Video Games: The Future of Psychotherapy?

Posted October 2nd, 2012 at 10:00 am (UTC-4)
11 comments

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.

smashing naziism

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…  [I] 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.

-Special thanks to Dr. Tanine Allison for helping me explore emerging topics in video games and making this article possible.

11 Responses to “Video Games: The Future of Psychotherapy?”

  1. Manuhegde says:

    lucid dreaming is not a state of consciousness..
    Its just a result of your ability to sense the state of your non-consciousness…

    • Doug Bernard says:

      @Manuhegde – not if you’re actually able to make intentional decisions that control the direction of the dream. That intentional direction is by definition a conscious state.

  2. Lara Buttons says:

    Freud? The important question is what would Jung say! The most important aspect being that what chases us in our nightmares is part of ourselves. Often we are so removed from it that we no longer even know what it really is – but in the end when we kill what pursues us in our dreams we are only killing a part of ourselves, cutting ourselves off from the deeper, sometimes darker, intuitive self. If you follow that line of thought the killing of our fears/dreams is nothing to celebrate. Personally I find the current trend in lucid dreaming worrying. What happens when you circumvent our unconscious’ only means of demanding we pay attention to it? This is not working through what may be causing the dreams, not working to understand what they may really represent, it is just an attempt at a quick fix. Make the dreams go the way “I” want them to…

    • Gordon Chamberlain says:

      The Hitler dream reminds me of my daughter nightmares where we suggested she invite someone into her dreams to help her with the witches she was dreaming about.
      Taking the time to work through what may be causing the dreams if they are bothering us can be useful but with out the mystic mumbo jumbo if you are dreaming about water you are dreaming about water. now if you are drowning in debt or overwhelmed with life yes you may feel like you are drowning. I just visualized standing at the top of a very high cliff I had to draw back with fear but the intent is to parachute off The view is wonderful and terrifying I leap I am falling falling I am enjoying the view an eagle is soaring near by I open my chute and land. What a blast Hope to dream of scuba diving tonight. Dont set that up if you are afraid of scuba diving. Better than any video game. Portable, no batteries required I control the scenes

    • cs says:

      Laura … thanks for your view. I agree, finding the current trend of controlling lucid dreaming troublesome. Why should we want to control our dreams…. they are a way our mind subconsciously works out many things while sleeping.

  3. [...] Video Games: The Future of Psychotherapy? [...]

  4. Robinson Elohansen says:

    Video games presents easy life for the gamers. No wonder gamers often underestimate the real world. People may say that the games may help them coping with their nightmares, but in the mean time, they also can ruin their hopes in real world.

  5. Renata Ramos says:

    Dreams represent part of our lives that were saved in our memory, in our unconscious, because on the day we repress many of our desires. At night they come to the surface represented by someone, or something … is usually our most hidden desires or aggression that are represented in dreams … Let’s think about our desires aggressive hitting someone who annoys us, in real life we will not really hit, and when we have video games that give us opportunity to beat, kill, etc., that gives us this freedom, because it is the world of Fancy . Maybe it’s a good thing because there we can put our aggressiveness, not repress … If the video game is used correctly it can be positive in this and other items, has been proven to improve reasoning, etc, but if you go overboard, the mind is in a state of alert and we will design the dream we live in fantasy world, in the same way when we see horror movies on TV (the dream becomes more lucid) … I think this study a bit vague … but I agree with the part that can be positive for some liberate energies …

  6. The impact of the digital age on the human psyche is a field of study that thus far has been under exploited. I don’t think you can possibly emphasize the degree to which these technologies have affected our consciousness. Not just video games, but computers and internet in general. Much of the research on video games focuses on any potential negative affects it may have… i.e. making children prone to violence. It’s refreshing to see Ross discuss this aspect from an entirely different perspective all together.

  7. sunwukong says:

    Imagine if someone were trying to recruit a mass killer. They design a video game that creates a situation where they could screen out potential candidates. They would hide a feedback mechanism in the game / social media and then after finding some good candidates they would groom them and then guide them to carry out some mass murder or other sociopathic action. Surrogate terrorism. If the anti-social action were carefully constructed the actor could be framed into looking like a terrorist or political activist with an agenda that could prompt crushing preemptive legislation etc. Such a scenario could also be used as a preemptive foil to hide a “conspiracy” or false flag operation designed to accomplish some financial or political goal.

    Good plot for a CSI movie or THE “Mentalist”.

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