Are You Sick of Games? (continued)
By Jeff "nonick" Solomon
It probably won't happen to me...
How common is simulator sickness? Are you likely to experience it? While we don't have any numbers that might explain the odds that a given person might experience simulator sickness from playing video games in particular (anyone interested in participating in a study?), there is research from the military that shows that between 20% and 40% of tested pilots experienced some form of simulator sickness following exposure to a flight simulator.
That's a very high number. However, the situation grows even more grim when you consider that the pilots who participated in the study were less prone to motion sickness than the average person. This would imply that they are also less likely to suffer from simulator sickness. Since pilots are less prone to suffer from motion sickness, and they still had a 20% to 40% chance of getting simulator sickness, we can assume that these tests underestimate the effect of such exposure on the general population. The number is probably, therefore, higher than 20% to 40% for average people!
It's important to note that the simulators that were used in this study were "immersive" simulators that completely surrounded the test subjects and provided motion feedback (essentially very high-end versions of the "sit down" race car games in arcades). In this regard, the study does not provide an accurate comparison to virtual environments like video games. Typical video games are far less immersive than military simulators.
This is changing, however, as gaming technology continues to improve, and the hardware and software that support and create the virtual environments that we inhabit in first person games advances. It won't be long before home entertainment systems begin to catch up with the immersive virtual reality offered by simulators. Obviously, we're not going to have full-size, full-motion F-16 simulators in our living rooms, but someday we are going to have devices that can make it seem like we do.
The bottom line: the existing research (coupled with a few assumptions) shows that, very roughly, about half of the population can expect to experience some form of simulator sickness from exposure to immersive virtual reality situations.
This doesn't necessarily mean that they'll fall down from dizziness, suffer migraines, or vomit. The symptoms could be as minor as a slight headache or strained eyes, but they could also appear as a complete loss of balance, nausea, and vertigo that lingers well after the game is over. There could also be a sense of vection, which is a feeling of bodily motion when there is in fact none. In some cases, the effects of simulator sickness can be present for hours after exposure to the virtual environment has ended. In these cases, people could run into serious problems if they're driving or, to use a familiar phrase, "operating heavy machinery" after experiencing a situation that gives them simulator sickness. These consequences are, obviously, very serious.
Studies show that a person's susceptibility to both motion sickness and simulator sickness increases with age. The older you are, the more likely you become to experience both sensations. There is also evidence to support the fact that women are slightly more likely to experience motion sickness than men, which could imply that one of the causes of motion sickness is linked to hormones. In addition, some psychologists believe that people who are easily agitated or who get nervous easily have a higher propensity for getting motion sickness than people who have a calmer disposition.
Specifics! I want some examples!
Theoretical conjecture and lab experiments can only take us so far. There have been several reported cases of simulator sickness by people playing games in real-world scenarios. The Quake Women's Forum mailing list contains several posts from people who claim to have experienced simulator sickness symptoms while playing Quake II.
Most people who suffered from symptoms reported dizziness and headaches that subsided shortly after they stopped playing. Most often, these people were playing GLQuake in hardware mode. Some suggested that switching from hardware to software mode helped ease the symptoms dramatically.
Why? Well, it seems that games like Quake II have only recently become realistic enough to causes these symptoms in the first place. In the past, with games like Duke Nukem and Wolfenstein 3D, the animation and virtual environment were simply too cartoonish for the nervous system to take seriously. The virtual "worlds" created in those games were perceived by the body to be just that- an exercise in entertainment that existed within a clearly defined real world (much like watching TV).
However, Quake II-era games have crossed a threshold that seems to exist for simulator sickness. These games are so immersive, and demand such a high level of concentration and involvement from the player, that the body loses touch with the real surroundings and begins to think that it's actually inside the world of the game. Quake II played with software acceleration seems to be on one side of the fence (not too immersive for most people); Quake II with hardware acceleration, which dramatically increases the game's feeling of reality, is on the other side of this theoretical boundary.
Ironically, simulator sickness is coming about now because technology in games is improving. The better games get, the more realistic they become, and the more likely we are to experience simulator sickness while playing. We have never been as engaged by playing video games as we are when we sit down and play Unreal, for example. But these games are still far from perfect. Even with the most advanced hardware and software, frames drop, side to side motion can cause a slowdown in performance, and there is little to no force feedback from playing the game (depending on available hardware and software support). These discrepancies lead to simulator sickness.
So, we've reached a point where a game can convince us to "dive in" completely, but once we're in, it can't really live up to the expectations that it's going to give us a completely believable world to inhabit.
However, as technology continues to improve, these limitations will most likely vanish. Eventually, high frame rates, more accurate depictions of physics and lighting effects, and sound simulation will cross another threshold. Force feedback will become standard and realistic. At this point, playing a VR game will be so similar to reality that the body will be able to make the necessary concessions and avoid simulator sickness. This panacea is probably a long way off.
|Credits: Are You Sick of Games? is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it, as it can make you (or us, for that matter) really sick.|