Can Video Games Decrease Nightmares for Soldiers with PTSD?

According to a new study, soldiers who play aggressive video games on a regular basis experience less traumatic nightmares than soldiers who only play occasionally or who play less violent games. Jayne Gackenbach of Grant MacEwan University believes the video games offer an opportunity of empowerment that transfers into their dreams. “Video game play may offer not only a type of training for learning to shoot targets or attend to peripheral cues in a dangerous environment, but also some inoculation to threats in nightmares,” said Gackenbach. “These dreams are the most common element of posttraumatic stress due to trauma.” Previous research has shown that traumatic memories usually remain unprocessed and the individual winds up experiencing the same memories repeatedly, causing significant psychological impairment.  By being able to address the fears in a virtual world, soldiers are able to conquer them and thus eliminate the real, physical and psychological symptoms.

For the study, Gackenbach and her colleagues interviewed 98 soldiers and categorized them into two groups: high end gamers who played daily or weekly, and low end gamers who played monthly, yearly or rarely. The high end group also reported playing more aggressive games while the low end group played sporting or fantasy games. The participants were questioned regarding their emotional sensitivity, level of PTSD symptoms and regularity of dreams. The researchers found that the aggressive video games may have lowered the fear for some of the soldiers. “It was found that the high-end gaming group exhibited less threat and war content in their military dreams than the low-end group,” said Gackenbach. “While there is much work to be done, and prescriptive suggestions are premature at this point, these results imply that video game play, especially of the war and battle type, may offer help in terms of practice in fighting the enemy in imaginal realms, in this case virtual, and in terms of the numbing toward violence that is oft cited in the aggression modeling literature on gaming.”

Gackenbach, J., Ellerman, E., & Hall, C. (2011, August 22). Video Game Play As Nightmare Protection: A Preliminary Inquiry With Military Gamers. Dreaming. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024972

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • tracey


    August 31st, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    I always say video games with blood and gore are making our teens and youngsters more and more violent.but even I did not get this wonderful idea-that of using the same for our armed men!
    to them it is an added benefit playing such games because that is what they do in real life anyway!nice idea.

  • FireIce


    September 1st, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    While it may improe their in-battle skills,isn’t being exposed to violent video games and then even more violence in real life going to have a toll on their mental health??

  • Sara Jones

    Sara Jones

    September 1st, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    How can you be a proponent of this? In my opinion most of these games do nothing but foster more aggressive behavior and violence. How can soldiers who have been a part of this kind of lifestyle get anything positive from something that creates even more of the same kind of behavior?

  • Kris Butler

    Kris Butler

    September 2nd, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    @Sara Jones: Soldiers need to have an aggressive, combative streak in them if they want to survive in a war zone. It’s self-preservation. If they have to think twice about killing someone, that could mean the difference between them or their enemy being the one occupying the coffin.

    If you don’t want them to be aggressive, don’t complain when your country gets invaded by others who are and your soldiers don’t have the guts or training to protect you. Is that what you want? I don’t.

    God Bless them all.

  • Grace


    September 2nd, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    This is not training for the military- this is not even reality. Yeah maybe it can numb them to the violence but that is not exactly teaching someone how to deal with pain. You can’t simply push something under the rug and assume that it goes away. It might be out of sight but I think that we are all smart enough to know that it does not go away.

  • J.T.


    September 2nd, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    @Tracey, re : “I always say video games with blood and gore are making our teens and youngsters more and more violent.” Prove it. Can you cite a source for what that assumption’s based upon? I think that’s hogwash. If it wasn’t video games, it would be other games.

    In the 60’s I ran about the forest with toy guns and shot all my buddies to smithereens in my mind playing soldiers all summer. We’d split into teams in the first day of summer and from then on it was war.

    We captured each other by jumping out of bushes and punching the heck out of “the enemy”. We got tied to trees, tripped by wires, would fall into holes they’d dug, had kids leap from branches like crazed apes onto our backs. We spent whole summers plotting how best to defeat the other side and what tortures we could inflict on them. I’d come home covered in scrapes and bruises every day and call it a good day out LOL.

    We were just as violent back then as kids are now and yes, some kids would want to take it to extremes and could really hurt somebody because they would get too excited if they weren’t reined in. But we called it playing war, not violence. No difference.

  • DPB


    September 3rd, 2011 at 9:00 PM

    @Tracey-There actually was a study that shows something a bit different. It was not the violence in games that was the trigger. Competitive gaming is what they focused on, and they found that type had a much bigger impact on aggression than blood and guts type games. That’s what’s built into human instinct and it can’t be held in check easily, the desire to win at all costs.

  • fiona eisenberg

    fiona eisenberg

    September 3rd, 2011 at 9:44 PM

    @Sara Jones–“How can you be a proponent of this?”

    Very easily. If gaming helps them deal with the repercussions of such demands and being posted in extremely dangerous and hostile environments, that’s a good thing.

    How can you NOT be a proponent of a tool that minimizes PTSD for them, these men and women that are willing to give their lives in the name of freedom- your freedom!? Amazing.

  • Jess Dunlop

    Jess Dunlop

    September 4th, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    Keeping what causes your stress off your mind will assuredly help deal with your nightmares. This in addition to counseling would indeed be beneficial. It’s a distraction and would be a very cheap and easy one for the military to implement.

    I’d bet gaming software and console companies would be clamoring to support the troops in that way. Aside from the mental good it would do it’s great PR for them as well as possibly generating more sales when the soldiers return home and want to continue playing it.

    Nightmares happen because traumatic, worrying or upsetting events are nagging at your mind, and if you don’t come to terms with those events you’ll keep suffering from them. A gaming/therapy combination could be very useful.

  • kimberley b.

    kimberley b.

    September 4th, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    Nightmares are not a big deal. Do you remember the dreams you had this morning? Nope. Dreams are forgotten about an hour after waking up and if you wake up from one, then you go straight back to sleep right after. I grew out of being scared of monsters under my bed when I was five, for goodness sake.

  • Letitia J.

    Letitia J.

    September 4th, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    @kimberley Speak for yourself about them being forgotten by morning. I have no trouble recalling my dreams or nighmares days and weeks after them.

    If you did any kind of dreamwork you’d know that’s perfectly possible, especially if you get in the habit of keeping a dream diary in the beginning and remind yourself to remember them right before you lay down to asleep. That trains your mind to recall them effortlessly.

  • Gina R.

    Gina R.

    September 6th, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    @kimberley b.:Dreams and nightmares can be very, very real. You’ve obviously never suffered from a very bad nightmare, never mind PTSD. Mine are very vivid and a very bad one can haunt your thoughts for months, even years.

    I once dreamed the ghost of a little boy was lying beside me in bed and woke up screaming. If my husband hadn’t been lying there already awake, watching me moan and toss and turn in my sleep and hadn’t been able to tell me I was dreaming, I would have sworn the boy was there to this day.

  • Aaron Carter

    Aaron Carter

    September 6th, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    @Gina R.-kimberley is correct. They can’t hurt you either; you either need to ride them out or learn to wake yourself up. Nobody has been traumatized by a nightmare at any time in history and that is not about to change anytime soon between now and Armageddon. If anything, nightmares are probably a safety valve for your brain to get that out of its system.

  • Huey Landers

    Huey Landers

    September 7th, 2011 at 10:15 PM

    @Aaron Carter: “Nobody has been traumatized by a nightmare at any time in history.” Wow, I’m impressed you’ve studied the entire human race individually at length. You must have to have said that with such confidence LOL.

    Seriously, says who? Haven’t you heard of people dying of fright? How do you know some didn’t do that because they had a very intense nightmare? The rush of adrenaline can bring on a heart attack in an already weakened heart. Did you know that?

    The nightmare would be what indirectly killed them. I think death counts as pretty traumatized.

  • Searge


    September 11th, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    @Tracey While I understand where you are coming from I have to respectfully disagree. There are lots of people who are anti video games for a variety of reasons, the two big ones are violence and that they are keeping kids from playing outside. Usually the same people who are against video games for exercise reasons are also against it for violence. However if playing violent video games cause children to commit violent acts, wouldn’t this mean that all we would have to do to get kids to go outside is get them to play sport video games? When you think of it like this, the whole violent video game theory doesn’t make sense. Violent people play violent video games, video games don’t make people violent.

  • Benjamin


    November 18th, 2013 at 8:18 PM

    If you look at the link I have added in to this post it will show you that since the first massively played first person shooter (Doom in 1993) was released that teen violence has gone down to an all time low. In 1993 We were at the highest at around 45 per thousand teenagers were connected to a violent crime in which it is now down to around 10 per thousand.

  • Cameron


    October 2nd, 2015 at 5:55 PM

    That drop in violence has been correlated to legalization of abortion following Roe vs Wade

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