The Philosopher's Eye

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Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep

This soldier is clearly a regular gamer...

Violent computer games desensitise people to violence. This is normally considered a bad thing, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. Soldiers in a warzone face a situation in which they must encounter extreme violence routinely, and a survey has revealed that playing violent computer games might well help soldiers cope with this prolonged exposure to the extreme violence of war. To be more precise, the survey revealed that soldiers who frequently played computer games that involved war and combat experienced fewer violent dreams, and when these dreams did occur they reported feeling lower levels of fear and aggression compared to their non-gaming colleagues. The gaming soldiers reported feeling more able to “fight back against whatever forces were threatening them” in their nightmares.

It’s not difficult to formulate a plausible theory that would go some way towards explaining this data. Certainly, it seems clear that the desensitising effect of playing computer games could be a contributory factor. It’s quite unremarkable that soldiers who frequently encounter war as a game – albeit in the artificial context of a computer game – subsequently find the actual reality of war less threatening when they encounter it in their dreams. They learn to associate war with a game, perhaps as a game, and as a result their natural inclinations of fear and abhorrence are suppressed. But as a philosopher who possesses a passing, though not-insignificant, level of interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, I wonder if a more interesting explanation and investigation might be available to us…

You see, I think there’s more to explain here than the data revealed by the survey. Yes, we need to explain why playing violent computer games decreases the frequency and intensity of nightmares in soldiers, but do we not also need to explain why soldiers who are constantly surrounded by extreme violence choose to spend what little leisure time they have playing computer games that imitate their violent surroundings? Do accountants go home and play accountancy computer games?! I think not… Are the soldiers consciously aware that their behaviour might be helping them cope with the warzone? It seems unlikely. Why then, would they choose to immerse themselves, when off-duty, in an environment that by all accounts they should be wishing to escape from? And why, for that matter, do so many of us, the general non-soldiering public, choose to play computer games that emulate experiences that few of us would desire to encounter in reality? I suspect, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that these questions share a common ground with one final question: Why would soldiers dream about war?

This question might seem absurdly simplistic, but without Freud and his recognition of the psychological importance of dreams, it would be one that we could only answer by an appeal to ‘random misfirings of memories’, in a strictly biological framework. Follow me, if you will, through a more nuanced interpretation of the data. The basic premise of the psychoanalytic understanding of dreams – at least as I understand it – is that dreams serve the function of keeping us asleep. (Incidentally, this might explain why we evolved the ability and propensity to dream in the first place; those who dream get more sleep, and thus become healthier and their genes more reproductively successful.) When we are asleep, motivational sparks fire, and dreams serve the purpose of satisfying those motivations by conjuring up adequate, though admittedly sometimes obscure, solutions. If you are thirsty, you dream of drinking water, your mind is fed the belief that you have satisfied the motivation, and you remain asleep rather than getting up to get a glass of water. Many people can accept that story as plausible; a rejection of Freud’s theories often comes later, at the more ambitious stages of replacing immediately meaningful ‘satisfactions’ for these motivations with ‘symbolic’ satisfactions… But back to our task: Why would soldiers dream of war, and why would they play violent computer games? In some way, this behaviour would seem to require a desire, on the soldier’s behalf, to repeat his unpleasant experiences. One psychoanalytic explanation could appeal to the idea of ‘repetition compulsion’. In brief, the mind repeats an unpleasant situation in an attempt to master the situation. Perhaps driven by fear, you repeat unpleasant experiences in your past in an attempt to gain mastery over them, perhaps so that you will be less troubled by them in the future. The soldiers might be compelled to re-experience their experiences of war, as their mind struggles to come to terms with the trauma. So actually, I suppose, the soldiers might well be, however unconsciously, conditioning themselves to better cope with war…

As to why we, the general non-soldiering public, choose to play violent computer games…well, Freud can give us an answer for that too. War and violence are the foremost expressions of entirely natural aggressive drives. What frustrated accountant doesn’t want to go home after an aggravating day and experience the cathartic release of shooting pixelated terrorists?

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Explanation in Psychiatry

Dominic Murphy

2 comments on “Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep

  1. cognitionetc
    March 10, 2011

    Dreams “serve the function of keeping us asleep”? Dreams are not well understood at the best of times, but this just seems farcical. Is there any evidence to back up this claim? What possible mechanism could allow dreams to prevent us from waking? What about all the times one wakes up during dreams?

    There are various neurobiological and psychological theories pertaining to the functions of dreams that have varying amounts of evidence to back them up. I don’t think this theory has any.

    Furthermore you neglect to consider that people play violent video games for reasons other than the violence. If people were only interested in the violence of a game they would play it with no tactics, simply shooting whatever they could see with no forethought. People play these games for many other reasons, such as tactical elements, competitive elements, admiring the graphics, and the sheer joy of mastering quick, reflex-based action-filled games. The violence is almost tacked on. My guess is that (many) soldiers enjoy tactics, competition and mastering quick reflexes. The violence is a necessary part of their job, not a desired part.

    • tobybetenson
      March 11, 2011

      Firstly, I feel I should stress that all of this is very much “according to Freud”; not only that but also “according to Freud” according to me…a rank amateur-analyst with a passing interest in the psychoanalytic tradition. My word is by no means authoritative on this matter! And certainly, you would not be the first to react against Freud’s theories in such a manner! If my experience is anything to go by, the vast majority do struggle with the apparent lack of empirical justification in Freud’s work. It is undoubtedly a problem for Freud, but it’s interesting to examine whether Freud’s theories can in fact be defended.
      So, I would say, Freud (and others) can offer a defence against some of your contentions. Firstly, the mechanism of how this would/might work is broadly like so: Your motivational drives are activated during sleep (approximately hourly according to some neuroscience study that I was once informed about in a lecture, but now cannot track down…), so you, whilst sleeping, form a desire for P. (P being whatever ‘thing’ is desired.) Let’s call this Des-P. So Des-P fires, and the only way to negate this Des-P is to acquire P. (At this stage, we haven’t left the strictly biological domain of neural functioning. This process happens all the time in waking life also…I’m not trying to propose anything outrageous here. If I make it sound outrageous then I’ve said it wrong…) But your sleeping self is faced with a problem; the only way to acquire P is to wake up and go looking for P. But waking up hourly (roughly) to pursue satisfying desires isn’t very conducive to sleep, so (and this is where we drift into Freud) the mind feeds itself the experience and belief of P, which successfully, if temporarily, satisfies and negates Des-P. Depending on the stimulus, Des-P might fire again, and if it continues to do so you eventually wake up; if you’re really thirsty, you might dream about drinking water for a bit, but eventually your thirst will overcome the illusory satisfaction of dreaming.
      Freud also comments, in Dream Psychology, that dreams, being the “guardians of sleep”, act analogously to a night-watchmen protecting a village. If the disturbance (in the form of a motivational desire) is relatively minor, the dream will try and sort the problem out without waking anyone. But if the disturbance is significant, beyond the capabilities of the dream to subdue, then it will ‘raise the alarm’, so to speak, and wake you up so that you can deal with the disturbance with your conscious mind (or repress it by forgetting it…).
      The issue of evidence in Freud’s work is indeed problematic. The problem is classically portrayed as being a mismatch between high densities of data (in the form of reports from those being analysed) and very low communicability of data (by the fact that this data is only ever verbal reports). You can never ‘get into someone’s head’, so you have to accept the limitations of their reports and make a judgement on, and crucially an interpretation of, it. Imagine a fossil record that no one could actually look at, but lots and lots of people communicated it verbally…how compelled would we be to accept Darwin’s theory then? Probably not very; this is probably why Freud’s theories aren’t too popular, they’re perceived as being just too empirically unfounded. Certainly, that’s the most common objection I encounter: “It’s not real science”. I’m not really going to argue with that. The best defence I can give is to pose the question of whether you can accept psychoanalysis as a ‘best explanation’ of the data as we have it. It’s not strictly falsifiable, but lots of things we take to be best explanations aren’t strictly falsifiable either. If we did have a merely verbally communicated fossil record, Darwin’s theory would remain the best explanation of the data…
      Finally, I take your point about the diversity of reasons for playing games. I don’t dispute it. However, there’s definitely something going on with the drive towards ever more graphic displays of violence in games, and films – particularly horror films – for that matter. Competitive elements, tactical elements, quick-reflex elements, all of these can be satisfied via sports games, for example. Or nice colourful Wii games that involve shooting shiny bottles, or something. There’s something driving people to engage with explicitly graphic depictions of violence, isn’t there? It might not be the sole reason, but it’s still a reason, and it’s odd that it should be there at all… Let’s imagine there was a real-life place where you could go and watch scenes as depicted in the Saw series of films…would people want to go and see them?
      I don’t know. To return to the soldiers, I expect a lot of their gaming could be put down to a statistical likelihood of most men their age being comparatively interested in computer games. But perhaps there’s more going on…maybe. And it is interesting that it seems to help them cope with the dreams of war. There’s a psychological mechanism of some sort hiding in there somewhere!

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