Monday, March 2, 2009

Video Games and Dreams - 1

One of the quickest ways to innovate in a stagnate field or find new ideas is to overlap it with another, alien medium. In physics when a problem cannot be solved with quantum mechanics, another field such as string theory might have answers. They are not always perfect matches, often overlapping two totally different mediums results in some jarring and disconnect. But in those portions where the grooves and moments do fit, you can gain insight that you otherwise would not see. Using this basis, we are going to overlap the study of dreams and their analysis with video games. What, precisely, is a game experience? How does that relate to a dream experience?

Before we enter the metaphysical analysis, let’s start with the science.

I outlined in a separate post what began this study, the notion that if Joseph Campbell is an accurate description of Monkey Island then that means Carl Jung’s principles are an accurate description as well. Which means dreams and the subconscious are at work. Much to my shock, there are psychologists who are willing to study things about games besides whether or not they make you violent. For example, advances in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have revealed that a kind of hand-eye coordination therapy known as E.M.R.D. erodes the neural pathways that cause pain in the subject and replaces them with mechanical responses. It does not even take a tiny leap in logic to realize that this is basically what a game does. It also explains the bizarre discrepancies in soldiers returning from war. Certain ones have a great deal of trouble recovering from their trauma, others do not require any assistance at all. A study by a man named Van den Bulck found that both film and books are statistically more likely to give children nightmares than video games. The hypothesis is that typically in the game the child is at least in control and not overwhelmed by the monsters they are seeing. Another study, more relevant to our discussion, discovered that gamers have a higher frequency of lucid dreams than normal people. As a consequence, people who play video games habitually also have far less nightmares or psychological disturbance in their sleep. The content of games: dragons or zombies etc., typically also enters people’s subconscious at a much higher rate than film or books. What if we were putting something more useful in there such as a language skill or math? The psychologist who ran this study, Jayne Gackenbach, was kind enough to send me her research and papers on the topic. She could always use more data, and it would be an immense help to her cause if you would fill out this survey offered here.

One of the first things Gackenbach points out is that the kinds of dreams people who play video games have typically come from meditation. Although often associated with more spiritual aspirations, meditation in the modern age is simply a state you put your brain into. This can be done through sound waves, deep breathing or rhythm exercises. In the case of games, I pointed out in the previous post that what is probably occurring is the same thing as a mandala or meditation circle. A mandala is a series of thought points that center around yourself that are all linked together in a web or circle. The idea is that you can induce meditation by progressing through each point on the circle, which varies and is often personal. For example, one point will be think about happiness, then loss, then material goods, then fear, then joy, and so on while constantly returning to yourself as the focus. A game design functions in a similar manner: leveling up, killing enemies, death, dodging, health. You move around from subject to subject while always coming back to the issue of yourself. There is nothing mystical or religious about these activities, they are both simply patterns of thought that put your brain into a scientifically recognizable state where your subconscious is more active. Gackenbach muses in her paper, “Video game associations are simply practice. If one is spending several hours a day in a technologically created alternative reality (VR) is it really any surprise that when presented with another alternative reality (i.e., dreams), that gamers easily recognize it for its true state?” What has been discovered is that games are possibly inducing a meditative state in the player that causes similar brain function and activity to when they are dreaming. They may in fact be waking dream simulators.

The immediate knee jerk reaction to something like this is to presume that the violence in games is being beamed directly into our heads and warping our minds. Then again, none of us act out the strange things we do in our dreams so the notion of their being spill over is just as ludicrous as ever under this hypothesis. So why are so many video games violent? The answer, be it zombie or soldiers attacking us, is that we are recreating nightmares. Nightmare in this context is defined as a dream where you have low control (lucidness) and you are engaged with life threatening circumstance. Gackenbach cites a theory by a fellow named Revonsuo who claims that dreams are a way for people to simulate threatening situations so they will be able to handle them should they literally occur. Dreams also will reflect events in the real world, making the person re-experience the event until it is mastered. A traumatic event can then be resolved in a much more ideal manner in dreams, usually not dying or putting oneself at literal risk. What is happening when we play a video game is that we simply become accustomed to dealing with our nightmares. We enjoy this because we are naturally inclined to develop better skills for handling adrenaline, threats, and coping with fear in general. A recent psychological study by Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson demonstrated that games can make gamers numb to helping others when placed in excitable situations. This is still correct under the dream idea, except now we're arguing that people who play games simply remain calm and think rationally during crisis situations.

And that’s where the science ends. If Professors like Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson are truly committed to helping people and the study of games, it would be refreshing if they investigated the therapeutic or educational potential of the medium for once. We can only hope their benefactors give them the grant money necessary to find something new to say about a medium that now competes with film, is installed in millions of homes around the world, and is not going anywhere.

So what have we got? Games induce a meditative state similar to how a mandala works by having the brain bop around a series of thoughts that all relate back to the player. Our conduct in the game then somehow feeds back into our subconscious and dreams, allowing us to become more competent dreamers. The leap we have made is that they then must essentially be simulating waking dreams to our brain. Dream analysis is a highly subjective field because everything occurring in them relates directly back to the individual. The things you see in your dreams have been placed there by your subconscious which come from your unique experiences. So individual items, such as a glass of water or your father talking to you, are typically not something a total stranger will understand or be able to define. What dream analysis does instead is analyze the mechanics of dreams.

Going back to the Joseph Campbell essay on Monkey Island, what I was pointing out was that the game is full of archetypes. Jung, who worked with dreams extensively, defines an archetype as a contentless form or activity that channels certain emotions and behavior that then produce probable outcomes. I compared Governor Marley to the untouchable virgin queen archetype. She is a person that we pursue and madly love but can never have. In the context of mythology (or the linear narrative of the game) the hero has a very typical reaction to the archetype. He falls in love with her and pursues her, usually causing himself a great deal of trouble. Jung outlined a variety of archetypes that typically exist in any person’s subconscious or psyche. There is the archetype of the Anima or the woman figure in a man’s psyche, for women masculinity is manifested in the Animus archetype. These are very broad and enormous to the mind but it narrows rapidly as you begin to apply the principle to myth and fiction. There is the old man archetype, the source of wisdom in our dreams. The armored knight, the witch, and any other pattern you see repeating in stories. The content, what they look like or say, is not really important and is subjective. Instead it is their mechanical function in the dream or story that identifies them as an archetype. What Jung argued when it came to dreams was that we all share these archetypes and that they all work the same way in our minds. The reason so many people like Star Wars, for example, is that we all respond to those archetypes and enjoy how they play out in the story.

So what does it mean when a dream simulation is using archetypes on us? We’re not asleep, we know it isn’t real, and we are in control of our behavior no matter what conduct the archetype/game design is inducing in us. Jung did not live long enough to ever see video games but he tells a story in his autobiography about a very peculiar waking dream. He writes, “Being awake means perceiving reality. The dream therefore represented a situation equivalent to reality, in which it created a kind of wakened state. In this sort of dream, as opposed to ordinary dreams, the unconscious seems bent on conveying a powerful impression of reality to the dreamer, an impression which is emphasized by repetition. The sources of such realities are known to be physical sensation on the one hand, and archetypal figures on the other.” In other words, Jung is explaining that a waking dream typically generates a sense of reality in people through three elements: repetition, archetypes, and physicality.

Where does this link to games? Raph Koster in his book a Theory of Fun defines the pleasure of games as learning by overcoming challenges. Much like the nightmare mastery theory, the principle foundation of Koster’s book is that all of the various types of fun that we enjoy in games comes from mastering them. Where the waking dream simulation argument steps in is that these are not representations of reality as Koster argues, but rather something in our subconscious. If, as Koster argues, games are abstract representations of reality, then it is equally easy to say that a dream is also an abstract representation of reality. He goes on to note that most of the things games teach are going straight into the subconscious, just as dreams do. He writes, “Fun, as I define it, is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes…fun is contextual.” He explains that the destiny of all games, of all genres, is to eventually become boring to a player because they will master it and then no longer have any use for it. We will make all the correct decisions and know precisely what to do. As Koster notes near the end, we have yet to reach a point with video game design that focuses on the end-user experience as opposed to the challenges and puzzles that generate the experience. Koster explains that all most games do now is create power fantasies. In the context of what the dream theory is proposing, all we do is create nightmare simulators.

Going back to Jung’s definition of the waking dream, Koster defines the art and setting of a game as the dressing, explaining how the core mechanics of a game can be manipulated into being about anything. This is very similar to how the archetype works in a dream. They are a mechanic, not a specific thing. Jung explains that the most common mistake is to classify it as an unconscious idea instead of a form. He explains in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, “The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a possibility of representation which is given a priori (language). The representations themselves are not inherited, only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts, which are also determined in form only.” The person giving quests, the healer, the mid-boss or the final boss serve a very similar function. In dreams that variation is based on the individual’s personal experiences, in games that variation comes from the designers themselves. Both game design and archetype are inherently empty until they are filled with something. Games simulate physical sensation by having artificial forms of feedback that symbolize physicality. We have a health bar that decreases as we’re hit. The controller often rumbles as well. Our hands must interact with controls to produce an effect, also generating some kind of physical stimulus. Finally, most games involve a massive amount of repetition to pound their meaning into your head. In this way, video games easily fit into Jung’s definition of a waking dream.

As Koster notes in his book, we know how to simulate control and gaining power. The archetypes to do this are all quite accessible: monsters, bosses or people in distress. What Koster complains about is figuring out how to create a game that does something besides this. Looking at game design in a void and relying on our cultural conditioning to see them as challenges, it’s easy to see why this is what we constantly come up with. But when we see the overlap with dream analysis, there are a wealth of archetypes and dream structures we can apply that will potentially induce greater emotions in people. Flip through the shitstorm that Leigh Alexander endured for arguing that Flower is overrated and you realize that this is a very difficult issue in gaming culture. We can all agree about our nightmares and the ways we handle them, but when it comes to games generating sorrow or happiness? Whether it’s Flower or Braid, we are still struggling to find the game designs and mechanics that generate new emotions in us. Perhaps dreams have the answer.

Research for this piece is proving to be far more vast than I expected. The second essay will be a closer breakdown of archetypes and applying these to games. Specific examples from games will be taken and what dream theory says about them will be explained. I need a better understanding of Carl Jung by reading his collected works and a more coherent understanding of modern dream analysis as well. Both books on this subject are large and will take me a while to read, but the second part of the series will be posted when it’s ready. As always, your feedback will be incorporated into my own understanding and application of these ideas. Thank you.

Edit: To make your life easier, here is part 2.


SnakeLinkSonic said...

This is very nice, thank you for taking the time to write it.

I don’t know how I’m going to fit into your studies, but I’ll give you what I’ve got.

I’ve always played my games from a strictly experiential point of view, even when I was young. I found myself always escalating to the higher difficulties, but my obsessive nature always involves me combing through things. Not in the completionist way, but for me to wrap my “grasp” around the coded world in the game. I usually prefer to always be alone when I play my games, so I’m definitely buying the waking dream bit, as I’m not just poetically “in my own little world”, I’m just really that “gone” when I sit down to play a game. The physicality side of this is something I’ll acknowledge as sound too. However, the artificial forms of feedback have never swayed my experience to or fro (save for encounters such as Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis and “muscle stimulations”).

The connection for the physical bit is going to be subjective and all over the place I’d imagine, as the way we’re all wired allows us to experience some things where many people can’t. I think gamers constantly seek a sort of high where they may have to get that next surge of epinephrine. Anything that plugs just right into those neurotransmitters means that for all intensive purposes, “feeling” is there. For example, when I’m in a high altitude area in any game, I get the same shooting pain in my abdomen that I get when I’m actually physically somewhere high up. I instinctively suck my lips in and my feet start tingling. That’s one of the more extreme ones I feel, but there are many of those kinds of connections and I’d imagine plenty of gamers have them. They serve as a makeshift “meet-me-halfway” point for a sort of sub-virtual reality.

Repetition is the only one I’ll take issue with because even when the game is actively trying to pound it in my head, I’m always working against it (even if it’s subconsciously). Perhaps it’s something I simply recognize and tend to shy away from without knowing it, but I’ve never really been goal oriented in a game; at least not to extent where repetition begins to govern my perception of it. Even in the simplest platformers, such as Mario Bros, my mind immediately recognizes this and actually tries to work against it. I was more obsessed with a certain gap on world 8-2 than I was with what lied beyond the gap. When I actually went to make the jump, my mind slammed against itself in mid air and I ended up dying (this is an experience from when I was five and I immediately became fascinated with it). Though I couldn’t explain a word of it, I knew what was happening. I was trying to obey the game and defy it at the exact same time. In this way I guess, it achieves the same ends as your meditation statement I’m actually playing myself (through a game ) in those kinds of areas.

The degree of control that you mentioned is spiritually empowering for any child. I was terrified of Resident Evil when I was a kid, but the emotion isn’t like a movie or a book. The idea, the narrative, or “what’s next” is solely out of my hands in those mediums. Once the game starts dancing with me (i.e. me actually making it to a save room ), a new kind of dialectic is formed. This does indeed help in the real world, despite overriding responses such “Fight-or-Flight”. I guess many people try, die, and then try again and then it forms a connection in which they act efficiently under certain circumstances. I tend to create new subconscious meta-games for myself in order to help not only combat the game’s limitations but color my own experiences more radiantly.

I don’t like Koster’s explanation concerning the “destiny of all games”, but I will admit that they are being designed for that…more so than they are being played that way. It’s not going to change until gamers collectively yearn for such an experience, rather than the escapism they so seemingly crave now. I like the Jung and Campbell references though. Considering how Lucas pretty much channeled Cambell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. I don’t see why any developer couldn’t try the same thing while fairly evolving the gaming medium as well.

I don’t remember too many of my dreams, but I am riddled with a multitude of disorders there ( I hardly ever sleep as it is). Most notably would be frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, accompanied by strong hypnagogic hallucinations. I don’t know your level of familiarity with that, but basically it occurs when the brain awakens from REM sleep, but body paralysis is still in effect (to keep the body acting out while dreaming). Typically these are accompanied by extremely vivid hallucinations (hypnagogic), which can “essentially place a dream in real space”. The episodes vary from person to person, but for me I’m going to assume that the always-present sense of danger is due to my brain’s confusion. From what I’ve read, the amygdale is prone to get confused in such situations and activate a primal sense of immediate danger. This leaves someone like me with the intense sense of a presence in the room I’m sleeping in. Even if I know I’m in no immediate danger, there’s no overcoming it. It always feels like I’m sensing an extreme threat to my life somewhere in the room. When I was younger I actually saw things, but that doesn’t happen much anymore.

Sorry for the long response.


Kirk Battle said...

Fits in fine, thank you for the informative post.

Let's see...Koster argues that the reason you actively resist the patterns and repetition is instinctive laziness if I remember correctly. We naturally "chunk" information, try to put it into our subconscious, and make it so we can do it on autopilot. The frustration comes up when our auto skills aren't solving a problem and we have to relearn a skill. I'll have to double-check what he says about this, but I think it goes back to the notion that games are inherently about mastery in their current forms.

Had a fair amount of sleep paralysis as a kid, only three hypnagogic hallucinations though. Black shape hovering over me each time. Very scary, but after a while I just learned to recognize that it was occurring, calm my brain down, and wake myself up. It's a bit like digging through sand, but it has been a while since it has happened. I'm not sure it works with games since there is no literal physical paralysis occurring, but it does tap into potential sources of both fear and traits to avoid when trying to relax the player.

Daniel Purvis said...

Brilliant post.

I'm currently studying Graphic Design and the core of our theory regards how we read signs and the nature of visual culture.

In an effort to increase my own understanding of the subject I took out Jung's book Man and his Symbols. Incidentally, this is the first time I've studied any psychology and thus ended up deep in the thick.

I'd love to partake in your conversation but you'll have to give me some time to get through this thing, in addition to everything else in my studies :)