Video Games: The Future of Psychotherapy?
Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA
Do you have too many nightmares? Maybe you should play more violent videogames. Little-known research suggests that playing video games might reduce nightmares, amongst other unexpected effects.
All of us experience dreams. Some are good, others are bad. And if you’re lucky, some are lucid.
In case you aren’t familiar with the term, lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness within a dream—you become aware of the fact that you are dreaming without waking up. Sometimes, once you enter a lucid state, you can even take control of what happens in your dream.
According to studies by experimental psychologist Dr. Jayne Gackenbach, there is a correlation between playing video games and increased rates of self-reported incidents of lucid dreaming. These studies seem to indicate that gamers not only are more likely to have lucid dreams than non-gamers, but also that they are better at controlling their dreams once they are in a lucid state. In other words, gamers are more likely than non-gamers to take over their dreams. According to Professor Gackenbach, “[G]aming allows practice in controlling an alternative (nonreal) world like dreams – thus by the time you get to a dream and a familiar, game like, circumstance emerges it’s no surprise that gamers take control.”
Better still, the studies indicate that gamers who take control of their dreams experience fewer nightmares. Although there could be many reasons for the fewer nightmares, one popular explanation in both the academic literature and in various online anecdotes is that lucid dreaming gamers can turn their nightmares into games.
When Your Dreams Follow You:
What is it like to turn the tables on your nightmare? Let’s look at the following example from lucid dreaming enthusiast Peter Casale.
Like many youth growing up in the nineties, Peter discovered Wolfenstein 3D, a popular video game in which you shoot at zombie Nazis (of course) and try to kill Hitler. The first day that Peter first discovered this game, he played it for hours on end, immersing himself in virtual combat.
Unfortunately, the Nazi hunting would come back to haunt him. That night, when Peter went to bed, he had a vivid and terrifying nightmare in which he was being chased by Hitler through a deserted mansion, until he found himself hiding by a fireplace, hoping Hitler wouldn’t find him.
In spite of Peter’s best efforts, the Hitler character eventually closed in on him. This is often the part of most nightmares where people realize they’re dreaming, and wake up in a cold sweat.
Some fought the Nazis in World War II. Others fight them in their dreams.
But not Peter.
He exploited his lucidity to the fullest: “I snapped,” he writes.
“This is MY dream! I jumped out of the fireplace and … glared at Hitler… held up my left arm and suddenly there was a massive machine gun… My right arm followed, another massive machine gun. I leveled them both directly at Hitler. As I pulled the triggers, he turned and ran. I shot after him, laughing. That was the last nightmare I’ve ever had.”
What Would Freud Say?
Although Professor Gackenbach and other disparate researchers have been working on the relationship between video games and lucid dreams over the course of the past decade, it has not been given broader research prioritization.
Therapeutic deployment of video games is nothing new. Numerous US hospitals already deploy virtual reality treatments for war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, Gackenbach’s research presents a broader range of potential implications. When you are lucid dreaming, you are consciously moving through a dream construct operated by your unconscious. As the Wolfenstein story illustrates, lucid dreaming presents a new frontier through which we can interact with subconscious emotions.
This could change the way we think about psychotherapy. If video games are already inadvertently elevating our chances of taking over our dreams, imagine what might happen when video game developers study the psychological literature and build their games with the express intent of inducing lucidity.
Of course, there could be risks associated with such developments. Psychologists don’t yet understand the full range of consequences from tinkering with our dreams.
That said, this uncertainty is all the more reason for psychologists to join Dr. Gackenbach and start giving the relationship between gaming and dreaming the attention it deserves.