardware can help fight motion sickness:
Careful with these last two: they require stronger hardware. Generally, the limiting factor at high resolutions is the graphics card, and the CPU at high FPS.
I recommend anyone playing competitive games to get a 120+ Hz display: fluidity gains over 60 Hz are indescribable.
If the above advice is not enough, I strongly recommend that you consult an ophthalmologist.
Even if you experience no eye discomfort in everyday life, it is not impossible that you suffer from a minor undiagnosed defect (e.g. slight astigmatism or hyperopia) which may induce the same symptoms as motion sickness.
You would then just need to have a pair of glasses exclusively for gaming 🤓
It is possible to alleviate and sometimes even completely eliminate motion sickness induced by a video game by improving gaming conditions and reducing player disorientation.
From most to least important:
I know it’s not free, but if you could try your best to add as many graphics settings as you can to control these, that would be awesome!
Especially for AAA games, where usually it is already done for major effects like motion blur (and if not the case: I strongly invite you to do it considering the huge impact it can have on gaming experience), but usually not for small effects like head bobbing, even though these can still be extremely troublesome.
I promise your players will be grateful 🙏