What Is Cybersickness: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention
Updated: May 31,2022
Have you ever felt queasy or dizzy after playing video games for a while? Or you've just bought yourself a VR set, but can't play for too long before feeling like you're about to hurl?
If so, you may be experiencing cybersickness – a condition resulting from extended exposure to digital media. But what is cybersickness exactly, and are there ways to prevent it? Read on to find out, as today we'll be discussing this modern problem many people face.
Before we could talk about recognizing whether someone suffers from it, we need to first explore the phenomenon of computer sickness. It's a type of motion sickness that can occur when using virtual reality (VR) headgear or during extended exposure to traditional computer screens.
Just as car sickness or sea sickness can happen when your body isn't used to the motion it's experiencing, so too can cybersickness set in when your brain isn't used to the visual stimuli it's receiving.
Cybersickness symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways, with the most common being:
- Increased heart rate
These symptoms are similar to those of motion sickness, and that's no coincidence – cybersickness is caused by the same thing. Of course, they don’t necessarily happen all at once, and, in most cases, a person suffering from cybersickness will experience just a couple of symptoms. In any case, it’s essential to acknowledge the symptoms as soon as they appear and take breaks to alleviate the condition.
Different Types of Cybersickness
There are three main types of this illness: Vection, simulator sickness, and visually induced dizziness.
Vection is the illusion of movement, often caused by looking at moving objects in a virtual environment. First-person shooters and racing games are the most common culprits, but it may happen even in slower-paced games. Usually, it happens due to the lack of a reference point (e.g., an aiming reticle), a narrow field of view (FOV), and certain color palettes.
Simulator sickness occurs when an individual's inner ear and visual system disagree about the direction of motion. This is more commonly known as VR nausea, and it’s comparable to seasickness, hence why VR enthusiasts often talk about the adjustment period in virtual reality gaming as “getting their VR legs.”
Visually Induced Dizziness
Visually induced dizziness is caused by staring at a single point for too long or exposure to flashing lights or patterns. Although it may sound similar to the condition that causes seizures, it’s on the mild side, but still very uncomfortable when it occurs.
What Causes Cybersickness
Cybersickness is caused by what's called “sensory conflict.” This occurs when your eyes tell your brain one thing is happening, but your body feels something else entirely. For example, if you're looking at a screen and moving your mouse around, your eyes see the cursor moving across the screen, but your body isn't actually moving. This conflict between what you're seeing and feeling can cause cybersickness.
This sensory conflict is amplified in VR, which is why many people have experienced motion sickness from VR. When you put on a VR headset, your brain is completely immersed in a digital world, while your body remains in the real world. That layer of additional “reality,” on top of the artificial movement most VR games have, causes the brain to go haywire.
Putting on a VR headset and moving in a virtual world can send false signals to our brain that the body is suffering the effects of a toxin. And since the most natural thing to do when poisoned is to expel it somehow, our brain tries to do that by inducing the gag reflex.
It’s not always about movement, either. As previously explained, other factors can lead to video game sickness, like running VR with a refresh rate too low for smooth locomotion, or an overly narrow FOV. The low refresh rate leads to slight delays in reaction times, which further confuses the brain that already has its hands full processing all the stimuli.
Field of view, on the other hand, is meant to simulate that we’re in the role of the game’s protagonist. As we’re essentially looking through a window, be it a computer or TV screen, the brain expects the natural extension of our physical point of view. It expects objects to be at a certain distance.
Console games tend to have low FOV, as we’re sitting far away from the TV, while in PC games, the standard FOV is 90 degrees, but you can usually increase it even further.
Dangers of Cybersickness
You know that feeling when you get off a roller coaster, and your stomach is in your throat? Or when you're spinning around and around until you're so dizzy, you fall down? Cyber nausea, just like regular sickness, can make you feel nauseous, dizzy, and even vomit, except you haven't really moved away from your chair.
Cybersickness is no laughing matter, either. This relatively new phenomenon, also known as virtual reality sickness, hinders the enjoyment of an entertainment product to the point that a person can’t even play a game without feeling queasy.
It has become such a problem that some companies have specific targets for making VR games less likely to make people sick and implementing various accessibility features to ease people in.
On the bright side, while cybersickness isn’t comfortable, it is not dangerous and typically goes away once an individual adjusts to the virtual environment.
As mentioned, cybersickness is not a permanent condition. Just as your body can get used to the motion of a car or boat, it can also get accustomed to the digital world. The best way to get there is by slowly acclimatizing yourself to VR or extended computer use.
If you're new to VR, start with short sessions (5-10 minutes) and work your way up as you get more comfortable. If you're spending long hours in front of a screen, take breaks every 20 minutes or so to walk around and give your eyes a rest. Blue-light-blocking glasses also help.
There is no medication specifically designed to treat or prevent cybersickness. However, over-the-counter medications such as Dramamine or ginger can help relieve symptoms of nausea. If you're prone to motion sickness in video games, it's also a good idea to avoid drinking alcohol or eating spicy food before using VR.
While cybersickness is not a dangerous condition, it can be very unpleasant. If you experience severe symptoms, such as vomiting or disorientation, it's important to take a break from VR and seek medical attention.
You can also try some of the following tips:
- Choose games or experiences that don't rely heavily on movement. Strategy and turn-based RPGs are a great choice on a PC or a console. If you're trying to “get your VR legs,” we recommend games like Superhot VR.
- Adjust the field of view in your game. Standard FOV is 90 degrees, so anything under that value can cause cybersickness.
- Try out accessibility features. Modern VR games tend to have options like click turning, teleportation instead of complete locomotion, and vignette to ease in players who suffer from VR sickness. Even just turning on a dot in the center of the screen can help.
- Take breaks often. Going outside, or just focusing your eyes on a distant point reduces eye strain and, along with it, the chances of getting sick.
- Drink lots of water, especially if you're playing exhausting VR games like Beat Saber. Ginger tea is also a good remedy.
- Make sure the room you're in is well-lit. Flashing screens in a darkened room increase how much your eye muscles need to work to maintain focus.
- Get a fan and position it to blow air in your face. Seriously. Not only does this cool you down during intense VR gaming sessions, it gives you an illusion of movement, which is enough to trick the brain and is one of the most effective forms of cybersickness treatment.
With a bit of time and effort, you can overcome cybersickness and enjoy all the benefits digital worlds have to offer. Just remember to take it easy at first and give your brain time to adjust!
Cybersickness is a real problem for some people, but there are ways to avoid and alleviate it. By taking breaks, drinking lots of water, and choosing games that don't rely heavily on movement, you can reduce your chances of getting sick. And if you do start to feel nauseous, there are over-the-counter medications that can help. With a little effort, you can enjoy all the benefits of VR without any nasty downsides!
Frequently Asked Questions
The most common cybersickness symptoms are dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, sweating, and increased heart rate. They're very similar to regular car sickness or motion sickness.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Still, the best way for your body to accustom itself to VR and avoid this feeling is by slowly acclimatizing yourself to extended use.
There is no evidence that looking at a computer screen for extended periods can cause cybersickness. However, if you're prone to motion sickness, it's a good idea to take breaks often and focus your eyes on a faraway point.
Yes, unfortunately, it is very possible to feel ill when playing video games. What is cybersickness in that case? It’s a feeling of nausea induced by virtual motion, either on a flat screen, in virtual reality, or even when actively using an augmented reality system on smartphones.
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While Damjan started his career in humanities, his interests quickly moved on to the tech and IT world. VPNs, antiviruses, firewalls, password managers - cybersecurity is what he knows best. When Damjan’s not losing hair over the dwindling of our collective sense of tech safety, you’ll find him looking for solace in 100-hour-long RPGs and rage-inducing MOBAs.