What we dream is an indication of how we live. Spend a summer day on the golf course, and your dreams are bathed in sunshine. Yell at your co-workers all afternoon, and you'll dream of conflict.
What if we spend most of our time hacking-and-slashing strange warthog creatures, crushing linebackers on the wet grass at Lambeau or driving a Porsche 911? As it happens, hardcore gamers who toggle the joysticks for at least two or three hours per day are more likely to lucid dream. Some researchers are concluding that, by spending time in virtual worlds, gamers are better preparing their dreamscapes.
As a lifelong gamer, this made me curious. While I have no interest in controlling my dreams, I would like to know how my daytime play affects my resting reality. To conduct my study, I fired up three different Xbox One games. I explored an alien world in Final Fantasy XV; spent time on the gridiron in Madden NFL 2015; and drove a few freshly minted Porsches in Forza Horizon 2.
After my experiment was concluded, I consulted Jayne Gackenbach, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at MacEwan University, Alberta. Dr. Gackenbach is the one of the only experts on video games and dreams, having first explored the field many years ago to bond with her young son’s obsession with pixelated entertainment. She's since gone on to conduct many studies on the topic. She kindly agreed to listen to my findings and lend her opinion.
Staring Down Giants: Final Fantasy XV
There’s something deeply terrifying about the Catoblepas in Final Fantasy XV. The massive, spiked creatures look like 100-foot-tall white dinosaurs. My character will brandish his sword against them later, but right now all he can do is watch; their turf is not playable territory. But I can hear their calls and sense their huge presence. They are grand and impressive on this planet, which may or may not be some alternative version of Earth.
The Catoblepas are the most memorable part of this early demo, a two-hour tease of the fifteenth Final Fantasy, which doesn’t come out until later this year. A third-person RPG, FFXV puts me in control of Noctis, a warrior on a monster-slaying mission to find and return some important crystal. Accompanying me is a team of one-line-spouting characters who fight by my side when the moment arises. Action is plentiful, and the fully rendered landscapes are more or less able to be explored at will. The lush graphics and sweeping orchestral soundtrack, I was sure, would be perfect fodder for invoking surreal visions once I shut my eyes.
Sadly, the Catoblepas never tromped across my psyche as I slept. Nor did any visual element of the game enter my dreams, in fact. Instead, I often drifted off thinking about the other human-like characters in the game making comments about my fighting style. Why no giant beasts?
According to Dr. Gackenbach's research, games need time to penetrate one's subconscious. The Catoblepas were just too new to sink in. Instead, my dreams were an indication of something else in my life. Perhaps there were some conversations I needed to have with wise-cracking coworkers.
Gridiron Greatness: Madden NFL 2015
Earlier this year, I became obsessed with sports games, thanks to an ethusiastic colleague. He and I played a number of NBA 2K matches, each of which became increasingly tense. During that time, I’d wake up in the morning and reach for a phantom Xbox controller. I therefore had high hopes for Madden NFL 2015-inspired dreams of throwing 100-yard passes and basking in the warm glow of fandom.
At the console, I won every single game, often by a wide margin. (The Vikings don’t suck when I’m in control.) But none of my many victories carried into my dreams. Why not?
Maybe because sports games are relatively trivial, I invested less of my subconscious while playing. Deep inside, I knew it wasn't real because I hadn't felt the astroturf, pigskin and concussions. Gackenbach agreed, suggesting I never made an emotional connection with the game. As much as I enjoyed ducking defensive ends and sacking quarterbacks, I’m not a rabid sports fan. I enjoy playing Madden; I don’t live for it.
Racing Toward Victory: Forza Horizon 2
Forza Horizon 2 is a driving simulator that takes place in southern France and parts of Italy. It's an open world — meaning, you can complete any objective in any order. There is structure, of course — on certain tracks, you accumulate large amounts of cash, much needed to upgrade your vehicle.
The Forza series is famous for its meticulous rendering of the world's best cars. They not only look perfect, but driving them is as an authentic experience as one can hope from a console. The smoking tires, the snow-confectioned peaks poking up in the distance, the subtle changes of manual shifting...
I actually test-drive cars in real life. No surprise, then, that after playing Forza Horizon 2, my brain started blending the real and virtual. My dreams during this period of the experiment were incredible. After two different nights of playing, I dreamt of driving an $845,000 Porsche through twisties in Colorado and Wisconsin. I could hear the engine hum, I could feel the road vibrate. My hand was on the shifter; my wife was by my side.
Forza invokes certain visions for me because I play it often, but also because I have the real-life experience of driving cars. Still, Gackenbach said there could be more to the dream then I realize. “Dreams are more autobiographical," she told me, "they are about contextualizing recent events into memory banks.” More than any other game, Forza inspired dreams that represent my real-life ambitions and aspirations.
Of the three games, the surprising realization is that only Forza led to any meaningful dreams. I think it's because that game synced with my personality — a desire to drive on the open road, to move from one place to another, to escape daily life. Because Final Fantasy is too fantastical for my disposition, it didn’t inspire as many actual visions. Likewise, Madden NFL 15, while enjoyable in the moment, was too ephemeral.
For me, Forza is all about dreams — real and imagined. And I seem to be dreaming about a certain $845,000 Porsche.