On Video Games, Lucid Dreams, and Nightmares

Video games are fun. Those who disagree probably aren’t good at them.

Kidding aside, researchers have already found that video games increase many cognitive skills like multi-tasking. However, here’s a lesser known fact about playing video games: they shape our dreams. How is this so?

According to dream researcher Dr. Jayne Gackenbach, video games and dreams both represent “alternate realities”. Dreams provide you a series of images and scenes mostly from the previous day. Most of the time, we don’t control them, and sometimes they are scary (in cases of nightmares).

On the other hand, video games are alternate realities you do control. You control a wide range of characters in video games depending on its genre. Apparently control over one reality bridges control over the other.

This is most clear when you find yourself lucid dreaming after a night of playing games.

Lucid dreaming and video games

Dream research has long been active since the time of Sigmund Freud. However, it’s only been recently connected with playing video games. One major researcher for these topics is Dr. Gackenbach.

In one of her studies, Dr. Gackenbach studied how gamers dreamt differently in terms of weirdness, lucidity, and presence of nightmares.

Of course we’d expect gamers to have weirder and scarier dreams after playing CoD or DotA 2. 

However, she found that among the three factors, gamers had a pronounced difference in terms of lucid dreams. This basically means you are dreaming while aware of it. (One uncommon variant of lucid dreams are control dreams, which allow you control of your actions while dreaming.)

Interestingly, they found out in the study that gamers had more control dreams compared to the usual amounts people have. Regarding why this happens, perhaps control in a computer-generated reality allows more control in our biological ones.

I can personally attest to video games stimulating my lucid dreams though.

In one dream, I was climbing down a tall ladder not knowing when I would land on the ground. During my long descent, I thought, “This dream is probably related to my stressful circumstance at the moment. I just don’t know when it will end.”

I interpreted my dream while I was in it. Fascinatingly, I was playing a lot of Hearthstone on the night before this lucid dream happened. Coincidence or not?

The nightmare shield

Video games also reduce the frequency of our nightmares as well.

In another study by Dr. Gackenbach, she looked for differences in nightmares frequency in the dreams of gamers. You would think gamers would have more nightmares after playing countless violent games. However, they found just the opposite.

According to the threat simulation theory by Dr. Antti Revonsuo, we practice avoiding threats in the safety of our nightmares. In our nightmares, we don’t really get hurt.

You may run away from a horde of zombies or monsters like I have, but we do this in preparation of a real disaster.

So to our question: If nightmares were threat simulations, wouldn’t gamers have more experience in terms of those simulations? The answer to that is a quick affirmative.

The gamers of the study also reported fewer aggressive nightmares than the norm. Some nightmare scenarios even turned to reverse nightmares for some gamers. This means in their “threat simulations”, the gamers became the threat. How cool is that?

Gaming against trauma

Now we know gaming gives us a form of protection from nightmares. Now what?

Dr. Gackenbach asserts that gaming could act as a nightmare shield for those who need it. Namely, this includes people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like war veterans and trauma survivors.

This is quite useful since one of the most common symptoms of PTSD are the nightmares, so I am thrilled to hear the results of her theory.

Also, since virtual simulators have already been used before to treat PTSD and its nightmares, perhaps video games might also provide good results as well.

What are your thoughts on video games and dreaming?

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2 thoughts on “On Video Games, Lucid Dreams, and Nightmares”

  • I used to play video games before especially RPG!
    Video games really do affect dreams! I could control my dreams (when I became conscious that this is just a dream) and sometimes when I don’t like the outcome, I could always reset it back to my last “save point”.

    • Haha, true that! One time I had super speed and stamina after playing an RPG as well. I was running over a field of poop, but fortunately never stepped on any 😛

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