This presentation will summarize why studying the dreams of video game players is important for understanding dreams. Hard core gamers represent the leading edge of immersion in virtual worlds that increasingly has come to define a large part of contemporary entertainment and communication. Three conceptual points as to why this new element in contemporary society needs to be investigated in terms of its impact on dreams, will be illuminated. These points are 1) dreams as aid to solving the hard problem in consciousness, 2) evolutionary function of dreams, and 3) gaining lucidity in sleep through imaginal absorption.
First, Revousuo (2006) argues that dreams are useful for understanding the binding problem in consciousness. He defines consciousness-related binding as “the problem of understanding the relationship between the phenomenal unity of consciousness and the immediately underlying mechanisms that could explain phenomenal unity” (p. 205). In tying this to dreams Revousuo goes on to point out that “a dream object does not transform randomly into another object, but into an object that shares many semantic or associative features with the first. In the waking state such associations do not intrude into our consciousness, for they are unable to override the externally supplied sensory information” (p. 247). Thus the dream state and its inherent bizarre nature allows an unfettered examination of these networks. It is the bizarreness in dreams which illuminate semantic networks. In other words, if the bizarre element happens due to skip in the track of the semantic network, it does not go too far afield. Thus having a waking situation, video game play, where subjects are exposed for long periods of time to unusual/bizarre experiences can help to further illuminate the nature of bizarreness in dreams and ultimately the hard problem in consciousness. Such a situation is not easily created in a laboratory with a few hours of media viewing or interacting. In fact in a study on video game effects on various cognitive and perceptual tasks Boot et al (2008) found that nonplayers trained on up to 1000 hours of play, still did not reach the levels on their cognitive/perceptual task performance as expert players who Boot et al estimate came into the laboratory condition with 10’s of thousands of hours of play.
Secondly, one evolutionary function of dreaming has been identified as threat simulation (Revonsuo & Valli, 2000). Gaming may reduce this dream function because this need is being addressed in another imaginal realm (i.e., during a game). Early support for this thesis was found by Gackenbach and Kuruvilla (2008a). Thus gaming offers another realm to investigate this evolutionary function of dreams. Relatedly, the rehearsal of nightmares while awake as a technique to decrease their intensity and persistence (Krakow, Kellner, Pathak, & Lambert, 1996), may also be manifest in some video game players. Specifically, in some studies the Gackenbach group has found gamers reporting fewer nightmares than those that rarely game (Gackenbach, 2009a).
The final reason that studying gaming informs dream studies is the potential of gaming to act as preparation or training for dreaming lucidly (Gackenbach, 2006, 2009b). Again the practice in this technologically generated imaginal realm can result in consciousness emerging in dreams. Thus such inquiries inform not only the question of how to have a lucid dream but also the broader question of the nature of consciousness when it emerges in sleep. In a review of lucidity-gamer association Gackenbach, Hunt, and Dopko (2009) conclude that gaming enhances the experience of lucidity along the same lines as meditators’. These findings can be interpreted equally in terms of a psychology of imaginative absorption.
All of these are potential ways that studying video game effects on dreams illuminate our understanding of dreams. Conceptually, this is not surprising as the deep absorption into the VR of gaming constitutes another imaginal realm or perhaps altered state of consciousness whose experience impacts and informs “normal” consciousness states such as dreams. While games are escapable and dreams typically less so, sans lucid-control dreams, none-the-less there are many parallels in the sense of games offering an alternative reality accessible by most while other alternative realities such as that created in hypnosis or meditation is less widely accessible. As Preston (1998) has pointed out gaming provides experiences in deep absorption not normally available to those without that trait. And thus informs our understanding of dreams in the context of consciousness.