Sometimes when I play games, I actually experience a real sensation of falling when my character is falling in the screen. It’s kind of weird to describe, because you’re not actually experiencing the physical act of falling itself, but the same sensation of fear and small electric adrenaline rush is still there.
Interestingly enough, this doesn’t just happen with realistic first-person shooter games…in fact, I can think of multiple instances where this has happened with 2D platformer games, like Terraria (and I even remember it happening in this one version of Sonic CD that I had for PC once). However, it doesn’t really happen when I’m making routine jumps and just cruising along…rather, it tends to happen when I’m making those huge, almost “leap of faith” jumps where I’m jumping off of cliffs and such (knowing full well that I’m going to just doublejump or jetpack or whatever to avoid the fall damage).
Which seems to suggest that it’s just as much a psychological effect as it is a reaction to what I’m seeing. Because if it were just a graphical thing, then I’d experience it even for more routine falls. I think graphics still plays an important role in that I think for 2d platformers, the fact that the screen is centered on your character tends to cause this effect for me, because the whole world starts scrolling. It’s also interesting to note that 2D platformers often have some sort of terminal velocity limit, after which you don’t accelerate downwards any longer.
However, I think it’s mostly a psychological effect; related to the sense that I don’t know where I’m going to land. Hence, even when I’m playing some first-person shooter game like Serious Sam and making ridiculous 5-story jumps off of bounce pads or whatever, it’s probably (???) okay because all of those are planned and I’m actively controlling them. But if I just make a jump off of a platform into a dark chasm, then maybe that’s more scary to me because I don’t have that sensation of control.
Likewise, for a 2D platformer, I think it has to do with the fact that screen size is limited…that way I can’t actually see the ground at all, so I really have no idea where I’m going to land. At the same time, I need some sort of reference imagery that scrolls past while I’m falling, otherwise I can’t tell how fast I’m falling or whether I’m falling at all.
It’s kind of a really interesting phenomenon…maybe even related to the sensation of falling within a dream. The reason I say that is because I sometimes have dreams where I experience that sort of falling–as in, slipping and falling or driving a car off of some impossible structure or accidentally driving off a bridge or something (guys, I swear I would never do this in real life!), and I bet it’s probably the same mechanism at work, because I’m not familiar enough with the -actual- sensation of falling for my brain to really recreate the physical sensation in a dream (at least, I think). Therefore, it’s probably the same sort of visual/psychological effect.
A quick search reveals a reddit thread where people discuss this experience, though I didn’t really see any 2D games mentioned (though I did see Donkey Kong 64 and Zelda 64, both 3rd-person games).
In regards to a fear of heights, that might work in a similar way…I can’t remember the last time I felt a fear of heights while playing a video game, but I think it’s something that’s possible for me to experience. (?)