GDC 11: Video Games Can Protect You Against Nightmares

Dreams are a complicated, poorly-understood subject. Thankfully, we’ve got psychology professor Jayne Gackenbach on our side to help explain them. In her fascinating GDC lecture, Gackenbach outlined the connections her research has uncovered between video games and dreaming.

The basic connection has an intuitive aspect. Because dreams and video games both create highly immersive, believable-but-unreal states, their analogous natures have similar effects on the brain. Playing a video game is like dreaming, and vice versa. This essential connection forms the basis of the professor’s research, which evaluates the effect game playing has on people’s dreams.

As Freddy’s snarling face above reminds us, Gackenbach focuses mainly on nightmares, the most memorable and powerful form of dreaming. One of the most distressing aspects of a nightmare, as sufferers will tell you, is the feeling of powerlessness or loss of control. Gamers, it turns out, are resistant to this aspect of dreaming. Because they are used to taking control of their characters, in dreamlike, believable-but-unreal video game contexts, they can exercise more control when they’re having nightmares — forcing themselves to wake up, say, or defeating the evil thing that pursues them.

This is good news for frequent nightmare sufferers, particularly those whole have sought therapeutic recourse to combat nightmares that are forcing them to re-live past traumas. These nightmares can, as Gackenbach explains, “re-traumatize” people, leaving psychological scars nearly as deep as those caused by the original event. An interest in traumatic nightmares and their relationship to games has brought the professor in contact with many combat veterans, and she deserves plaudits for helping them cope with the horrors that many of them experienced.

Below, you’ll find footage of the beginning of Gackenbach’s presentation, along with (as a bonus) the “video game death sequence” in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, sixth but not least in the long-running Nightmare on Elm Street series.

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