Nightmare Protection as Motivation to Play Video Games

Jayne Gackenbach

MacEwan University

Gackenbach, J.I. (2013, June). Nightmare protection as motivation to play video games. Paper presented at the preconference of the game studies division of the International Communication Association, London, England.



This paper will explain a series of studies regarding the nightmare protection hypothesis of playing at least combat centric games. Nightmares are one form of mentation during the REM sleep, in which the sleeper is paralyzed yet experiencing various arousal indicates and when awoken from REM sleep there is higher incidence of dream recall. 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. Such nightmares are one of the key features of post- traumatic stress disorder.

Dreams are often viewed in western society as superfluous. However, dream science has shown in the last 50 years that dreams serve several functions in brain processing including having motivational elements within the dream and upon awakening due to the dream. When the brain is “off-line”, meaning input from sensory registers is not for the most part being attended to, the cognitive work of the brain continues. Our phenomenological experience of the brains information processing activities while asleep is a dream. While some have argued that this is simply random firing, more recent models of dream function and related research have shown that dreams, primarily REM sleep mentation, serve various functions including memory consolidation, problem solving, creative inspiration, and emotional regulation. It the last of these functions that brings dreams into the realm of motivation.

Smith et al (2004) argue that there are several lines of evidence pointing to a motivational component in REM sleep mentation. These include the role of the limbic system, especially aggression and the amygdala, as functional in waking motivation and sleeping REM dreams. They also note that, “Solms’ forebrain-based dopamine hypothesis of dreaming also suggests the existence of a prominent motivational component to sleep mentation” (p. 590). The prefrontal cortex, which is sometimes referred to as the “seeking” or “wanting” center of the brain, Solms (1997) argues is important in dream production and has substantial connections to limbic regions. The final evidence for a motivational component to nighttime REM dreams is that of LaBerge and Kahan (LaBerge, Kahan, & Levitan, 1995). This group has shown that various types of choices are in fact quite normal in REM dreaming and that choice is a type of motivational state.

In this research program we have examined the dreams of heavy video game players. While most are male and play combat centric games, which is not always 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 not difference in incidence the response of the dreamer to the self-identified nightmare has been positive. Comments from gamers such as “I wondered why my nightmares are such fun” or “I never have nightmares” are common in this work. For normal day to day dream function such responses to dreams which are labeled nightmares is interesting, but when one considers situations where nightmares may be indicative of profound experiences of trauma, then either not having them or responding to them positively becomes potentially clinically relevant.

That is, either consciously or unconsciously gamers may use such play to help themselves deal with the negative effects of trauma. 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 other altered realities, in this case dreams. This process is similar to the imagery rehearsal technique for treating nightmares (Krakow & Zadra, 2006).

Also, the numbing towards violence associated with serious combat centric game play (Barlett, Anderson, & Swing, 2009) could result in a lessened nightmarish experience in the dream. Finally, Holmes, James, Kilford, and Deeprose (2010) point out that:

Human memory differentiates visual and verbal components. Pathological trauma flashbacks consist of sensory, visual images. . . Cognitive science shows that visuo-spatial cognitive tasks compete for resources with visual images. The biology of memory consolidation suggests a 6 hour time frame post-trauma within which memories are malleable. Thus, visuospatial cognitive tasks given within 6 hours posttrauma will interfere with visual flashback memory consolidation, and reduce later flashbacks (p. 2).

Video game play is a demanding visual spatial cognitive task and thus such video game play post trauma would presumably interfere with the flashback memories characteristic of PTSD nightmares.

After several studies where we repeatedly found this apparently paradoxical relationship between nightmares and positive emotional responses to them, we undertook a study examining the dreams of gamers who had or had been severing in the military. In the subject recruitment phase, several soldiers told us antidotes about coming back from a combat situation and wanting to play video games, puzzling at their own choices.

Two studies will be reported upon, one on military gamers and a replication and extension on students who experienced trauma. In these studies the classic predictors of nightmares were controlled, emotional reactivity and past history of trauma (Levin & Nielsen, 2007), allowing for the play of video games to be considered regarding any nightmarish type of dream content.

In the first study, predominately male soldiers from around the world answered several online surveys about their gaming history, their emotional reactivity, and history of trauma. They were also asked to provide a recent and a military dream with the later followed by a series of dream relevant questions. Using dream content analyses and self-reports of reactions to dreams, support was found for the notion of video game play as nightmare protection. The high-end gaming group exhibited less threat and war content in their military dreams than the low-end group. Specifically, the high-end group seemed to be able to fight back in the military dreams, while the low-end group were frozen, i.e. “felt like a 1000 pound trigger pull”. While not denying the horror of their military dreams, these dreams were also seen by the high-end gamers as exciting.

A replication was done on male and female university students who had experienced a trauma in the past and reported a dream associated with that trauma along with a recent dream. Controls were again emotional reactivity and trauma history. We concluded that male high-end gamers seemed to be less troubled by nightmares, while female high-end gamers were the most troubled by nightmares. So what is different between these two types of gamers? While there were emotional reactivity differences, they were controlled for in the statistical analyses. Therefore, in terms of the nightmare protection thesis, type of games they played may offer some explanation. That is, while women report the same pattern of play of combat centric games and sport games, their play of casual games is different. While female high-end gamers do not play any more casual games than female low-end gamers, they play a lot more relative to the other two genre groupings than do the male high end gamers, whose casual game play is the least favored. In conclusion, the nightmare protection hypothesis of video game play should be qualified to apply to male high end gamers who play few casual games.


Barlett, C.P., Anderson, C.A. & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects—confirmed, suspected, and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40(3), 377-403.

Holmes, E.A., James, E.L., Kilford, E.J., & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key Steps in Developing a Cognitive Vaccine against Traumatic Flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus Verbal Pub Quiz. PLoS ONE 5(11):e13706.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013706

LaBerge, S., Kahan, T., & Levitan, L. (1995). Cognition in dreaming and waking. Sleep Research, 24A, 239.

Krakow, B. & Zadra, A. (2006). Clinical Management of Chronic Nightmares: Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 4(1), 45-70.

Levin, R. & Nielsen, T.A. ( 2007). Disturbed dreaming, posttraumatic stress disorder, and affect distress: A review and neurocognitive model. Psychological Bulletin, 133(3), 482-528.

Smith, M.R., Antrobus, J.S., Gordon, E., Tucker, M.A., Hirota, Y., Wamsley, E.J., Ross, L., Doan, T., Chaklader, A. & Emery, R.N. (2004). Motivation and affect in REM sleep and the mentation reporting process. Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 501–511

Solms, M. (1997). The neuropsychology of dreams: A clinico-anatomical study. London: Erlbaum.