Note: This story is 100% safe for squeamish people. No graphic tales of vomiting in here!
Motion sickness was a miserable thing to be cursed with as a kid, but one thing I could always take consolation in was that my older brother had it worse than I did. Even though the occasional car ride would make me dizzy and nauseous, it was always my brother who couldn't do things like ride roller coasters, take deep-sea fishing trips, or read in the car. So on the day that he borrowed a friend's copy of The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, I became very thankful that my motion sickness didn't affect my gaming habits. Nauseated by the first-person movement, he declared, "This game is pretty great, but it makes me so sick!"
The only thing I could think was "Wow, I'm really glad that doesn't happen to me."
An avid gamer from the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, my brother loved all the two-dimensional classics. I grew up watching him, eventually growing to play games myself, so the family's NES and SNES were treasured and coveted. As he grew older, he got busier and played fewer and fewer games, so our household skipped the next generation of systems altogether — which meant we missed the slow transition to 3D graphics that the industry was making. And now, as it turned out, my game-savvy brother was having trouble adjusting to the now-commonplace camera systems of 3D games. Morrowind was the first of several games that literally made him want to hurl.
Luckily, games never afflicted me that way. I wasn't much for first-person games, but that was because I found them awkward and repetitive, not because they made me want to chug Pepto Bismol.
A few years later I heard about the existence of a game I had once fantasized about creating. That game was Crush, a PlayStation Portable puzzle game developed by Zoë Mode. The premise was nearly identical to one I had concocted years earlier during lazy daydreams: gather marbles from fantastical block landscapes, using the ability to "crush" the 3D world down into 2D. Switching from 3D to 2D would make uncrossable gaps crossable, bring distant objects close together, and allow the protagonist to reach unreachable areas. It looked fantastic. So when I got a PSP, bargain-bin Crush was the first game I snatched up.
And it was everything I had dreamed it would be. The level design was clever. The puzzles were tricky. The feeling of clearing a level was so satisfying. I blazed through the first world in one sitting, relishing the game I'd always wanted to play.
When I finally put the game down and went to grab a drink, my husband looked me up and down and asked "Are you all right? You look pale." At his encouragement, I decided to lie down and sip some weak tea, because now that he mentioned it, I sure didn't feel all right.
The next day, we settled down to a quiet gaming session, and of course I chose to play Crush. I crushed my way through a few levels until I realized that the previous day's dizziness and disorientation were gradually coming back. With horror, I turned off the game and tried to rationalize this dizziness away, even though it was markedly worse the second time around. Maybe I was coming down with something. Maybe I was dehydrated.
But a few days later, one more play session confirmed it: Crush made me downright sick.
Imagine being unable to play certain kinds of games without getting ill. I count myself lucky that I've only had a reaction to one particular game, but my brother struggled with almost any first-person game. He'll miss out on playing a lot of great ones in his lifetime. For him, Portal probably is out of the question, especially with the dizzying portal-launching sequences. What about Halo, Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, even a classic like Goldeneye 007? If erratic third-person cameras are also a problem, that rules out games like God of War and Shadow of the Colossus too.
Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done about motion sickness in gaming, either by developers or players. Developers can't give up the first-person perspective just because a small number of players might get dizzy. And even though players might crave well-designed games, most won't be willing to pop some Dramamine every time they decide to start up a certain game, no matter how critically acclaimed. Those players will gradually discover what things make them sick, and simply stop buying those types of games. Gaming experiences, even great ones, aren't worth consistently getting ill. The choice for the afflicted is to either play and get sick, or stop playing.
A new potential source of "gaming sickness" is just around the bend: The TV and movie industries are pushing the rapid adoption of 3D televisions, and that sort of 3D gaming is not far into the future. 3D has the potential to make more people sick; for example, people who don't have a problem with 2D movies can still become ill when watching 3D films. And since gaming requires more visual focus than a movie, the effects might be that much more intense. Perhaps more people like my brother and I will start to emerge who love some games but physically can't stand to play them. Maybe someday we'll see on game boxes, next to the ESRB rating, a medical disclaimer, like the kind slapped on amusement park rides.
I know that my brother and I are rare cases: Most people will play games for years and never get sick. I hope it stays that way, because gaming sickness can ruin even one's most anticipated game. Just guess how many times I've picked up Crush since discovering how it made me feel. (Hint: The answer is not a positive number.)
Then again, three years is a long time to avoid a game. Too long for a cherished puzzle game to sit unfinished on my shelf. Maybe the lure of good games really can surpass the prospect of physical illness, just like stomach lurching curves on a roller coaster won't stop people from riding. Maybe I'll take another crack at it soon. Pass the Pepto Bismol.