Research Status Update and Dreams for Comment

This is a paper to be presented at the annual Psiber Dreaming Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Sept. 2010

Video Game Play and Dreams: What are the Important Questions?

Jayne Gackenbach
Grant MacEwan University

          It’s been five years since I participated in this online conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. At that point my research program into the dreams of video game players had just begun. In looking at my presentation from 2005, I see that I offered some of the empirical justification for this work. This year I thought I would begin by very briefly summarizing what we have found over the intervening years. Then I’ll pose questions, through illustrative dreams of gamers, that I’d appreciate hearing your impressions and ideas about.
          The potential negative effects of video game play have long been studied. What is now becoming increasingly clear, is that there are various positive educational and psychological effects as well. There is no doubt that video game play represents a complex experience of childhood, and now of adulthood, which is not easily reduced to simple condemnations or accolades. Video gaming is one of the fastest growing entertainment industries with revenues arguably the same as, or greater than, the movie industry, depending on how you count. Thus, gaming is too wide spread to reduce to purely self selection. Not only is there something enticing about interacting in and with virtual worlds, there is increasing social pressure to play.
          Studying video games and dreams informs various areas of inquiry and ways of thinking about dreams. I initially made the argument that gaming inquires were important because they represent the most commonly accessible form of virtual reality (VR), which has come to dominate the media landscape. Since making that argument some years ago, it has become clear that there are other compelling reasons to study gaming and dreams. For instance, gaming participation is a type of social consciousness, which allows the collective acting out of archetypal myths. Video games are increasingly being used by sleep and dream researchers as a pre-sleep stimuli to study memory processes in sleep. These experiences of virtual worlds while awake may inform inquiries into the potential evolutionary function of dreams. Various elements of metacognition in dreams seem to result from gaming, including lucidity and dream control. Finally, studying gaming and dreaming allows us to ask questions about the felt sense of being there, or presence as it’s called in the VR literature. We all take this for granted while awake, but our sense of reality is challenged by various media experiences and their impact on the felt sense of reality in dreams.
Summary of Findings to Date
          These reasons for studying dreams of gamers occurred to us in our lab at Grant MacEwan University as our research program progressed. Initially we looked at lucidity and control in the dreams of gamers and found an association, which we have replicated several times. Here is an example [italics in all quotes are my comments]:
once Jean Grey [a marvel comic and video game character] got loose and started killing people, I was like this is really weird this is probably a dream and it was like right after that she showed up and I told myself that I need to wake up.
          In our latest study we found that while lucidity/control was most strongly associated with gaming, it was also associated, if less strongly, with other media experiences. This finding points to the idea of gaming as only one type of VR which affects dreams. All of us are interacting in some sense with these various virtual worlds, from cell phone texting to watching a big screen movie, and they are affected our dreams.
          It occurred to us that the awareness of the dream while it was ongoing, and the often associated dream control, could have other consequences. And indeed through several content analyses of gamer’s dreams, using the classic Hall and Van de Castle system, we found that gamers dreams less often had misfortunes. We were surprised to see that gamers were less often aggressive in their dreams, but when they were aggressive they were more violent. Here is an example:

I went outside … with my cat and shot these criminals that were trying to eat my dad and they were on top of my dad trying to eat his arms and he was fighting them off, and they were trying to hold him down and bite his shoulders and there was blood and stuff. And it was a very graphic shootout for a dream; it was very blood and guts ya know? And when I ran out of ammunition there was like pistol whipping and stuff going on and that one sticks out in my mind because it was very graphic.

          We wondered if this combination of less misfortunes and more aggression, when it occurred, would have an impact on nightmares. The answer seems to be yes. We found that gamers reported either fewer nightmares or, if no difference in incidence, they reported that their nightmares were fun.
          The third area we have been examining is dream bizarreness. On the surface it does not seem surprising that gamer’s dreams are more bizarre than their contemporaries. After all when we found that there were more dead and imaginary characters in their dreams, it seemed only reasonable. After all, weren’t they fighting zombies or vampires or were wolfs all day, like this dream:

I dreamt I was a character is Underworld 2, it was a werewolf character and then I became a 3rd person. It was the two main characters, it was the vampire girl and a hybrid werewolf character and I was another werewolf character beside them and we went into a vampire coven and we got to the weapons section of the vampire coven and then I woke up

          But when we controlled for the number of hours they played a game the day before the dream was collected, we found that gamers still had more dream bizarreness than those who do not game as seriously. In our research this was associated with higher creativity among gamers. But of course this is one of the allures of gaming, you can create new worlds. But really it’s an allure of our attraction to all increasingly digital media. We are all producers or creators of products and information. So perhaps it’s just that the amount of time, or the nature of the creative acts of gaming, accounting for this association to creativity.
          In our most recent work we have been looking at game incorporation into dreams and the question of presence in dreams versus games. But our lab is also examining various other elements of consciousness and gaming. For instance, we found an association between mindfulness, a type of meditative state, and those who prefer first person shooter and action/adventure games. We also noted, as have other gaming labs, a positive association between gaming and flow, the balance between challenge and skill that elite athletes and expert musicians report.
Interesting Cases Result in Interesting Questions
          I’d now like to share with you several interesting dreams from gamers which we have collected. Hopefully your discussion will help to answer the questions that these cases create.
          The first case was collected a few years ago as part of one of my students honor’s thesis. While not all gamers dreams are so startlingly pardoxical, they do happen. This is a particularly dramatic example which asks the question “Is this detachment, in the classic meditative sense, or practice from gaming?”
          This is a dream from a male hard core gamer, who had played from 4 to 7 hours the day before this dream and had watched several violent cartoons. The games he played were first person shooters, including Half-Life 2 and Halo 3. From an archetypal perspective, both games could be considered Hero’s Journeys and perhaps Vision Quests. What is interesting about the first person point of view (POV) games is that they do not always allow a third person perspective. However, the real self is actually in third person while playing a first person shooter and thus hours of being in that perspective may have helped to mediate the dream ego’s view:

I was in a desert. I looked bad, dusty. I saw my tiny silhouette against a large sun, meaning I was watching myself, in 3rd person. While I looked bad I didn’t feel bad. I was indifferent to the “my” feelings. I came upon a carnival, but it gets sketchy at that point. Eventually I’m driving a car, again not at a real POV [point of view], but following behind the car. It didn’t matter to me that I was crashing into other cars or walls. My car caught fire, I saw it melt from within. I died not trying to escape.

Gamer reported an interesting detachment from the dream events:

As the car was burning I opened the door and leaned out to leave but made the decision to stay inside instead because I was curious to see what I would look like burning alive. While I felt the heat, smelt the smoke, I didn’t feel any pain. I felt detached from the feelings, but recognized that they were my own.

He also reported that this dream was not a nightmare. He was not scared, but he acknowledged that it was violent. He also said that the dream was not lucid and that he had no control. When asked “did you feel any emotions during the experiences?” he commented:

Sort of. I knew what the person I saw as myself felt, but didn’t share those feelings. Throughout the emotions of disgust, loneliness, or excitement were all ones I thought best fit the “character” of myself based on the situation.

Then he was asked “Did you think about what you were doing?” and he wrote:

I was constantly thinking about my every move, making sure that whatever I did was in my best interest. If anything was off-putting (the carnival owner, the desert) I simply moved on.

Then he replied to this question “Did you think about what was happening around you?” by saying:

I was constantly analyzing my surroundings…At the city where I drove my car, I noticed the simplicity of the environment, which seemed to be constructed out of simple polygons. Obviously that was a video game environment, much like Grand Theft Auto.

While it seems simple to conclude that he thought he was playing a game, the 3rd person POV which he stressed along with the emotional detachment of the dream ego seems to echo the descriptions of witnessing dreams that previous research has found among meditators. It’s these sorts of experiences reported by gamers that inform and motivate our ongoing inquires into the nature of consciousness developed by gaming. What do you think?
Gaming as Nightmare Protection
          These next cases call to mind the hypothesis that we have developed that gaming might act as a sort of inoculation for the nightmares associated with trauma. We do NOT mean that there wouldn’t be nightmares associated with trauma, only that the control and empowerment we have found in the dreams of gamers might offer some protection. To this end we are currently collecting dreams, as well as information about gaming and trauma history, from gamers who have served in the military or who are currently serving. Before reading these dreams, most of which depict combat, keep in mind that non-military gamers who play combat type games also dream about violence and aggression.
          Here is one example from a 28 years old soldier, who is on active duty with the US army, and who has been deployed twice. In his deployments he reported that he felt in great danger of being wounded or killed. This young Mexican American soldier plays video games one to two hours a day. He reported this dream from the night before filling out the survey :

While I was walking down a street I found myself encountering Freddy from the movie since I had just watched the latest film. There are trees from on both sides of the road and I see his figure in the street. In my head I am thinking WTF? As he approached me the first thing I did was blink away similar to a mage would in WoW [World of Warcraft is a popular role playing game]. However he still caught me, I then asked him, “If this is my dream and I can do whatever I want, why is it that you pose a threat? He laughs and than I am sitting down in a Chili’s restaurant. I can’t remember who I am with but I do know all the women that I have asked out are in the room. Some guys walk in and a projection screen scrolls down in the front of the restaurant. As they look around one of them notices me and announces “Oh my God, ******* [gaming alias is given here which is deleted to preserve anonymity] is over there” referring to the priest I play in the game. The head guy then brings over a keyboard and tell me to log into the game. I try and explaing I can’t since I don’t have my authenticator on me. He tell me not to worry about it since they have called Blizzard [a game producing company] and have grnated my a one time easement to logon without my authenticator. He than explains to me he is going to hold everyone hostage inside the restaurant until his son is ran though all the instances and raids within WoW. Once I accept the terms and I put my hands on the keyboard I am whisked away and I see my blue eyed Mexican redhead with an English accent, I have no idea what part of the world I am in all I know is I need to chase her.

The ingredients of lucidity, and control, as well as incorporation of game play, are easy to identify in this dream. However, the outcomes are not as clear. While this soldier used a gaming technique to try to get safely away from Freddy, it didn’t appear to work. Freddy laughed at him. But the game theme continued with his getting special access, authenticator waived, and once accepting the game terms a reward, the Mexican redhead. Gaming is not in all the dreams of these young military gamers. This same young soldier offered this dream as his most impactful dream while in the military:

I was a passenger in a HUMVEE driving down one of the raods in Iraq. Out of nowwhere there is a load boom and I see a cloud of dust in front of the vehicle. The impact of the exploxsion is felt as my head is forced back in a whiplash fashion. I remember being asked if I was okay, there are no injuries, people are shaken up by the event. We continue on after doing checks, after that the dream ends or that is all I can recall.

Gaming had no apparent direct influence on this dream. However, he reports about this dream that he did not feel separation, rejection or loss and indeed felt vital, energetic and alive. He reported feeling moderately successful in obtaining his goals in the dream. Yet before awakening he responded that to some extent, he felt like crying.
          Here is another case of a married enlisted black man on active duty who has been deployed into combat with the US Army. This 40 year old plays video games daily. He reported this dream as his most recent:

I had a dream about my game i was playing lastnight before bed.. I dreamed I was an enforcer in my game and I kept having problems reloading my weapon. All I can see is my weapon jamming after reloading. It is a semi automatic handgun. I am also underfire while this is happening. I can hear the rounds passing by me.

While the game play is evident in the dream it does not seem to empower him in any way that is apparent. Yet the rounds are “passing by” which is certainly a better outcome, if not safe. Another daily gamer who is a 25 year old, Caucasian, enlisted man in the US military, on active duty, but has not been deployed, had this dream:

Sometime after the North Koreans blew up the Cheonan, I had a dream that war broke out and I had to flee from my home and complete certain goals before I could leave the area. So I ran around the map (much like a video game I play, called ArmA II) and complete objectives such as rescuing my fiancee, to collecting food/fuel, and forming and following a route to Pusan for my escape. I remember feeling some fear, but also I was sure my experiences in the military and training would get me through the trials that were set before me. Once I had made it through the initial set of tasks to escape the city I’m in now, I felt relief and when I woke up I was sweating and clutching my fiancee out of fear of losing her.

          Here we see an interesting combination of empowerment from the game play translated into the dream, completing objectives and relief, yet he also seemed to experience fear upon awakening.
          Finally these types of comments are also taken from this set of military gamers dreams which we are currently in the process of collecting. They are similar to ones we have seen in our earlier gamer data sets:

  • At this point, my dreaming self was dissatisfied with the situation, and then “rewound” the episode.
  • I am always going from being myself in the dream to watching it like a movie and it bounces like that trough out the dream.
  • i was part of the fellow ship of the ring.. and i was travelling in the woods fighting a dragon casting magical was awsome!!!
  • often wake up as i did from this one on some kind of adreniline rush, feelings similar to winning in sports or doing well during moments of intense concentration during computer games

          In conclusion, while we don’t yet understand entirely the role that video game play has in influencing our dreams, clearly it is one that is important to investigate as more and more of our lived lives are in VR environments, like this conference!



          Gackenbach, J.I., Kuruvilla, B., Dopko, R. & Le, H. (2010). Chapter 5: Dreams and video game play. In F. Columbus (Ed.), Computer Games: Learning Objectives, Cognitive Performance and Effects on Development, Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, p. 127-136.

          Gackenbach, J.I. (2008). Video game play and consciousness development: A transpersonal perspective. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40(1), 60-87.

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