Non-gaming Virtual Immersion and Dreaming

Jayne Gackenbach

MacEwan University

Gackenbach, J.I. (2012, October). Non-gaming virtual immersion and dreaming. Paper presented at the annual IASD PsiberDreaming online conference. Retreived July 9, 2012 from

We were asked what changes we see in our specialty areas in the decade since IASD began an online conference. For starters, the fact that IASD could go online with a conference a decade ago appears to me an important change in how we communicate about dreams; and it has contributed to the wide spread of the organization. From my perspective, the PsiberDreaming conferences coincided with a new interest I had developed regarding the dreams of video game players: although I did my first inquiry in the late 1990s, it was in the early 2000s that I got a serious research program underway.

Life online has exploded since then, from promises of potential to the actualization of each of our virtual existences. I was pleased to see the 2012 annual IASD conference in Berkeley include a session on “Technology of Dreams.” David L. Kahn began with a review of the various apps now available for smart phones and tablets, bringing home the diversity that has emerged in ways to work with dreams. Ryan Hurd showed us the wonders of Zeo, a system that offers a biofeedback way to track sleep cycles, including REM and thus dreaming. Finally, Kelly Bulkeley outlined his newly launched website The Sleep and Dream Database, where researchers or the curious can search over 8000 dreams, using a variety of filters. Bulkeley is following Bill Domhoff’s lead (see The Quantitative Study of Dreams), in offering dreams for quantitative analysis online. Also, the founders of Dreamscloud had a poster presentation about their dream collecting website – not the first, as REMcloud is still collecting and sharing dreams, as are many other sites nicely organized by Richard Wilkerson at his DreamGate  website.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg in how our digital lives impact us, including our dreams. The idea that our waking lives impact our dreaming lives is not new; it can be argued that it started with Freud, and among contemporary dream researchers it has come together in the continuity hypothesis, which has garnered wide acceptance and illustration. While not the only idea about what impacts our dreams, it has been the most widely examined, and in a recent issue of the International Journal of Dream Research was explored from several perspectives. However, digital life has emerged as a new waking influence so widely experienced that it bears further consideration in its own right.

The PEW Internet and American Life Project  is one of the best research efforts tracking internet use and its offshoots: texting, tweeting, social media, wireless access, etc. Recent findings include how more people are using their smart phones to access the internet. More than half of individuals over 65 are now online. Twitter use rates are increasing. While Facebook growth has slowed in the U.S., it is exploding overseas. Location based services are now in use by 75% of mobile phone users. Teens, the heaviest users of social media, are also the most enthusiastic users of online video capabilities. And 71% of households play video games.

Clearly, the specialized or early adopter phase of digital life has passed. It is now a major experience in all walks of life, including third world countries. Thus simply talking about the most immersive medium, video game play, and its impact on dreams seems no longer sufficient. This is not something we access in a receptive fashion for a few hours a day. Electronic media pervade our lives, always available and so frequently accessed that laws are now widely passed regulating cell phone use while driving. Yes, we have always listened to the radio in the car, but never before were we so tempted to interact with media, no matter where we are physically. Even the older “push” media are now push/pull. We call in to vote for singers, decide who gets voted off of reality TV shows, and talk online about each new story that emerges. We use cell phone texting to congregate in public meeting spaces either as flash mobs or more seriously to voice concerns about government. The early call that the internet would democratize life seems to be emerging on so many levels. Whether one spends hours editing Wikipedia entries or shopping online for the perfect ceramic tile, our lives are increasingly digital, with rapidly expanding mobility. Witness Google’s new goggles, demonstrated at its recent corporate meeting: augmented reality glasses were passed from sky diver to runner to rappeller to bring them to the stage, while a large screen showed camera shots of various terrains en route to the auditorium. Need a map, call it up on your glasses!

What is important to keep in mind is that our daily waking realities are changing dramatically, incorporating technologically constructed alternative realities. Sometimes they are quite distinct, as in a video game; but sometimes they merge seamlessly with waking reality, as when texting in a meeting that you’ll be late. I believe that this new digitally enhanced life needs to be examined in the ways it impacts consciousness, including dreams. It has often been pointed out that dreams are a constructed reality. Waking reality, which perceptual scientists have pointed out is also constructed, has the most impact on our lives; but there are other constructed realities, like drug use, illness, hypnosis or meditation. Never before has such a large part of the population been affected so widely by an alternative reality, a technologically constructed alternative reality. In this paper I will offer new results from our lab on the association between non-gaming digital life and dreams. This is a preliminary exploration; much more work needs to be done.

I have focused on gamers because their online life is the most immersive and interactive relative to other online experiences (see my website). Immersion has gone from text based (when computer screens were white type on black backgrounds) to audio/video (the current favorite form which is experienced on a console, web device, or handheld); and now, kinesthetic/vestibular, with the new input devices (e.g. Wii and Kinect). The question I’ve been asking is: does spending so much time in technologically constructed alternative realities change our perceptions of reality, waking or altered or sleeping?

I’ve primarily focused on dreams for a variety of reasons, including having my 20 year career in dream research to draw upon. (NOTE TYPE SIZE CHANGES HERE?) I’ve also looked at other elements of consciousness alteration due to virtual immersion. Indeed I’ve edited a book coming out from NOVA Science Publishers in September,  Video Game Play and Consciousness. Authors are from eight countries and half a dozen academic disciplines examine various elements of consciousness affected by video game play, including dreams. Other consciousness effects covered include absorption, flow, attention, presence, immersion, game transfer to waking reality, archetypal roles in games, and fractured selves. The book includes an essay from Michael Highland, a young long-time gamer who spoke about the Enlightened Gamer at a regional TED conference, on how gaming has informed his view of reality, his personal spiritual quest and the development of his consciousness.

Previous Research into Media Use and Dreams

I won’t summarize my research into the effects of gaming on dreams here, as I’ve done so for other PsiberDreaming conferences (and see Gackenbach & Snyder, 2012; Gackenbach, Matty, Kuruvilla, Samaha, Zederayko, Olischefski, & Von Stackelberg, 2009; Gackenbach, Kuruvilla, Dopko, & Le, 2010; Gackenbach, 2012). I do refer to specific findings from this body of work in discussing the results of the current inquiry. The question at hand: Is non-gaming computer use and its association to subsequent dreams similar to what has been found for gaming? This is a question I have asked before (Gackenbach, 2009) without specifically asking the research participants how many hours they used a computer for non-gaming. Rather I examined their audio media use, audio/video media use and interactive media use. The strongest association to lucid and control dreaming was for video game play and interactive media, but there was also a positive association for those who used a lot of audio or audio/video media.

Two other studies have examined media use and dreaming. Both looked at TV viewing and computer games in children and their association to dreams. Van den Bulck (2004) examined Belgian adolescents’ media use reports, finding that most reported pleasant dreams associated with TV viewing. While the majority said they “never” have nightmares associated with TV viewing, the percent of teens responding “never” was considerably higher for computer game play. Schredl, Anders, Hellriegel, and Rehm (2008) asked younger children (9-13) than those queried in the Van den Bulck study, and concluded that no effect of media use could be found on subsequent dreams. These two studies did not specifically ask about computer use that is not gaming the day before a reported dream.

I asked both types of questions, media use and nongaming computer use, in this data collection effort. Besides noting the pervasiveness of electronic media, I had just read We Are Anonymous by Parmy Olson, about a loose-knit group hacking various institutional websites. I was struck by how like a video game it all seemed, although played at the cost of real world outcomes. That realization in conjunction with my students’ online activities brought home to me that the effects of virtual world immersion were not just being experienced by gamers. While gaming may offer the most immersive and interactive virtual experience, other elements of virtual life increasingly dominate our lives.

Present Inquiry into Non-Gaming Computer Use and Subsequent Dreams

Part of this data collection was presented as a poster at the 2012 IASD annual conference, and the details of the method are available on my website. In the earlier study we focused on daily activities, especially gaming, and subsequent nightmares/bad dreams. Here I’ll present some findings from those who did not play video games, focusing on non-gaming computer use in the day prior to the reported dream. We selected male and female research participants who varied in their day-before-the-dream non-gaming computer use, either using a computer for zero to less than one hour the day before the dream they recorded, or using a computer for 5+ hours “for other activities (i.e., student work, information lookup, for paid work, etc.).” This question followed one asking how many hours they used a computer for video game play. Thus four groups were chosen: 47 male and 82 female low end nongaming computer users, and 10 male and 36 female high end nongaming computer users.

While we selected extreme groups in order to examine the relationship to subsequent dreams, a few limitations need to be kept in mind. There were more women than men, but we were able to find ten men who used the computer a lot for non-gaming purposes. Also, the data consisted of self-reports about a dream and the previous day’s activities. How reliable are such self-reports? I can say that the students had no reason to lie, as the survey was completely anonymous and they got course credit (awarded prior to accessing the online survey) whether or not they answered any of the items.

As it turned out there was a difference in self-reported history of dream recall: these young women reported more dream recall than the men, which is consistent with the research literature. Because of this difference we used dream recall as a covariate in our statistical analysis, which is a way to control for a potential confound. In order to completely rule out video game effects we also controlled for the number of hours they played video games the day before the dream, as asked in a separate question. Males overall reported significantly more video game play in this sample than females. Thus we are left with groups who vary in their non-gaming computer use while controlling for the potential confounds of dream recall and gaming.

When these four groups were compared on their feelings about using a computer the day before the dream, high-end users were more likely to report a positive experience than low-end users. High-end users also reported more media use overall on the day before the dream.  As we have found repeatedly with our gaming data, high-end electronic media users access a wide variety of such media.

Self-report Dream Types

We asked participants to report the type of dream: lucid, nightmare, control, bad, mythological, bizarre, observer, normal and video game. Participants responded along a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1= not at all confident to 7= extremely confident that they’d had each type of dream. Across sex and computer use groups, overall confidence that they’d had a specific type of dream was highest for bizarre dreams, then lucid dreams, and lowest for video game and observer dreams. We found that non-gaming computer use group differences were evident for several types of dreams, sometimes in an interaction with sex and sometimes alone.

It can be seen in the figure below that there was little difference in lucid dreaming confidence for low-end users, but a big difference between the sexes for high-end users: Female high-end users were more confident that they’d had a lucid dream than were male high-end users.

Unfortunately we don’t have information on what they did on their computers, but given that they are college students it may be that a fair amount was on university studies, as we have found in another study at the same institution in western Canada (Swanston & Gackenbach, 2011). Social media may also be taking up their time, as is increasingly evident in the literature on media use. The sex difference in lucidity may be because women typically spend more time in social media then men, but it could also be due to the small number of men reporting a lot of nongaming computer use.  Lucid dreaming has been associated with high end video game play in previous research from our laboratory (Gackenbach, 2009).

High end non-gaming computer use was associated with more confidence that participants had control over their dreams, regardless of sex. This is similar to findings with high end video game players who repeatedly report more dream control (reviewed in Gackenbach, 2012).

There was also an effect in terms of self-perception of the bizarreness of the dream, with the low-end non-gaming computer users reporting more bizarreness. This finding was clearly accounted for by the high-end males, as seen in this figure:

This is in contrast to our recent research where we found that bizarreness was higher for video game players than nonplayers (Gackenbach, Kurvilla, & Dopko, 2009; Gackenbach & Dopko, 2012). Here, males’ high-end non-gaming computer use was associated with less dream bizarreness than in the other three groups. High-end males also said their dreams were more likely to be normal. It’s not surprising that video game play would be associated with bizarre dream content while high end non-gaming computer use would not, as presumably the tasks undertaken are rather ordinary relative to those in a video game.

There were no computer use differences in nightmares, bad, mythological, observer or video game dreams, but there was one sex difference: women reported more nightmares than men. Interestingly, data from the same study examining those who played a video game the day before the dream versus those who did not found that for men gaming was associated with less confidence that they experienced a nightmare, but not for women (Gackenbach, Ferguson, Mathewson, & Darlington, 2012). This finding is consistent with other research by our group on gaming as potentially a nightmare protection at least in males (Gackenbach, Ellerman, & Hall, 2011). Also, unsurprisingly, video game content has been found more often in the dreams of those who play video games than in those who do not (Gackenbach, Sample, & Mandel, 2011).

Finally, each participant was asked to rate the dream they reported in terms of a series of emotions: Anger, Awe, Arousal (sexual), Anxiety, Fear, Guilt, Frustration, Sadness, Hatred, Happiness, Jealousy, Embarrassment, Ecstasy, Downhearted, and Terror. The mean of the positive emotions and the mean of the negative emotions were computed. The results did not differ as a function of non-gaming computer use, but did as a function of sex. Across computer use groups and controlling for game played and dream recall, females reported more negative than positive emotions while males reported the opposite, as shown in the figure below.


As these results are correlational, we cannot say that non-gaming computer use causes any of these dreams. We can say there is an association between non-gaming computer use and some dream types, specifically lucid, control, and bizarre dreams; and some findings differ for gamers. Lucid dreams were reported more by female high-end non-game computer users than by any of the other three groups. We sometimes find that high-end gamers report more lucid dreams, but they also tend to be male. Control dreams were highest in the non-game computer user groups and, in previous research, in the gamer groups. Bizarre dreams were reported by the few male low-end non-game computer users, while bizarreness has also been found among gamers, who are largely male; dream bizarreness is high among gamer groups when coded by judges. Nightmares evidenced no group differences, but among gamers we have found fewer nightmares. In this sample, group differences in video game dreams were not found to speak of.

The major consistencies with our previous gamer data seem to be for lucid (female) and control dreams. This echoes the original reason I began this research program: the idea that virtual worlds enable practice for the night-time virtual world of dreams. While early and only suggestive, this effect may be a function of simply being in these realms, whether or not in a game.


Gackenbach, J.I. (2009) Electronic media and lucid-control dreams: Morning after reports. Dreaming, 19(1), 1-6.

Gackenbach, J.I. (2012). Video game play and dreams. In Barrett, D. & McNamara, P. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Gackenbach, J.I. & Dopko, R. (2012). The Relationship between Video Game Play, Dream Bizarreness, and Creativity. International Journal of Dream Research, 4(2), 63-76.

Gackenbach, J.I. & Snyder, T. (2012). Play Reality. Edmonton, AB: Original Cliche Entertainment.

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.

Gackenbach, J.I., Ferguson, M., Mathewson, K., & Darlington, M. (2012, June). History of gaming and daily activities as predictors of nightmares. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Berkeley, CA.

Gackenbach, J. I., Kuruvilla, B., & Dopko, R. (2009). Video game play and dream bizarreness. Dreaming, 19(4), 218-231.

Gackenbach, J.I., Kuruvilla, B., Dopko, R. & Le, H. (2010). Chapter 5: Dreams and video game play. In Soria, A. & Maldonado, J. (Eds.), Computer games: Learning objectives, cognitive performance and effects on development (pp. 127-136). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers,

Gackenbach, J.I., Matty, I., Kuruvilla, B., Samaha, A. N., Zederayko, A., Olischefski, J. & Von Stackelberg, H. (2009). Video game play: Waking and dreaming consciousness. S. Krippner and D. Ellis (Ed.), Perchance To Dream (pp. 239-253). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers,.

Gackenbach, J.I., Sample, T., & Mandel, G. (2011). The continuity versus discontinuity hypotheses: A consideration of issues for coding video game incorporation. International Journal of Dream Research, 4(2), 63-76.

Schredl, M. Anders, A., Hellriegel, S. & Rehm, A. (2008). TV Viewing, computer game playing and nightmares in school children. Dreaming, 18(2), 69-76.

Swanston, D. & Gackenbach, J.I. (2011, June). Morning After Dreams of Video Game Play versus Meditation/Prayer. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, The Netherlands.

Van den Bulck, J. (2004). Media use and dreaming: The relationship among television viewing, computer game play, and nightmares or pleasant dreams. Dreaming, 14(1), 43-49.

Appendix A

Apps for Dreaming

This list of apps for dreaming was compiled by David L. Kahn as part of his presentation at the recent IASD meeting in Berkeley.

  1. Dream:On is the app that Professor Wiseman in England came up with to try and influence dream content by signaling the dream while dreaming and using words to attempt to inject into the dream.

  1. Sigmund is the app created by Harvard and MIT graduate students.

  1. Dreamz is one that I discovered after my talk and I have been experimenting with over the past week. I find it quite interesting. Several times it did actually wake up when hearing a signal while dreaming. In fact while using this app I had a dream in which I saw a future world, and travel was a hybrid of vehicles and our own ability to fly.

  1. The Singularity Experience I believe has some merit, but it is somewhat complicated to figure out.

  1. The link below is for the Edgar Cayce app.

  1. Astral Dreams is one of the binaural beat apps that I discussed.

  1. This one is another binaural beat app that I talked about.

  1. Dreams Controller is the app that speaks at various points during the night, or that you may use a daytime function to receive text messages to do reality checks.