Video Game Play and the Development of Consciousness

Jayne Gackenbach, Athabasca University     

Joan Preston, Brock University

            In previous research, Gackenbach (1991) argued that a naturally occurring "virtual" reality (i.e., lucid dreaming) is a bridge to the experience of higher states of consciousness. Lucid dreaming, awareness of dreaming while still in the dream state, is a preliminary indicate of the development of higher states of consciousness; therefore understanding its nature, development, context as well as access issues is important.

            It has been pointed out that, based on the cognitive science (mental model) understanding of our sense of self in the world, our perception of reality is a construction, a best guess.  Lucid dreaming is another such construction with a different set of input variables than those experienced while awake. Virtual reality (VR), and especially full immersive VR, potentially offers practice in maneuvering around in, as well as being in, "artificial" or perhaps "alternative" realities and is discussed in the VR literature as telepresence. It may well be that such VR practice would translate into more accurate state recognition in dreams (i.e., an increase in lucid dreams). One of the areas where we see such extensive practice is in video game playing which may be associated with an increase in lucid dreaming frequency and related states of consciousness.

            There are other lines of evidence which further support this hypothesis such as research on the relationship between performance on such games and intelligence. Jackson, Vernon, and Jackson (1993) explored performance of computer game-like measures of dynamic spatial ability, which assess judgments about moving visual displays. These are linked to measures of reaction time and speed of mental processing, which in turn are thought to be linked with general measures of intellectual ability. The major work in the area is being done by Greenfield and associates and is summarized in "Volume 11 of Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology: Interacting with Video." The conclusion is that video game play increases choice reaction time performance, spatial skills, scientific problem solving skills, and intelligence (Greenfield & Cocking, 1996).

            In research involving individuals who have developed their individual consciousness beyond what most of us experience (i.e., by the regular and long term practice of meditation), a choice reaction time task was used to determine if these people had higher general intelligence. Other studies have shown that those who have these sophisticated spatial skills with high choice reaction time are more intelligent in a global sense. This body of work has shown that those with developed individual consciousness show higher levels of what is called EEG coherence and that such EEG coherence surges, and the associated higher states of consciousness, have also been found to be associated with higher performance on spatial intelligence tests like the Raven's Progressive Matrices test and choice reaction time correlates to such performance as well (Cranson, Orme-Johnson, Gackenbach, Dillbeck, Jones, & Alexander, 1991).

            A more direct test of the proposed relationship was undertaken by Glicksohn and Avnon (1997). They examined whether virtual reality exposure via video game playing was related to consciousness by examining individual difference variables such as absorption. They found no relationship to video game play because they noted the game they chose was violent and "tended to 'turn off' the focus" for their subjects subjective experiences. Preston (in press) reviewed the research on absorption and VR immersion. She concludes:


High absorbers evaluate information in a distinct way that links it to Self. This strongly implies that, regarding vision, audition, touch and balance, information to more modalities increases absorption. Multimodal stimulation creates a greater sense of presence in immersive VR. Immersive VR has the potential to offer low absorbers access to altered states of consciousness like those which high absorbers experience and also has the potential to offer to us all access to a higher level of consciousness.





            A questionnaire with these instructions was posted to 56 usenet groups focusing on video game play, four usenet groups focusing on dreams and about 10 usenet groups with teen in the title but not erotic. The ones selected for the video game group were discussion groups and well know video game groups. Additionally the questionnaire was sent to former students and colleagues of Gackenbach who might be interested in the topic. The instructions were:


I am currently writing a chapter for an edited book on the psychology of the internet. In this chapter I am theorizing about the potential relationship between virtual reality experiences of varying degrees of immersion and the development of higher states of consciousness. I would like your cooperation with a preliminary research study examining the relationship between video game playing and a variety of experiences of altered states of consciousness especially lucid dreaming. Please fill out the questionnaire below and e-mail it to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach at  jgackenb@gpu.srv.ualberta.ca. I will send you a brief essay summarizing what I think the nature of the relationship is by return e-mail. There are three components to this questionnaire. In the first part I ask you some basic demographic information while the second part has a variety of questions regarding your video game playing history/experiences. The last part of the questionnaire regards your dream and related altered states of consciousness history and experiences. All information will be kept confidential with no specific names or identities mentioned. Please pass this along to anyone who you think might be interested in participating in the study.


            In the first section of  the questionnaire demographic information was gathered including sex, age, relationship status, number of children, education, occupation, and primary ethnic background. Part 2 had 10 questions regarding video game habits and preferences including, frequency of play, length of play session, favorite games, setting of play, who play with, number of games played, age of first video game play and peak age of play. The third part of the questionnaire had six questions and was called "Dream and Related Phenomena Habits/Experiences". Here respondents were asked about their dream recall, dream diary history, interest in and experience with prayer and meditation and importance of religion/spirituality. The final part of the questionnaire solicited information on four sleep (lucid dreaming, nightmares, night terrors, and archetypal dreams) and three waking experiences (out-of-the-body experiences, mystical experiences, and precognitive experiences). Specifically the total number of such experiences in the last year, age of first experience and example of an experience were asked for.

            A couple of months later a slightly elaborated version of this questionnaire was then placed on the internet as a form. An announcement of this online form was posted to 358 newsgroups where the title of the group implied that there was a focus on computers/video games or religion/spirituality. In this new version questions regarding dizziness were added. Specifically subjects were asked, "Which of the following symptoms of apparent motion have you ever experienced while playing video games? If you don't know or don't recall leave that symptom blank." They were then asked to check yes or no to Nausea; Stomach awareness; Increased salivation; Eyestrain; Difficulty focusing; Blurred vision; Headache; Dizziness and Vertigo. These symptoms were selected from Kennedy, Lane Berbaum and Lilienthal’s (1993) simulation sickness questionnaire.



Qnsert Questionnaire


Descriptive Statistics


            Response to the first posting where an e-mail return of the questionnaire was from 41 individuals another 50 people filled out the online form as of late April 1998. The majority were men (69%) with an average age between 30 and 39. However ages ranged widely with 5% less than 16 and another 9% over 60. As many of these participants were as likely to be married as single with about 1/3 having no children. They were well educated with almost 40% having college degrees or higher.

            In a subsample of the first 30 respondents, they mentioned 75 different games as one of their top five favorite games. Fifteen games were mentioned more than once and of those mentioned more than once 44% were violent in nature (i.e., Command and Conquer)  with another 31% being classified as strategy games (i.e., Myth). The next frequent category was role playing (16%; i.e., Diablo) and the last 9% were adventure (i.e., Myst). It is important to keep in mind that some violent games have a big strategy component (i.e., Warcraft). So for instance if Warcraft and Command and Conquer were removed from the violent list and place on the strategy list then the percentages would change such that violent games would constitute 31% of games mentioned more than once while strategy games would constitute 44% of games mentioned more than once. The point being that a variety of skills and emotional reactions are needed for and created by many of these games.


Factor Analyses


            Twelve continuous video game playing variables were identified as available from all questionnaires and 11 development of consciousness variables. The video game variables are:


play days/week = Part II, items 1, 2 and 3 condensed

length play session = Part II, item 4

play with = Part II, item 7

# of games played = Part II, item 8

first game age = Part II, item 9

peak game age = Part II, item 10

total years played = present age minus age first played

sum of dizziness variables = Nausea + Stomach awareness + Increased salivation + Eyestrain + Difficulty focusing + Blurred vision + Headache + Dizziness + Vertigo

nausea sum = nausea + stomach awareness + increased salivation

ocular sum = eyestrain + difficulty focusing + blurred vision + headache

disorientation sum = nausea + dizziness + vertigo + difficulty focusing + blurred vision


The development of consciousness variables were:


dreams/month = Part III, item 1

prayer = Part III, item 4

meditation = Part III, item 5

religion import = Part III, item 6

lucid dream freq = sleep experience 1

nightmare freq = sleep experience 2

night terror freq = sleep experience 3

archetypal freq = sleep experience 4

OBE freq = wake experience 1

mystical freq = wake experience 2

precognition freq = wake experience 3


            All factor analyses were Varimax rotations. The first factor analysis looked all of the above variables, except the dizziness ones, for all subjects. It can be seen below:


Insert All Subjects Factor Analysis



            Of the seven factors which loaded four involved a mixture of video game and consciousness variables, 2, 5, 6, and 7. Since our focus is the relationship between these sets of variables all discussions will focus only on factors where there is some representation of both types of variables. In factor 2, a lack of mystical experiences was associated with frequent play per week, a lot of types of games played and longer years playing as well as starting and peaking  young. For factor 5, playing frequently during the week was associated with low dream recall, use of prayer and low archetypal dreams. Factor 6 showed a relationship between few dreams recalled per month and playing with friends. For factor 7, long play sessions and lots of games played were associated with meditation and mystical frequency. This factor analysis showed mixed support for the major hypothesis that video game playing will be associated with experiences indicative of the development of consciousness.

            Since respondents included people who were frequent as well as infrequent video game players it was thought that it might be useful to separate these two groups and look at the factor structure for each type of respondent. The players reported playing one or more times a week while the nonplayers reported play from a few times a month to a few times a year. The same factor analysis as described above was then calculated on the 63 players.


Insert Players Factor Analysis


            It can be seen that three of the six factors loaded above criteria. In factor 1 starting and peaking later was associated with fewer years of play, low dream recall and more mystical experiences. In factor 3, mystical experience again loaded with a variety of video game variables including playing freq during the week, long play sessions, trying a many games, starting young, and playing a long time. These two factors generally support the proposed relationship between video game play and development of consciousness. The last factor to load both types of variables was factor 6. In it playing with others loaded with low dream recall and the use of prayer. This factor seems to more represent a social factor.

            The 27 nonplayers were then factor analyzed as per the above and all five factors which loaded included variables from video game as well as consciousness groups.


Insert Nonplayers Factor Analysis



            It can be seen that all but one of the four factors loaded both types of variables in this limited version of the factor analysis on nonplayers. Fewer variables were loaded because there were only 27 nonplayers. In factor 1, long play sessions, trying many games, starting and peaking young and long play over the years were associated with less of mystical and precognitive experiences. In factor 3, not playing often was associated with playing with others, trying different games, night terrors and archetypal dreams. The last factor showed an association between length of play session as well as high lucid dreaming frequency and OBE's frequency but lower precognitive frequency.

            In the next two factor analyses the role of dizziness was investigated. This information was available only for those subjects who filled out the questionnaire online and further based on the distinction between players and nonplayers in the entire sample thought most relevant for the players (n=37). The first factor analysis using only players who filled out the questionnaire online used a sum of dizziness items along with all the rest mentioned above.


Insert Factor Analysis: Players from online with Sum Dizziness


            It can be see in this factor analysis that the first four factors had variables which loaded from both domains, video game and consciousness. In factor 1, dizziness was associated with lucid dreaming and a lack of dream recall as well as later starting and peaking game play and shorter play in years. That is, dizziness is related to internal control variables. But a negative component associated with game play was found in factor 4. Dizziness loaded with night terrors as well as playing with others and prayer. Here dizziness is linked to external control variables. Factors 2 and 3 showed a positive association along the hypothesized lines. Factor 2 loaded longer play sessions with dream recall, lucid dreaming, archetypal dreaming, OBE's and precognitive experiences. On the third factor, days per week playing, length of play session, number of types of games tried, starting young and years playing was associated with lucid dreaming frequency and a lack of night terrors.

            To further partial out this dizziness variable a final factor analysis was calculated where three subscales of dizziness were calculated based on Kennedy et al’s three factors of simulation symptoms (nausea, ocular, and disorientation).


Insert Factor Analysis: Players 3 Dizziness Variables


            Factors 1, 2 and 3 were essentially dream, symptom and game factors. On factor 4, nausea was associated with nightmare, night terror and mystical frequency, as well as playing with others and negatively related to number of games played. On factor 5, nausea was positively related to lucid dream frequency and to several game variables (play per week, length of play sessions and number of games played). As in the previous factor analysis, internal and external control variables load on separate factors.


            Twenty years ago, Siegel speculated that dizziness is a form of play behaviour where we seek to alter our state of consciousness. Although it tends to have negative connotations or consequences, dizziness may be experienced as a positive condition. When it is not accompanied by sickness symptoms, dizziness may include sensations of floating and euphoria. In the two factor analyses involving dizziness, both the positive (lucid dreaming link) and negative (night terrors link) aspects of dizziness and nausea were observed. The positive state is associated with indices of internal control while the negative is related to external control. The findings are consistent with related research, e.g. Preston and her students have shown that high absorbers report more nausea but have fewer post-test decrements for balance and spatial tests; field independence and spatial abilities are related to lucid dreams (Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989; Gackenbach, Heilman, Boyt, & LaBerge, 1985).


            Preliminary factor analysis of self-report data gathered on the internet supports the hypothesized relationship between video game playing and some experiences indicative of the development of consciousness. This does not imply that simply playing video games will result in an expanded consciousness in some developmentally superior way. However, we must wonder if that activity will function as a cultural amplifier affecting these children's experiences of such states of being. It may be that another way the technological matrix, sometimes discussed as global brain, will interact in deeply profound ways with the wet brain matrix will be in the wiring of neural networks to create new and unknown outcomes.



   Cranson, R. W., Orme-Johnson, D., Gackenbach, J., Dillbeck, M. C., Jones, C. H. & Alexander, C. (1991). Transcendental meditation and improved performance on intelligence-related measures: A longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences, 12(10), 1105-1116.

   Gackenbach, J. I. (1991). A developmental model of consciousness in sleep: From sleep consciousness to pure consciousness. In J.  I. Gackenbach and A. Sheikh (Eds.), Dream images: A call to mental arms. NY: Baywood.

      Gackenbach, J. I. & Bosveld, J. (1989). Control your dreams. New York: Harper & Row.

      Gackenbach, J. I., Heilman, N, Boyt, S & LaBerge, S. (1985). The relationship between field independence and lucid dreaming ability. Journal of Mental Imagery, 9, 9-20.

   Glicksohn, J. & Avnon, M. (1997). Explorations in virtual reality: Absorption, cognition and altered state of consciousness. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 17(2), 141-151.

    Greenfield, P. M. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1996).  Interacting with video. Advances in applied developmental psychology, vol. 11. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

   Jackson, D. N. III, Vernon, P. A, & Jackson, D. N. (1993). Dynamic spatial performance and general intelligence. Intelligence, 17(4), pp. 451-460.

   Kennedy, R., Lane, N., Berbaum, K. & Lilienthal, M. (1993). Simulator sickness questionnaire: An enhanced method for quantifying simulator sickness. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 3(3), 203-220.

   Preston, J. M. (in press). Mediated environments: Interfaces, transparency and intelligence augmentation. In J.  I. Gackenbach (Ed.) Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Implications, San Diego: Academic Press.

   Siegel, R. (1979-80). Dizziness as an altered state of consciousness. Journal of Altered States of Consciousness, 5(2), 87-104.


Back to Top

VirtualWorlds   |    Lucidity Letters   |    Consciousness   |   Bio   |   Contact   |    Links   |    Acknowledgements