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?