Dealing with ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and Other Challenges of Gaming Virtually

As summer games begin and our gaming moves on-line, we face challenges of adapting to new, virtual environments. In a previous post, I discussed a few tips on adapting our game safety tools for on-line play. In this post, we’ll look at some challenges to accessibility that video conferencing may pose. We hope that this will be a starting point for all players and GMs to think about issues that might arise while gaming on-line, so we can be mindful of this going forward and accommodate people’s needs.

We at Geas want all of our games to be as accessible as possible for our wider membership, especially those with different sensory and/or cognitive processing needs We appreciate that the change in gaming to digitally-mediated spaces will be especially difficult for some people, and we may not have all the answers yet as to how we can fully accommodate everyone’s needs. But we are going to do our best to be proactive and aware of the needs that might arise, and to listen to what our members ask of us.

1. ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and Screen Exhaustion

There are a number of factors, such as having to concentrate on multiple speakers simultaneously, straining to parse cues that are out-of-sync because of server delays, having to multi-task video chat with other tasks, et cetera. There are loads of articles you can read for a good starting point (here, here, here, and here).

This is inevitably going to be a significant challenge for all of us as we move all of our gaming to on-line platforms. As such, be sure to be mindful that many folx at our table will be tired or exhausted, and be prepared that adaptations may be required.

2. Reading Faces and Body Language

Another challenge when playing games digitally is that we often can’t pick up on the non-verbal cues that we rely on when communicating, whether facial expressions or other gestures. This has the twofold effect of not just making it harder to communicate clearly, but also causing exhaustion as our brain keeps looking for these cues when they are harder to focus on. What this means is that our mind is often on overdrive trying to keep track of cues and make sense of people’s expressions or responses, making it all the more difficult to participate

3. Eye Strain and Physical Pain

This is perhaps easy to take for granted, but the lockdown and playing on-line means a lot of eye strain from staring at screens. Likewise, sitting in front of a computer for hours on end can be physically strenuous. Frequent breaks and rest would go a long way here, and consider what kinds of adjustments you’d need to make, like having cushions on chairs or using low-glare screens or night mode, to reduce the physical strain on your eyes and body.

4. Hearing Impairments and Accessibility

Having hearing impairments might make it significantly more challenging to play on-line, especially when there is a lot of cross-talk or background noise. There are some solutions to these issues, such as muting your mic when you are not speaking (or using push to talk) and/or using noise filtering microphones. Some video conferencing software like Google Meet even has in-built closed captioning system (your mileage may vary depending on your accent, though). It is worth considering what accessibility adjustments you might need to make around your digital table.

Mitigating Fatigue

It is unlikely that one solution will work for all, with different solutions working better for different people. From the advice available on-line here are some things that might help mitigate video-conferencing fatigue.

  1. Taking more frequent breaks: This is perhaps the most basic solution. Scheduling in breaks in the session for everyone to de-compress mentally, get water or go to the loo. It will help give people some breathing time, especially before or after particularly complicated encounters.
  2. Slowing the pace of the game and/or playing shorter sessions: playing games on-line is much more intense, making it harder to focus or absorb information. It might be a good idea to shorten sessions and then slow down the game so everyone can handle it at a more relaxed pace.
  3. Visual aids and play tools: Using things like Google Sheets, dice bots, or virtual tabletops like Roll20 might be a good way of off-loading some of the cognitive load. This way, players won’t need to do maths or keep track of maps or scenery while juggling everything else. Bear in mind, though, that this does bring with it a significant challenge, as in the next point.
  4. Balancing Multi-Tasking: If you’ve ever lost yourself in an Alt + Tab loop cycling through multiple windows and tabs trying to find the right screen, you probably know what I mean. Having so many things like dice bots, maps, et cetera on the fly, while making some aspects of the game easier, may also be more exhausting. You need to find the right balance, here. Slowing down the game might help, as it means people can focus on one task at a time.
  5. Finding what arrangement works best: What video or audio set-up do you find most helpful? Is it easier to focus on one speaker at a time, or do you prefer gallery view? Would you rather have everyone’s video off except the person speaking? Would it be easier if you minimised your own video so you weren’t distracted? There are many ways of reducing the distractions and the cognitive load when handling these calls.
  6. Smart scheduling: The most important thing to remember is to not overload yourself, only play the amount of games you feel you have the capacity for. As much as there is little to do in lockdown, it’s still ok to take a break from social interactions! Remember to consider how big your group is as well, and perhaps select groups of a size that you can comfortably manage.

Ultimately, everything comes down to two fundamental things: having an open conversation about what you need in order to participate fully in the game, and then being sensitive and accommodating of each other’s needs. This is a big change in the way we’re used to doing things, but hopefully if each of us is proactive and create a dialogue together, we can make our virtual gaming tables more inclusive.

Enjoy your Summer Games!
Vivek Santayana
Equality and Wellbeing Officer

(Thanks to Amy McMonagle for help with editing this.)