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For some people, playing violent video games can help ease nightmares.  This may sounds counter intuitive, but it appears to be true, according to a series of studies by Dr. Jayne Gackenbach of Grant McEwen University in Alberta and her colleagues.

One way that gaming could help is by teaching dreamers to respond to threatening situations, so dream threats aren’t as frightening.  In fact, gamers tend to be less aggressive in dreams than non-gamers are. However, when they are aggressive in their dreams, gamers’ aggression is more intense than that of non-gamers.  This indicates that gamers have learned how to focus their aggression on the most significant threats.

US Sailors Playing a Video Game. Source:US Navy

Gamers are also less likely to have bad things happen to them in their dreams than non-gamers are, another sign that gaming teaches dreamers how to take control of the events in their dreams.

In fact, high-end gamers frequently find their nightmares invigorating and exciting.

Gaming might takes on the threat-rehearsal role attributed to dreaming itself, as postulated in theories about the evolutionary origin of dreams and dreaming as a means of generating virtual realities. Gaming teaches gamers how to handle threats in dreams. Dreaming teaches dreamers how to deal with threats in real life.

How Does Gaming Help?

Some researchers have postulated that combat games can make dreams less frightening by numbing the dreamer to violence.

Gaming could also help prevent a dreamer  who has  just experienced a waking life trauma from having post-traumatic flashbacks by giving the mind visuospatial cognitive tasks to concentrate on so it can’t consolidate visual memories of the trauma. Some soldiers have even reported an urge to play video games immediately after returning from combat.

Gaming and Gender

Past dream research on gamers focused on men. In a recent study, Gackenbach and her team wanted to see if gaming had different effects on the nightmares of female gamers than it did on male gamers.  The researchers studied male and female university student gamers who had experienced at least one trauma.

When they examined post-traumatic nightmares, the team found that male high-end gamers had less intense nightmares than female high-end gamers, female low-end gamers and male low-end gamers. While male high-end gamers had the least troubling drams, female high-end gamers had dreams that were most troubling.

Why the Difference?

The researchers think there could be several explanations.

One could have to do with the types of games played. Women who spend a lot of time gaming spend more time playing casual games and less time playing completive sports or combat games than their male counterparts, so these women don’t gain as much experience dealing with threatening game situations.

Female high-end gamers are also less likely to play multi-player games than male high-end gamers, and therefore get less of an opportunity to learn how to deal with threats presented by other people.

Social Roles

It’s also possible, according to the team, that female high-end game players may be experiencing sex role conflict, and this can manifest itself in their dreams. Traditionally, women aren’t supposed to enjoy, or even play violent combat-centered activities. Maybe in their dreams, their social learnings emerge from their unconscious, telling them that they shouldn’t like those games at all, they shouldn’t be winning them, and they are actually very weak. Their nightmares become a means of reinforcing social roles, showing them that as women, they really don’t have power and can’t control what happens to them.

Source: Gackenbach, J.E., Darlington, M., Ferguson M. & Boyes, A. (2013) Video Game Play as Nightmare Protection: A Replication and Extension. Dreaming, 23(2):97-11.