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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