GAMING: Can it have an impact on how we dream? - - - Years ago I wrote a paper on the effect that Gaming had on my dreams. Whilst the battle rages back and forth about the possible affect of violence caused by video games I have been more interested in the changes to my psyche that have been taking place after a lifetime of gaming. I am 33.
When I was just 9 years old my family won a commodore 64 then valued at $3000, at that time it was a state-of-the-art machine; and a super-lucky chance occurrence that introduced me to a life heavily involved with playing, coding, dissecting and making games of all kinds. Because of my age I have lived through the transformation of computers from clunky 64kb machines with tape players and 16 colours into a multi-million industry of futuristic equipment with powerful graphics engines and complexity we never dreamed of.
I experienced each stage of the revolutionary rise of gaming as technological improvements gathered momentum and transformed games in every way possible. The implications of such a vast leap forward in gaming experiences have occasionally been blamed for increasing violence but this essay is about the changes games may be having on our very psyche itself and the way games may be influencing our dreams.
When we consider that gaming consoles of any sort are very recent, perhaps 60 years old if that – we might dismiss that they could have any effect on our dreams; but what if they do and what might that mean? Is it a provable phenomenon? Is it widespread or becoming more widespread as gaming increases? Is it beneficial for people to have dreams that resemble games? Is it altering a mode of communication or psychic phenomenon that has remained relatively stable throughout ancient human history? If it is happening with games, has it happened before via other mediums?
I looked into the history of dreams and saw that there was a correlation between the kind of technology and its level of availability that was common to a time and the way people described their dreams.
Dreams are ancient, there are records of dreams going way back to the Sumerians around 6000 BCE at least – they being the oldest civilization we have evidence for. They have played a crucial role in many of histories figures lives with key insights, inventions, and genius being derived from them. Countless wars have been started over them, lost from them. Rulers have changed hands or made far-reaching decisions because of them, incredible breakthroughs have transfigured the world because of them and their effect on those who dreamed them.
History is littered with thousands of examples of people having them and experiencing prophesies, ingenious solutions, warnings of impending death, works or art or song that did not exist, answers to difficult decisions or questions – and the way in which they explained or recorded them took on contemporary models by which humans interacted with one another. Very early records of dreams are explained by Myths. Gods speaking to men and women would pass on messages, visions, warnings, blessings, curses and dreams recorded then were often described in ethereal detail. As humanity passed through its cultural apexes and technology changed human life dreams began to be interpreted through the then popular model of Plays, where characters took on definite roles and human dramas permeated the interactions between them. Earthy and distinct ideas, concepts, archetypes, roles, figures emerge from records of dreams where characters took turns to say what they needed to say with much definition and poise. Perhaps even the popularity of sports, war, physical excellence and other phases exemplified and raised to a virtue by cultures as time has gone by have also been responsible for attributing to the way we dream. Perhaps the very spatial location of 'us' in dreams has changed as various modes of vogue have come and gone. The act of being a spectator, watching stories, plays, may have come about from the prolonged exposure and act of witnessing spectacles, torture, trials, or sports. Perhaps these pasttimes which ate all our time developed or influenced how we 'appeared' or took presence of mind or where we stood on the stage in our dreams – first person, second person, third person, shifting and changing as culture and technology did.
Dreaming has continuously passed through changing phases of popularity and ill-repute; variously being treated as messages from the Gods or spirits, as messages from ancestral ghosts, as aspects of high culture, have fallen into disrepute and spurned as hogwash and mind dribble, as occult mediums for divination and prophecy, as lunacy or psychology, magic or witchcraft. At the present time dreaming is largely ignored and shunned by society at large in the West but still embraced by pockets of the East.
As technology or culture becomes more relevant it becomes more omnipresent, leading to more and more chance of association with it in the subconscious as well as the conscious. Plays, Films and Games all work on basic principles of human interaction and the stories of drama and tragedy as developed by the Greeks from whom we base most of our societal laws, practices, models of society, human interaction, story-telling. Whilst a vast span of time separates us from the Greeks, the common theme of interpretation and similarity between how stories are told that we have adopted from them, has stayed the same; but the means to tell them has been through many changes.
There are lots of different opinions on what they mean or if they mean anything - but I find this potential technological correlation of the type of technology influencing the type of dream to be of significant interest. If technology and the way we tell stories can impact dreams - How important are dreams – and what does it mean if games are hybridizing with them, mixing up game experiences with archetypal experiences that have been dreamed a similar way for tens of thousands of years?
In more recent times, through speaking to people about their dreams it seems people tend to describe their dreams as being like a movie with even more distinct stories and characters with sets, actors, scenes, plot, unfolding in a seamless dialogue where characters speak through their dreams more like the script of a movie. Since dreams are essentially very private affairs and many people do not remember them or believe they have them any observations I have made can only be made with the interested air of a casual observer who thinks he sees a pattern that may or may not exist. Is this a new case of playstation thumb where prolonged exposure to console equipment has unexpected side-effects?
Personally speaking, my dreams have in the past few years taken on the aspect of seeming like games. Not all of them, but enough to make me notice the change and I think prolonged exposure to games has had a profound effect on the way I dream. For a few years I wrote down and recorded my dreams and there was definite patterns and changes in the way they evolved. I can see points where exposure to new mediums brought on new symbolism in my later dreams. As if my psyche were watching what I was watching and using it as props for dreams.
One persistent belief of dreaming, I don't know if it's true, is that you can't die in your dreams. In one particular dream I Did die, shot in the chest by a gun after playing a video-like dream in a large industrial complex where I was shooting enemies ala GTA game engine style. The words 'Game Over' flashed up. I woke up startled. I remember it because it was so different from any other type of dream I had had before. I think somehow my brain cheated. Technically, I didn't die because I could "continue". Which is exactly what I did when I went back to sleep. It was like reloading the exact same level and moving through the dream almost identically, but being ready to change a tactic at a certain hard point of the 'game'. I thought it was odd but I also thought it was a solitary event.
On occasion I now have dreams where I must score points, move through levels, experience third person hands as I move through them, drive as if in a game, explore worlds as if in a game, and have values in my dreams that reflect those of various games. Is it just me and my level of exposure to games or do others experience this change in their dreaming too? I wrote this paper in the hope that I could find out.
There used to be this idea that dreams each had a very specific meaning and books of an A-Z definition of dreams were very popular. A lot of people based their understanding on such motifs in dreams from those books believing that any symbol meant the same thing for everyone until pioneer Carl Jung's work on archetypes began to surface. In his book "Man and His Symbols" he showed how dreams that people were having in the 1950's were largely identical to dreams being had in medieval, byzantine, and even more ancient times. He indicated that dreams had not changed significantly in thousands of years. His main premise was that all minds are striving to achieve individuation - a state of wholeness or optimum performance by all of the faculties that make up our mental state, an integration of shadow, anima/animus, ego, id and more that works in mutual co-operation and that dreaming is a vital part of getting them to talk to each other. In a sense not be taken too literally, he suggested that the mind has a type of inner guidance system of its own accord where it throws up these dreams to communicate between the conscious and unconscious. It follows that we may be unaware of certain things we are doing, being, saying or actions we are performing Consciously - but the Unconscious is well aware of them and tries to let us know what is Really happening beneath what we Think is happening.
For example, many dreams are Corrective or Compensatory, meaning they show us in an exaggerated or distorted light so we might realize that what we think of ourselves or some part of ourselves is blown out of proportion. We might appear as a King laden with jewels with millions of subjects bowing at our feet. This might be the unconscious saying 'hey, you're not the King of England, just calm down a bit' - if we get embarrassed in the dream by our grandeur we might wake up and think about how we are acting and maybe change our course before we get too big for our boots in real life. His theory was that many dreams serve to bring to our attention certain deficits or psychic processes that are causing internal strife in the hope that we can correct them and integrate the contents of our dreams consciously to achieve improved communication between the different parts of our psyche. Could the function of dreams to act as a sort of internal guidance system be influenced or even damaged through an interruption to traditional delivery symbolism and models by the effect of beginning to Game inside dreams? Is it possible that such an effect could be altering the way my mind works and if so – is such a change going to be beneficial to me or harmful? Although I've not spoken to a great many people about this topic I do know people who do not game frequently but who have also had similar dreams of gaming. Like me, they describe them as “empty” or “filler” - a holding pattern that the brain goes into but which ultimately means nothing. There is no 'feeling' or 'importance' to such dreams, it is merely as if we are playing games in our dreams, going through the motions without significant purpose.
There is a widespread but I think incorrect belief that somehow we can get a perfect synchronicity between the forces of our psyche - but I believe what is actually perfect for the psyche is not at all congruent with what is perfect for the ego. The ego is that Sense of Self that we have that gives us identity - the strong feeling of who we Are.
Dreams can wake us up, scare us, haunt us, shame us, make us sad, or joyous, show us ingenious ways to solve a problem, share with us unwritten music, and provide a means of interaction with deeper forces that we believe not to exist because they are not conscious to us. Its easy to forget them because we are so absorbed in our ego we cannot consciously recognize unconscious cognitive processes. Dreams help us to do that however albeit in an often confusing but sometimes very uncomfortably clear way.
Whilst many dreams have an 'archetypal message' which is a kind of script for what is to be expected; i.e. what is normal for you or abnormal for you – all of which contains a mix of fantasy, fear, motivation, drive, ambition, ego, sense of self, distortion and a whole mix of other things personal to us – the phenomena of dreaming is also intensely private. Even when we want to or have presence of mind to try Dreams can be elusive things to describe or even remember. The complexity and other-worldliness of many of them gives us pause to share them not just because we fear what others may think of us believing dreams are anything other than useless junk, but because the sense of time, space, change, events does not often accord with our general perception of time and space. Dreams are extraordinarily difficult at the best of times to accurately describe or too intimate, disjointed, incoherent, fragmented or strange to try. But for those that do take notice of their dreams they can be a source of guidance into the deeper meaning of humanity.
While some motifs or themes appear in dreams recorded thousands of years ago still appear in people's dreams today, it is generally accepted that dreams do not automatically have a single definition for any given symbol that they mean something unique to each of us. Losing teeth in one persons dream may means something completely different to another persons dream of losing teeth. What matters here is Context, the situations and events, feelings and sensations that surround the dream and whether it makes any sense to the dreamer.
Oftentimes, a dream will repeat itself until an important message gets through. Othertimes it will change its outward symbolism but inwardly be trying to say the same thing over and over. It is surprising how gentle the unconscious can be when it tries to get the Consciousness to recognize something, often veiling its harsh message of reality in codes and symbols, animals and weird stories - OR - wake you the @#%$ up with a terrible realization that makes you wake in a sweat with the conscious feeling of shame, guilt, anger, sadness and recognition that the message was for you, it was meaningful and you had no idea you were being such a jerk. It seems the bigger the ego the harder the unconscious has to try to get through with its message but this is also a generalization.
In some sense, losing teeth means Transformation - just as when a baby loses its milk teeth and begins to develop into a small child with autonomy it is a sign of change and metamorphosis from one person into another or from some significant stage of life into another. It is the development of the psyche taking place, though usually we as a wholistic organism Know this - we do not have access to most of it Consciously. Constantly running is just one of thousands of signs or motifs of motion or momentum toward or away from something, it might be symbolized as running from a monster which in waking might life be us running from some problem we think will eat us alive. The Dream might allow us to see the absurdity of this and we might wake and face the problem with a new understanding - or we might just keep running and begin to see that motif of running constantly appear in many other ways, we might be driving a bus across a desert; or falling without hitting the ground. These all signify changes in the psyche or desires for the psyche for us to consciously address deficits of experience We need in order to make that change happen.
A lot of people experience being unable to defend themselves in dreams and throwing slow motion punches against an aggressor - or being unable to run on grass or only run in slow motion. There are no definitive sources on what these mean but it is fairly certain that there is a correlation between the stages of psychic growth in the unconscious and the conscious recognition of unconscious processes in waking life. Said another way, once you recognize that the unconscious is there, and talking to you, and you pay a bit of attention - the dreams begin to change. I've had all of those dreams described above and kept dream journals most of my life. The patterns of what was going on Internally as opposed to what was going on Externally in my life are striking and often profound. Dreams are tricky animals though - they are so clever they can often say many things using just one dream or symbolism. I believe they say something both about the way your psyche is growing as well as reflect outward matters such as how you feel about a job, whether you are being a jerk by doing such and such, whether you are in danger because of something you are doing in your waking life etc.
If you have trouble defending yourself from an aggressor because you cannot punch or fight back - this is what I believe to be a sign that you have virtually no recognition of your other psychic components. Meaning you think YOU are all there is and that there are no deeper processes in your head controlling everything. There is no bridge between your ego and self and so you cannot defend yourself against the onslaught of other psychic processes that are going on and are driven by forms and forces around you, peers, friends, family, issues, problems without any real understanding of how you may be attributing to them. A lot of people take this dream to mean they are weak and sometimes start physical training or gather confidence to speak up about something. This is a by-product I think of trying to listen to the unconscious and act on what it is telling you. That said, you Cannot safely always listen to the unconscious - it takes Two to tango and the Ego, despite often being grossly distorted, is just as important a psychic faculty of ours that keeps the unconscious from spilling over into our consciousness and sending us crazy or into psychosis.
As I look back through my dream notes I see distinct changes in how messages were relayed as gaming began to come into vogue and the Platform on which gaming experiences were delivered began to leak into my unconscious mind and influence it. It may be that because I was taking so much notice of games that my unconscious saw this as an opportunity to get messages through in a new way or because I was paying more attention to anything gaming related. One thing is certain gaming has altered my dreaming. The dreams I have of gaming seem alien, they are seldom recognizable as archetypal and leave me with the odd sense that I have had my perception mind-jacked.
It is interesting to note that until Christianity (Monotheism) began to scour the Earth with its One God Recorded Dreams were not particularly moral. Zoroastrianism coupled with jewish mysticism combined to give the world the concepts of good and evil as directly opposed forces in battle. At first these were gods, now they are humans. Now almost every blockbuster movie or game has the same colouring - good guys vs bad guys. With these reinforced messages hitting us from everywhere it is difficult not to believe in and live the story of a diametrically opposed struggle between good and evil or see them everywhere - but I honestly don't believe such a struggle exists. I think the reality is much bleaker in fact and that humanity has a heart of darkness. If we just fell into that darkness we'd be engulfed by shadow - but we seem to think it all the sweeter to accentuate the shadow with light, to toy with that darkness so that we can plunge ever deeper into it from an artificial platform of our own design that allows us to dive from a higher height.
I imagine there may be some people who ask -what does this have to do with gaming?- the answer is Everything. The human condition, struggle, suffering, morality, choice, outlook, hope, despair all have everything to do with what makes a Game GREAT, to really feel the blind destructive nihilistic all-consuming hatred and vengefulness of Kratos in God of War when the gods abandon him requires telling a story that appeals to what is inside us, our passions, codes of ethics, traditions as human beings. To feel pressed upon when forced to make decisions that affect millions of lives in games like Army of Two or Mass Effect requires drama, tragedy and a self identification with the characters and the consequences they face from choices they make - and more than that - Feeling something about those choices, not just playing them through but being involved and feeling sad, happy, triumphant or depressed.
I don't believe any game did this better than Heavy Rain on the ps3. Dreams are much the same in the way they involve us and force us to make decisions or see things in a new light, we are being asked to make choices that we often cant reload if we make a fatal or destructive one but can sometimes reload if we catch any major issues in time by listening to what they have to say. Really these is no difference in playing a game or dreaming a dream - both sets of content come from the same place, from the stories of humanity, antiquity and beyond, from the unconscious made conscious through imagination, creativity, memory, and the long trawl of archetypal stories our race has been through time and time again. Tell me Star Wars isn't World War II in disguise.
The subject matter and the issues I have raised would require a far more in-depth analysis, experts in sociology, psychology, artists, social media and the comments and insights of other people to really lift the lid on what I have touched upon hopefully not in a boring manner for my readers – even to see if there is anything to what I have suggested beneath that lid. As it stands I do not know if others have had their dreams affected in this way. I suppose I don't really know what the question I am asking is either – I feel perhaps I am just on the verge of noticing something happening to me that seems important to mention. That perhaps the omnipresent world of gaming has begun to bleed so deeply into our subconscious that it is mixing ancient messages with modern ones in a way that is yet to be noticed on any large scale and the effects of which are as yet undetermined.
In part I think any answer requires each of us to ask ourselves why do we game? What is its purpose? And what purpose might it be used for by our unconscious mind? I use it for escapism and to get the psychological reward of achievement. Yes they are fun, entertaining, thought-provoking or just too good and therefore too hard to put down, i.e. addictive. But I do not get any sense of reward when I “game-dream”. Someone else who uses games for another purpose might feel differently, might have another perspective on what these game-dreams 'do' if anything, for them, but for me it is like important archetypal content is perhaps being missed out on because my unconscious brain suddenly wants to play pacman. Perhaps this is the pre-stage of a future trend for humans toward becoming more hybridized with machines – by developing deep unconscious associations to such material.
What could be some advantages of beginning to have game-related dreams? Firstly I suppose games introduce us to worlds that have very specific challenges. Re-living these worlds and the challenges they present allows us to solve problems that arise in those worlds in a game-type fashion with restricted functions and actions but which challenges may prompt new solutions as the unconscious enters the picture. These new solutions which come from a hybrid of gaming theory and raw ingenuity may improve our ability to solve problems. For example, in the PC game Discworld, notably one of the hardest point-and-clicks of its time, I was stuck in a section where I had to somehow take a pancake from a chef who was flipping it. Standing in the kitchen I tried everything to take the damn thing but after an hour of clicking my vast inventory on everything in the kitchen I gave up and went to sleep. It was while I was asleep that my mind ticked over the problem and dreamed the solution. The high window, the ladder, the butterfly net. It played out in my head in quick flashes and when I woke I tried the suggestion only to find to my immense surprise that it worked. It seems that aside from solving problems games also provide a means to explore alternatives to violence in a safe and relatively controlled environment inside the head when we re-live them. My mind appears to use them as a control or baseline background against which enter all sorts of philosophic thoughts about the nature of suffering and the reasons why humans inflict it. I have found myself dreaming several games to which solutions were provided in my dreams. Myst. Doom. Gun. And others, where consciously I could not grasp the solution but while sleeping it just came to me.
They may also provide some context for human experience because many of them are now so advanced and advancing in terms of copying human interactions, problems, challenges, stories and behaviours that for those who do not have experience of such ideas, it introduces them. Games that began to introduce morality that illustrated the short and long-term consequences of the players actions such as Mass Effect, Army of Two tackled many hard-hitting issues that people have or are likely to find themselves facing. Granted that a game like GTA may introduce people to experiences of a nature that do not provide strong moral context in the traditional manner, but it is more reflective of the propensity of human behaviour to explore possible actions in any given environment and just this sand-box for experience alone seems enough to feed a person with many new and varied kinds of stimulus, media, ideas, concepts that may be used by the unconscious in its messages or symbolism. Very few of us are going to be astronauts and fly among the stars but with Games we are given the opportunity to present to our psyche a simulation from which it can draw new or hybridized experiences creating and generating new scenarios, new challenges, new worlds and characters it may not have met or explored or eve get the chance to meet or explore and which it draws from to enrich our dream symbolism, potential to solve problems, face issues or experience consequences in all manner of ways that would kill or imprison us in waking life in a safe environment that processes these things in a positive way for the majority of people.
Games are the very stuff of dreams, they are fantasy made playable. Just like dreams we enter a world to interact with its environs and characters, to do as we wish freely in the safety of our paralyzed sleep. We play through options, scenarios, concepts living out behaviours we might never copy in real life but which seem to require exploration out of some inward curiosity of 'what if' that humanity seems to have within it and because it is a healthy outlet in the private realm of the dreamer. As games continue to become more Advanced such as the upcoming revision of Tomb Raider which is a significant leap forward in mimicking human behaviour and realism through its dialogue, mobility of characters, appearance of textures and rawness of storyline Games take on a more visceral, imitation of a dreamers dreams. They set us among challenges in a safe contained way in which we are allowed the freedom to act as we will within the limits. If we come to then dream said game, those limits become boundaries against which a psyche of a person makes internal measurements. The realism of dreams and games is beginning to meet, and whilst dreams are far more complex in the experience they provide, games are providing the dreams of others to each of us. In dreaming what they dream, we experience empathy of a previously unknown and private concept hidden deep within other human beings. In seeing it come to life in our hands or heads we are able to see what they see, sometimes feel what they fell, or live their dream our way. They say that 90% of human communication is non-verbal – involving subtle movements of muscles, eyelids, facial twitches, minute iris movements, body posture and so on.
Understanding this has allowed many changes to take place in how people interact with one another. An expansion of dream content from one person or group of people to another through the medium of games by way of experiencing the imagination of others can only bring us closer to understanding more about ourselves and each other. They say that playing an RPG or chess game against someone brings out their true nature. Someone you thought was a passive shy person suddenly becomes a tyrant or sore loser on the chess field. They show their greed, anger, envy, pettiness or bravery, courage, fortitude as they take on other characters. But just because they take on those masks, does not mean they do not take them off. Since we only have one biological face it is customary to believe that people only have one distinct personality – but do we? Games allow us to explore facets of our personalities that rarely see the light of day. We can be a evil badass or a noble knight, we can care about saving characters or do it only for the points – whatever we choose, games allow us to choose safely, just as dreams do, so that we can expand, explore, enhance our breadth of experience without harming anyone. That some do choose to harm others is hardly attributable to games except for a very few direct cases – but because of a sense of alienation from other people. Games may on occasion isolate people physically to play them but they unite them in common experience of what it means to be human and act human. It may not be pleasant, but violence and mayhem are as much a part of our ability as kindness and warmth. There is a beast inside all of us that develops naturally as a human function of survival and autonomy but which beast often has no outlet on which to vent. Some choose sport to channel it, some the army, some exercise with weights or create works of art or story, some bottle it up and express it through rage or violence, or try to shut it down or let it out. When most of us play games its just like walking the dog. It needs to be let out every now and then so it doesnt tear up the furniture, whine, or go mad. Its a part of us we cant deny – when we deny it it becomes twisted and shameful – but when we accept it we own it. Games are an outlet for the beast as much as they are a harvest of ideas, concept and constructive problem solving or human interaction.
Whilst it is too early to predict the implication of having game dreams on an increasing basis – I would suggest that the benefits outweigh any negatives. These odd occurrences of playing games in my sleep will not stop me gaming yet I cannot simply help but wonder how many times technology has revolutionized not just the external world in which we live in but perhaps the very biological function and mind-print of our psyches and the long-term influence of gaming.