Can video games erase our nightmares?

It’s official: healthy soldiers who play video games have fewer combat-related nightmares than those who don’t, according to a new study. Photo by 501st Sustainment Brigade.

We all know that suffering a traumatic event can trigger lasting nightmares. A soldier’s life, particularly someone who’s served in the Middle East in the past 10 years, could be considered a series of traumatic events. Apparently, video games can chase the bad dreams away.

Last March, I wrote about a talk from Grant MacEwan University researcher Jayne Gackenbach, who told an audience at the Game Developers Conference that her research showed soldiers who played video games suffered fewer combat-related nightmares. She published her findings last month in the journal of the American Psychological Association. Here’s the breakdown:

She studied 86 American and Canadian soldiers, 64 who were “hard-core gamers,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and 22 who played less often. Both groups had similar levels of combat experience, and neither reported post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental imbalance.

Both groups reported on two dreams: the most recent they could recall, and a dream about military life that stuck with them. For the latter, they filled out an extensive questionnaire, which Gackenbach’s team coded.

What they found was interesting: the military dreams of frequent gamers were much less scary than the dreams experienced by casual gamers or nongamers.

Of course, there’s the question of whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. Many medical professionals believe that nightmares are beneficial to psychological healing.

“In evolution, such dreams probably served a very important purpose, to keep us anxious about something that could happen again,” says Deidre Barrett, PhD, author of Trauma and Dreams. “If a tiger killed in the nearby village, a nightmare would keep you anxious about that happening that to you. It would be a valuable emotional message.”

However, in today’s world, recurring nightmares “just retraumatize you.”

At the same time, people who suffer nightmares regularly wind up sleeping less, which creates a host of health problems — and puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to relieving the anxiety or psychological states causing the nightmares in the first place.

So, are video games taking the place of subconscious work, allowing soldiers to heal psychological wounds through play rather than nightmares? Or are they “numbing” these gamers to violence and trauma, leaving them unresolved?

Do all video games work equally well? Or are combat-based games, as Gackenbach’s earlier talk mentions, the trick to erasing bad dreams?

Also, do these findings — performed on such a small group — apply to others who suffer violence, trauma, and anxiety? Does it work on the conflicts experienced by adolescents? Could gaming help abuse victims, or disaster survivors?

Gackenbach’s team says more research is needed.


2 responses to “Can video games erase our nightmares?

  1. Pingback: More parents are embracing video games — but not the idea that violent games are harmful | Backward Messages

  2. Pingback: Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty | Backward Messages

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