Why Might People Who Play a Lot of Video Games Be Less Scared in Their Nightmares?

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. When the brain is “offline,” meaning input from sensory registers is not for the most part being attended to, its cognitive work 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 mental activity, serve various functions, including memory consolidation, problem solving, creative inspiration, and emotional regulation.

Nightmares are one form of mental activity during REM sleep, in which the sleeper is paralyzed yet experiencing arousal so much so that they awaken from REM sleep. We have hypothesized that video game play during the day may act as protection from fears during sleep that are sufficient to disturb sleep. Especially severe nightmares are one of the key features of post-traumatic stress disorder.

We have conducted a series of studies regarding the nightmare protection hypothesis of playing combat-centric games. In this research program, we have examined the dreams of heavy video game players. We have found in some data that nightmares are less often reported among heavy players, when controlling for sex—or, if there is no 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 that are labeled nightmares is interesting, but when we consider situations in which 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 is based on the concept that defensive rehearsal in 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.

Also, the numbing toward violence associated with serious combat-centric game play could result in a lessened nightmarish experience in the dream. Finally, other researchers have pointed 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 post trauma will interfere with visual flashback memory consolidation, and reduce later flashbacks.

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

Two studies have been completed and one is under way. The study was on military gamers and a replication and extension on students who experienced trauma. 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 latter 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 1,000 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. 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?

The 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 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. We are currently collecting data in an online survey of individuals who play video games, even if only the occasional casual game, and who have either worked as a first responder or volunteered as a first responder. We are interested to investigate if our thesis will generalize to this group. If you’re interested in volunteering for this study, you can go here to fill out the survey.

Jayne Gackenbach is an instructor in the department of psychology and the head of the Video Game Lab at Grant MacEwan University.

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