Ask Dr Mark

Game Dreams


Hey doctor mark

Recently I’ve been having these odd dreams revolving around video game maps and worlds. I dreamed I was in Dead Rising‘s Mall, in front of me was a zombie, laughing, calling me a weakling. I notice I’m holding a sledgehammer in my hand. I swing it against this thing, but I can’t make myself hit it–moments before impact I regret and stop the action, even though it may mean my doom.

What could this mean?

It’s very difficult to understand the meaning of a dream without more details about a person’s life. Some researchers even question the idea that dreams may be “the royal road to the unconscious,” as Freud concluded in his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams. In my work, I often find dreams very useful in understanding what is going on for a client, but I don’t assume that each dream must be somehow profound and meaningful, and I wonder if some are just the result of a particularly bad taco.

Does this dream indicate a secret sympathy for zombies? They do seem to be getting killed in vast numbers across all forms of media these days. Could the dream reflect some doubts about your competence or anxiety about being ridiculed? Could it mean you are having ambivalence about swinging your hammer–able to hold it yourself but not sure whether taking a swing or failing to swing will cause problems? Psychologists often interpret such images sexually, but to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a sledgehammer is just a sledgehammer.

The experience you report is more interesting to me as an indication of the way video games affect the minds of players.

When I played World of Warcraft, I found myself thinking about the game constantly, even when I wasn’t playing. Sometimes, I was struggling with a practical or interpersonal problem in the game. Other times I was planning a program of play or thinking about how I could use my playing time most efficiently. I often found myself daydreaming vividly, experiencing the events of a raid that went well and enjoying the sense of triumph and achievement. Or I would replay a failure over and over in my mind trying to think about how it could come out differently the next time around. The game seemed to dominate my thinking whenever my mind wasn’t otherwise occupied, sometimes it even pushed its way into the forefront when I should have been focused elsewhere. This became a way to extend my involvement with the game beyond the time I was actually playing.

Visual images from the game entered my dreams and I recall dream action taking place in various WoW scenarios. As I often played very late into the night, game experience displaced sleep, but also immediately preceded it, so in a sense I took these powerful images and strong emotions to bed with me, for the brief intervals I did sleep.

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While I initially enjoyed the fact that my mind was churning about WoW constantly, eventually I became quite irritated by it. My ability to attend and focus on other things was often disrupted and I began to feel the game had somehow abducted my mind–that I couldn’t easily free myself from images related to the game even when I wanted or needed to. This irritation ultimately helped me quit the game. I remember wondering if I had become some slavish drone of WoW, compelled to think and do as the game required, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had the strength and determination to break out of this trance.

Whether intense mental absorption in gaming becomes a problem for you or not, it’s clear today’s games have tremendous potential to penetrate our psyches. Our experiences within videogames tap into our capacity for mental representation and are stored in our minds just like other particularly vivid experiences

No surprise then, that game themes and images appear in our dreams, and seem to become a part of the language of our minds. I mean this in two ways: our minds may express or communicate something through the metaphors and images of a game–as in this dream — and we may actually come to relate to the world through the language of a game. With gaming clients, I often find it easier to make a point if I present an idea using the idiom of their game, or if I compare a struggle in real life to an experience in the game. For example, studying for a test is like farming materials for raid flasks–dull and boring, but necessary if you want to succeed.

So you could say we have minds that are prepared, neurobiologically and genetically, to represent intense, evocative experiences mentally, and to continually re-experience these representations through dreams, memories, automatic thoughts, and active cognitive rehearsal. This can be part of gaming’s strong appeal, and what draws us into gaming worlds, and it can also become a source of trouble.

Dr. Mark Kline needs to write his columns in a larger font as a result of squinting at video games. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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