An angry god chased Carson Flockhart across a plain scraped empty but for a single hovel. The monstrous avatar of wrath closed in on the MacEwan University research assistant, but he didn’t panic. He knew what he needed: a paperclip of blood. Just like that, he found it floating above a pedestal straight out of Zelda’s legend. He killed the god and rested peacefully.
Flockhart had won his nightmare.
This was no fluke. Flockhart, who regularly has “very, very strange dreams,” is too awesome to be scared. He says images that most people would call nightmares don’t frighten him because his slumbering self is a badass, a sort of subconscious John McClane. He also says he knows why: A recent psychology grad, Flockhart believes he’s accidentally trained himself to defeat horrors thanks to a lifetime of playing video games. His boss, experimental psychologist Jayne Gackenbach, Ph.D., calls it the “Nightmare Protection Effect” and it’s a damn appealing mental condition for anyone who, like me, wakes up with their heart racing.
Could video games be my ticket to the sweet, peaceful slumber of someone who readily commits paperclip deicide? And, if my PS4 isn’t gonna cut it, will the Oculus Rift train me to fight at the edge of tomorrow? The answer, it turns out, is complicated. But it isn’t no.
Gackenbach cut her teeth researching the ways personality traits and gender influence lucid dreams, but, for the past 20 years — ever since her son Teace became infatuated with his Nintendo console — she’s been a psychological cartographer in the uncanny valley between video games and dreams. She was the first researcher to talk to serious gamers about their dreams, and the first research to realize how “creatively bizarre” those dreams were. Where a non-gamer might have a milder dream transformation — a change of location or wardrobe, for instance — hardcore gamers reconstitute themselves as warlock zombies.
“Sometimes gamers get in a dream,” she says, “and they think they’re in a game, so they do the most bizarre things that, typically, people don’t.”
One particularly abnormal dream sticks in Gackenbach’s mind: A man told her he played six hours of a first-person shooter, went to bed, had a vision of himself driving a car (in the third-person perspective), crashed the car, and decided — out of sheer curiosity — to watch himself burn to death.
“And so he did,” Gackenbach say. “I was like, ‘Jeez, really?’ ”
Gackenbach discovered that many gamers don’t fear death in dreams, adopting instead an ethos that would make a chromed-up War Boy proud. In a preliminary study of 98 male soldiers, a cohort prone to disturbing dreams, Gackenbach and her colleagues found that although threatening dreams occurred in both high and low-end gamers, the resolutions of the high-end gamers’ dreams were coded much happier. The researchers offer two examples of a high threat dream:
“I couldn’t find my rifle and something was chasing me. I searched the entire forest until I did find my weapon. As I turned around to shoot what was hunting me — the trigger felt like it was a 1,000 lb trigger pull. The rounds I was shooting were delayed and where not hitting where I was aiming.”
“I was told by my old Sargent [sic] to load up on the humvv [sic] in my gunners spot. he said we were going to roll out to fight some were in Baghdad. we drove down to the combat area where there was a brutal fight me and quite a few men against the insergants [sic]. i remember shooting and seeing men fall on both sides. i saw the faces of the dead eyes wide and staring at the sky soulless faces of friends. i walked dazed back to the humvv [sic] and woke up.”
Subject #115 played video games more often.
An additional study indicates that nightmare protection effect works in male students as well. Could it be that men fight back in their dreams thanks to an aggressive personality — one that’s also drawn to combat games? Gackenbach doesn’t think so. It’s the games, she said, which act “primarily as rehearsal” for dreamlike experiences. “It occurred to me, as time went on, that gamers are in an alternative reality,” she explains. “It’s not drug-based, it’s not consciousness-based in the sense that dreams are, but rather it’s technologically constructed.”
Whether or not this discovery can be weaponized against night terrorists remains an unanswered question. Flockhart, who is currently studying paramedics who game, seemed excited by the prospect of using video games to arm ourselves against our psyches. But Gackenbach isn’t as sure. “I’m very reluctant to recommend gaming to deal with nightmares,” she explains, eager to keep my hopes in check.
Still, she’s kind enough to provide some advice before I jumped into the Jungian trenches: Eight hours of sleep a night, as to not cut into the fertile dream soil of later REM cycles; don’t use an alarm clock, but wake up naturally, while keeping eyes closed — “open eyes,” she said, “are a killer of dream recall”; and keep a journal, or at least mentally go over dreams upon waking.
Meeting Gackenbach’s definition of a hardcore gamer, however, is not quite as simple as mastering Call of Duty: High-end gamers have played 50 to 100 games in a lifetime, play at least one or two hours a day, and playing since grade three (I’d have to pull a Terminator and have a long conversation with Mom to pull that off). I, on the other hand, had just bought The Witcher 3 and had a weekend to kill. I hit buttons while thinking about the worst of my dreams, which involves laying powerless in bed as spectral cats paw at my chest.
It was time to fuck up a dream kitty.
But nothing happened. In the end, the mandate for eight hours of sleep sans alarm proved unfeasible. I had snippets of dreams and startled myself awake once, but the thing I recall clearest in my post-Witcher 3 haze was a woman in a green dress dropping a hackey sack on the ground. Not nightmarish per se, but odd.
A weekend slaying monsters as a white-haired mutant does not a high-end gamer make. The next generation, however, looks poised to tear nightmares a new one: Gamers over the age 13 are playing on average more than six hours a week — the highest it’s ever been, according to a 2014 Nielsen report. And in 2011, research firm NPD Group estimated that 91 percent of children aged 2 to 17 were gaming in some form. And there’s the juggernaut of Minecraft, a cultural force that holds so much sway over kids the New Yorker dedicated a thousand words to the “Minecraft Parent.”
“If you can move in and out of an alternative reality comfortably — you’ve been doing it since you were a kid,” as Gackenbach puts it, “it makes sense you build a certain kind of permeability around yourself.”
Plus, the therapeutic frontier that Gackenbach is most excited about isn’t a PS4 or an iPad — the world left to conquer is virtual reality. She speaks highly of early studies where veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder used VR to face their fears. A soldier could walk the digital streets of Baghdad again, while also listening to relaxing music or sitting in the comfort of home. As he or she becomes more comfortable, Gackenbach said therapists can digitally add threats, or hand the user a physical representation of a weapon, mimicking the classic systematic desensitization techniques of exposure therapy. In one — albeit small — study, 16 out of 20 vets had fewer PTSD symptoms.
For those of us who can’t get our hands on military tech, there’s the soon-to-debut Oculus Rift, which Gackenbach talks about with a fan’s enthusiasm. The side-effects that she predicts extreme Oculus users — or users of a similar VR device — might find them concerned about will be more than nausea. “Is this a dream? Is this a VR, is this a reality, is this an acid trip? Those boundaries, they have been breaking down.”
Humans have been busting down mental walls for as long we’ve been aware of them. We have a rich history of meditation, hallucinogens (at least 2,500 years back) and, now, virtual reality at home. This chompy ouroboros is closing in, with that most ancient form of virtual reality, dreaming, poised to be altered for good and maybe for the better.
“There’s something going on with the consciousness of your generation, the way that you view the world.”
If she’s not right now, she almost certainly will be. It’s an uprising against ourselves.