Gackenbach Presentation at Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland

Gackenbach just before Unsound presentation in Krakow, Poland on Oct 12, 2014

Gackenbach just before Unsound presentation in Krakow, Poland on Oct 12, 2014

I am presenting a talk on our work on gaming and the nightmare protection hypothesis at a music festival, Unsound Festival, in Krakow, Poland on Oct. 12, 2014 ( I was invited by Goethe-Institut, a German cultural institute in Poland. The theme of the festival is dreams in all its forms thus the relevance of my work on video game play and dreams. The title of the talk is “Video Game Play as Nightmare Protection”. I am part of a series of talks. The slides/pdf can be found at

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Replaying Japan 2014 Paper Presentation

Our lab presented a version of our work comparing dreams and media use to the second annual International Japan Game Studies Conference at the University of Alberta in August 2014. Here is the Taiwan and Canada Self-Construal Video Game Play and Dreams presentation.

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Conference presentations 2014

My students and I have presented at two international conferences in 2014 and are planning a presentation at a third one in August. The first was at the Towards a Science of Consciousness in Tucson, AZ. This poster was a report of both social media use and video game play associations to dreams and can be found here: Gackenbach and Boyes 2014 Tucson Presentation.

In early June three of my students attended and presented with me and a colleague at the International Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Berkeley. These presentations were:

1. A poster with Carson Flockhart and Alison Ditner of early results from an experimental manipulation of the nightmare protection thesis (nightmare protection poster IASD June 2014).

2. A poster with Sarah Gahr of cultural differences within Canadian students examining video game play, social media use, self-construal, and dreams (culture media and dreams poster IASD 2014).

3. A presentation with Arielle Boyes examining nightmare protection and female gamers (Boyes and Gackenbach Nightmare Protection Hypothesis and Female Gamers).

4. A presentation with my Taiwanese colleague, Ming-Ni Lee, and students Sarah Gahr and Yue Yu comparing media use, self-construal, and dreams across Taiwan and Canada (The Relationship Between Self-Construal, Media Use and dreams)

Jayne Gackenbach, Ph.D.

June 14, 2014


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Been a year!!

Time gets away from one and I see it’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog. So here is a quick recap of our labs activity in the last  year. We had papers and posters on our work at various professional conferences with some students presenting.

Several research projects are underway and some with funding from MacEwan University. We are currently collecting video game, social media, personality and dream information from three Chinese universities and at MacEwan. This is our first exploration of cross cultural differences but a related question is planned for a research project next year (Sarah Gahr). An honors thesis will examine questions about female gamers  and personality (Ally Ditner). The question of female high end gamers and the lack of nightmare protection was addressed in the thesis of Arielle Boyes which will be presented at the annual IASD conference. Another take on nightmare protection was done by Carson Flockhart with an experimental manipulation and we found some supporting results.

Two individual study students were involved in lab as well. Hanna Stark did a central image analysis of data comparing gamers to those who meditate and pray while Ann Sinyard is exploring the possiblity of Oculus Rift. We hope to run a study next year using the rift or at least asking developers about their experiences and their dreams.

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Dr. Zongkui Zhou of Central China Normal University visits our video game laboratory

We were pleased to have hosted a visit from Zongkui Zhou, Ph.D., a professor at the Central China Normal University (CCNU) where he is dean of the School of Psychology. He serves as the Director of the Key Laboratory of Adolescent CyberPsychology and Behavior affiliated to the National Ministry of Education, China. We have been discussing various possible research collaborations. Here is a picture taken during  his visit:


Dr. Zhou and Dr. Gackenbach are in the front row with Dr. Iain Macpherson, Dr. William Wei, Dr. David McLaughlin and Dr. Melike Schalomon in the back row.

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Social Media Use vs Video Game Play: Hall and Van de Castle Content Analysis of Dreams

Jayne Gackenbach, Arielle Boyes and Sarah Gahr

As technology use has become increasingly pervasive, it is of interest to examine heavy social media users compared to high end video game players in terms of the content of a recent dream gathered from each group. We would expect gamers to evidence more aggression and less pro-social interactions, while we would expect the opposite of high end social media users. We collected over 500 surveys from students at a Western Canadian University who varied along these dimensions. Of the first 127 randomly chosen dreams which were content analyzed using the Hall and Van de Castle (HVDC) system, two extreme media use groups were identified. Those who were Gamers (n=23) (males=19; females=4). They reported playing from several times a week to daily and had played a video game in the 24 hours prior to taking the survey almost all of which were combat centric. The second group was identified as high social media users (n=33) (males=3; females=30). They reported infrequent gaming (average less than once a month to once a month) but frequent social media use, i.e., daily facebook plus daily to several times a week twitter, tumblr or instgram use. Not surprisingly these media use groups fell along sex lines. Therefore they were separately compared to the HVDC norms as a function of sex. The major finding was that there were 11 differences from the male norms for the gamers and nine differences from the female norms for the social media group. Using Domhoff and Schneider’s system of data entry there are 25 possible statistical tests done.

                In terms of the social interaction percentages the gamers, as hypothesized, compared to the male norms had higher aggression/friendliness percents and higher physical aggression. But as shown in our earlier work there was no difference in aggressor percent nor in dreams with at least one aggression.  The social media users, relative to the female norms, were also higher on the aggression/friendliness percent but did not differ in the physical aggression percent or the other two variables involving aggression.  In terms of prosocial interactions, there was no difference from the same sex norms for either group for befriender percent. Both media use groups dreams were coded as having fewer dreams with at least one incident of friendliness.  The social interaction ratios showed some differences as a function of media use groups. Specifically, the friendliness per character index was lower for the gamers than the male norms but this was also the case for the social media users relative to the female norms. We can conclude with this minimal data set that the only difference between the media groups, relative to their norms, was in terms of a bit more aggression in the gamers, with that one exception it seems that their differences from the norms are more generational than type of media used.

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Nightmare Protection Thesis of Video Game Play in First Responders

Jayne Gackenbach and Carson Flockhart

It has been hypothesized that video game play during the day may act as protection from fears during sleep, which are sufficient to disturb sleep. In this research program we have examined the dreams of heavy video game players. While most are male and play combat centric games, this has not always been the case in this program of work. In any event we have found in some data that nightmares are less often reported among heavy players, when controlling for sex, or if no difference in incidence the response of the game playing dreamer to the self-identified nightmare has been positive.

The nightmare protection thesis was based upon the concept that defensive rehearsal in at least combat centric video game play, if done repeatedly over a long period of time, would result in well learned defensive responses. These would generalize to altered states, in this case dreams. This process is similar to the imagery rehearsal technique for treating nightmares.

 Also supporting the thesis is the numbing towards violence associated with serious combat centric game play which could result in a lessened nightmarish experience in the dream. Finally, it has been pointed out that there is a critical window of time following trauma where postrauma memories can be interfered with by engaging in a visuospatial cognitive task. Video game play is one such task.

In two studies, one on military gamers and a replication and extension on students who experienced trauma, we found support for a qualified nightmare protection function of video game play. In these studies the classic predictors of nightmares were controlled, emotional reactivity and past history of trauma, allowing for the play of video games to be considered regarding any nightmarish type of dream content. The thesis seems clearest for males playing combat centric games. However, female high-end gamers were surprisingly the most troubled by nightmares. This can be interpreted both by sex role inconsistency, playing combat games is not a traditional female type of play, and game genre female high end games experience.

In this second replication, we administered the same set of questionnaires to primary and secondary first responders online through prescreening of a university subject pool and through website solicitation. The same pattern of results as with the student population was observed. As before emotional reactivity and history of trauma were controlled for in the ANCOVA’s of sex x game play groups on subscales of the dream content analysis using a threat simulation scale. That is, high end male first responder gamers, who focus primarily on combat centric games, were found to show less overall threat and fewer targets of threat in their dreams than high end female first responder gamers. The opposite was true for low end first responder gamers, more threat in the males’ dreams than the females. Differences in results in the three studies testing the nightmare protection thesis of game play will also be examined.

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Gaming, Social Media and Nightmares

While our group has been investigating the association between gaming and nightmares or nightmarish content in dreams, we have not considered the role of social media. The time has come with the widespread and pervasive use of such media to consider if simply being in a virtual world where you have some control of the “variables” is sufficient for nightmare protection or if the specific of game play, i.e. rehearsal of combat readiness, is needed. This inquiry was undertaken with about 700 primarily undergraduate students at a western Canadian university. Preliminary data analysis (n=94) is discussed herein. Three gaming and three social media frequency variables were considered along with history of nightmares, self-assessment of a reported dream as a nightmare, and judges coding of threat simulation in the same dream were entered into a varimax rotated factor analysis. Nightmares were not expected to be associated with gaming and indeed factor one loaded frequency of game play, playing in the 24 hours prior to filling out the survey and using social media game sites with the dream they reported as not being a nightmare. The three social media variables (Facebook, twitter, or other nongame social media) frequency of use loaded together on the second factor with none of the nightmare variables. The third factor loaded the lack of frequent Facebook use with higher average monthly nightmares, more likely to report this dream as a nightmare, and the coded dream threat as not being objective. This is surprising as we had a ceiling effect with frequency of Facebook use. About two thirds of this subsample, where threat in dreams was coded, reported Facebook use several times a day with another 18% reporting it as a daily occurrence. While the expected gamer finding was supported, what’s new here is that those that do not embrace Facebook, to the extent of their peers, also report more distress in dreams. These data are preliminary and full data analysis on nightmares, threat simulation coding and social media/gaming use will be reported.

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First Responders Needed for Gamer Research Study

I am following up on previous research into gaming as potentially nightmare protection and am looking for first responders. Here is the post I have created soliciting people with that background. If you know anyone who is a first responder please feel free to pass along this invitation.

Invitation to First Responders for Research Participation

My name is Jayne Gackenbach and I do research on the effects of video game play on dreams. I also co-teach a course here at MacEwan University on video games and have written a book for my students on the effects of gaming coauthored with my gamer son (Play Reality: How Video Games are Changing Everything). My research into military gamers was featured in an article, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in print and online:


Interview with  Chris Shea for the Wall Street Journal which appeared Jan.21/22 2012


This article is based on this research which was published in the journal Dreaming:

Gackenbach, J.I., Ellerman, E. & Hall, C. (2011). Video Game Play as Nightmare Protection: A Preliminary Inquiry in Military Gamers. Dreaming. 21(4), 221-245.

I would like to repeat this study, but this time with first responder gamers and that is why I am writing your website. I have gotten permission from the administrator of your website to post on the forums and announce this research project.

Here is the link to the survey:


It may take up to an hour to fill out so be sure you have the time to participate before you begin.


If you know any first responders who are not part of this website please feel free to pass along this invitation to participate in research.


Jayne Gackenbach, Ph.D.

Psychology Professor

Grant MacEwan University


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This last day of 2011 closes out a very busy year for me. I have three books which will be coming out in 2012 that I spent the year working on. Two are on video games and one on dreams. The first to appear is “Play Reality” which I wrote with my gamer son ( It is an overview of gaming effects research from the perspective of a gamer. Then in late February a book I co-wrote a very long time ago will be reissued as an e-book, “Control Your Dreams”. Later in 2012 my third book, also on gaming, will appear. It is an edited book entitled “Video Game Play and Consciousness”. All three are completed and going through the publishing process. As each becomes available I’ll announce it here on my blog.

This time I wanted to feature some discussion board posts from two of my students here at MacEwan. I co-teach a course on video games with Brian Brookwell of the Computer Science Department in a degree they offer on video game design. As part of the course requirement students talk about their experience with video game play. This last term two students spoke about their experience with suffering with serious depression and how gaming helped them recover. The first is a case of a young man (Student A) who details how World of Warcraft was instrumental in his recovery. This is followed by another case of depression and gaming by a young woman (Student B). In the second case she details the specifics of the game experience which she felt pulled her through. Her case echoes the young man’s but she goes further and considers how that very activity of recovery became addiction and how she then dealt with the other side of this two sided coin. These are thoughtful and intelligent young people who offer from their own lives these experiences. One student requested to remain anonymous, the other student did not. However, I thought it best to keep both students anonymous. If however, you the reader would like to contact one of these students I can forward your email. I offer these cases in the spirit of hopefully helping others who may be suffering depression as a potential way to move on.

Student A:

During my grade 11 year … I found myself spiraling out of control, starting with my own mother’s diagnosis of being depressed, mixed with the unrelenting course load I found myself slipping deep down into the dark mental trap known as depression. It consumed me for more than 9 months leaving me with absolutely no will to do anything, lying on a couch watching TV. Then one day I was coaxed out of the house by my dad to go to a computer shop to help him get some software and I saw WoW on the shelf, I asked my dad if we could buy a copy and he agreed as it was the first thing I was interested in months. I took it home and started playing, at first alone avoiding other players but soon I found myself interacting with people using my avatar as a mask to protect my fragile psyche. Not long after I found myself leading the warlocks through Molten core and eventually I tried my hand at guild leadership. Through a combination of leading my friends, master my characters and the aid provided by my doctor I managed a full recovery. I think that without an outlet for my mind it’s actually quite possible I would have given up entirely and succumbed to my depression. However as I am writing this today that is not the case and I feel that part of my survival is actually owed to WoW an MMORPG. I feel that my personal experience is honestly a great example of how MMO’s can help people recover. Even though mine wasn’t prescribed it did help me and I think it has real potential to help people struggling with mental illness.

Student B:

            Video games and mental health – do they help or hinder? If a clear answer is what you’re looking for, stop reading now. In class we discussed several studies with seemingly contradictory conclusions. On the one hand, video games have been seen to ease depression and reduce anxiety. On the other – excessive gaming was associated with lower indicators of mental health, addiction and even suicide. So what’s actually going on here? What is the interrelation between video games and depression?

                I feel like I’m in a unique position to reflect on the nature of video game play, depression and addiction, because I’ve had relevant experiences on both sides. Several years ago, I was hit, like a brick, with a major depressive episode. It’s hard to point to what initially triggered the switch that sucked all the color out of my world. I like to joke that it was because I was taking an arts degree, but in retrospect I mostly attribute it to a perfect storm of hereditary/environmental/and mental circumstances. What’s important isn’t how I became depressed – rather it’s what helped me move forward. The initial activity that helped me get a foothold back into my life was gaming. It started with my brother coaxing me to play World of Warcraft with him.

Looking back it’s easy to see why a game world was the perfect stepping-stone for me to get back to the real world. When you’re clinically depressed one thing you quickly get tired of hearing from doctors is “get outside, go meet people, go participate in activities”. For one thing, It’s incredibly difficult to interact with the real world when mentally you feel like you’ve been ground into a million little pieces. Secondly – people don’t exactly line up to be your friend when you look like you could burst into tears at any moment. The cycle of isolation and depression is difficult to break. Stepping into a game world allowed me to start socializing from behind the mask of my avatar. In game, no one could tell I was depressed. If I started crying, no one in game could see me. On days when I could barely drag myself out of bed, let alone make myself look acceptable enough to step out in public I could still log on and interact with other people without any stigma. As I played, I slowly gained in-game friends (some of which have become real life friends) and just as importantly I started to regain the confidence and self-worth that depression and stolen from me. As I continued to recover, gaming further helped me by giving me a sense of identity (as a ‘gamer’) that could be carried into the real world. 

Because of my experience of video games and depression I am eager to see further research explore the use of social games as a means of recovery for individuals suffering from severe depressive disorders. As a therapy it has obvious benefits. First – it offers a means of increasing a social connection. Second – it get’s the individual suffering from depression to focus on a positive external environment rather than their negative internal environment. Third – they often provide a structured goals and purpose (it a time in an individual’s life when they may have little of either). And finally as a medium for social interaction video games offer a degree of environmental control that is unparalleled by any other conceivable social situation. It what other social situation besides video games can log off if you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable with very little questions asked?

Having talked about what I think the benefits are when it comes to video games and mental health, I think my argument must be tempered with a discussion of the potential negatives. Anyone who tells you without a doubt that video games are all sunshine and butterflies (or the opposite that they are the downfall of today’s youth etc.) shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’ve said a lot of great things about video games so far, so I think it’s only fair to say that video games have the potential to be a very destructive force in a person’s life. One of the ugliest sides to gaming comes in the form of addiction.

In my last discussion post I talked a lot about the overuse of operant conditioning in video games. Video game companies have poured a lot of money into understanding and perfecting the perfect reward schedule to keep players hooked.  I think when it comes to video games the point of addiction is when the player no longer in control of their behavior. To me this point happened last summer during a particularly unstructured period of my vacation. The game was Halo III, a first person multiplayer shooter with relatively short matches. The problem with addictions is that they sneak up on you. Gradually, my play went from an hour a day, to several hours a day – and suddenly I was playing from dawn till dusk and my life was starting to feel… well not entirely of my own design. I would go to bed upset at how little I’d accomplished during the day, and swear to myself that I wouldn’t play anymore the next day – but come morning, echoing the words of countless addicts before me I would tell myself “just one more game” and they cycle would begin all over again. I felt like my video game use was out of control – and I was beginning to feel a sense of hopeless when it came to my behavior. Whereas earlier in my life video games had helped me overcome depression episode – here they seemed to be taking me down a path towards one. My savior in this situation was a return to structure, the start of my summer job, and throwing out (yes I actually chucked in in the trash) Halo III. I was lucky enough to resume life relatively unscathed but it gave me a lot of perspective as to how someone in a similar situation could have easily become depressed. In essence it was essentially the opposite of the experience I described before – isolation from my social circle (I was so embarrassed by my excessive game play that I hid my online status so my friends wouldn’t see my playing), and a decrease in confidence in myself.

So having had these two contradictory experiences with video games, where does that leave me? To be honest, more confused than anything.  How do we as video game players monitor and regulate something that can be simultaneously so positive and so negative? Is it like we discussed in class, just a matter of constant assessment and vigilance? Are we even capable of such a judgment from our limited views we have of ourselves? One thing I do take away from these two experiences and from this course is that mentally video games are much more powerful than anyone gives them credit for. It seems like by chance we have hit upon some formula with our media that is particularly potent when it comes to manipulating and forming new neural loops, modifying reward circuits and generally changing our patterns of behavior. The term ‘playing with fire’ seems to apply here. Hopefully we’ll grow to better understand the effects of video games and mental health before we get burned.

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