Mind Games

Examining the intersection of psychology and digital entertainment

Gamer Dreams

Do those who play video games have more bizarre but less threatening dreams?

Do hardcore gamers have more bizarre but less threatening dreams than non-gamers? One of the things I love about academics is that if you chain a million of them to a million graduate students, then one of them –by pure chance alone– will study a question like that. For example, I’ve been reading about a research program by psychologists Jayne Gackenbach and Beena Kuruvilla about the ways in which the dreams of hardcore gamers differ from non-gamers.

Curious as this is, it’s actually not that off the wall if you do some digging. Research suggests that people, especially adolescents, use violent and/or scary media as a way to practice dealing with life’s comparatively mundane but nonetheless stressful situations. The theory goes that games (and other media like comics, movies, or books) give us a safe place to either become a little desensitized to anxiety-provoking ideas, or to develop cognitive strategies for coping with them. It’s like play fighting, but for your brain.

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In fact, this is exactly the kind of thing that one of the studies by Gakenbach and Kuruvilla (2008) looked at, except that they examined how our mind may do this mental preparation for real-world threats during our dreams. Termed “threat simulation theory” the idea is that our minds create dreams to simulate aspects of those threats so that we can practice dealing with them and be better prepared for the real deal in real life. So if we’re worried about crime, we may dream about our house getting broken into.

Gakenbach and Kuruvilla figured that like dreams, video games, are fake realities into which we project ourselves. This is particularly true with highly immersive games where players start to feel like they are spatially present in the game world. The researchers hypothesized that intense gaming sessions can fill the role traditionally handled by scary and threatening dreams, and with lowered needs to practice dealing with real-life anxiety, there will be fewer threat simulation dreams.

 And, lo and behold, when they studied the data from surveys asking participants to recount their dreams and game playing habits, Gackenback and Kuruvilla found that this was generally true. With regards to people’s dreams, the survey measured whether or not there was a threatening event, what it was like, who the target of the threat was, how severe it was, whether or not the dreamer was participating in the threat, and the dreamer’s reaction. In short, hardcore gamers ((The researchers actually called them “High End Gamers” but that label seems weird to me, like we’re luxury goods.)) still had violent and threatening dreams –no surprise, since we often dream about what we encounter while waking, and for hardcore gamers that often includes video game violence– but they reported being less frightened by the dreams and were much less likely to characterize them as “nightmares.” Even more interestingly, this was especially true of those who played lots of first-person shooters.

 But is that the only way that gamers dream differently? Nope. In a subsequent study (Gackenback, Kuruvilla, Dopko 2009), the same researchers also looked at how likely hardcore gamers were to have really bizarre dreams. And honestly, what I found most fascinating about this study was how they conceptualized bizarreness as consisting of three factors:

  • Incongruity or mismatching features of dream images
  • Uncertain or explicit vagueness of dream images
  • Discontinuity or sudden appearance, disappearance, or transformation of dream images

Anyway, the researchers figured that since we see so many really weird things in our video games during our waking hours, that weirdness must seep through into our dreams. Turns out they were right. Upon analyzing more data from surveys asking participants to describe their dreams and gaming habits, the Gackenback et al. found that gamers tended to have dreams with more vague and incongruent content, especially as it related to people and places.

Again, maybe not surprising, but the authors have some interesting theories as to why this is the case, beyond the obvious explanation that we tend to dream about what we see while awake the day before. For example, the more bizarre dreams may happen because gamers’ minds may be conditioned to be open to and even expect unorthodox relationships between concepts and things. This jives with other research showing that playing video games may enhance nonverbal problem solving, especially as it relates to spatial reasoning. Additionally, greater creativity (which also requires one to “get” unorthodox relationships among different things) has been shown to greater dream bizarreness. So hardcore gamers, as a group, may be conditioned to be more creative and better at certain types of problem solving relative to casual gamers or non-gamers. Because …we have really weird dreams. Or rather, we have the weird dreams because of those other things.

At any rate, it’s an interesting line of research, if a little niche (says the guy who has a blog about the psychology of video games). Now, go to bed –you’ve got some really weird but strangely non-threatening dreams to get to.

REFERENCES

Gackenbach, J. & Kuruvilla, B. (2008). The Relationship Between Video Game Play and Threat Simulation Dreams. Dreaming, 18 (4), 236-256.

Gackenback, J., Kuruvilla, B. & Dopko, R. (2009). Video Game Play and Dream Bizarreness. Dreaming, 19 (4), 218-231.

Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is an industrial-organizational psychologist, writer, and life-long video game enthusiast.

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