Feedback Loop: How Videogames Stole my Daydreams

When my brother and I were younger our parents used to force us to spend a certain amount of time outside every day. In the summer especially, when school was out and the days were lazy, we were cast out into the suburban wilderness to wander the sun baked streets.

They did this to get us away from our videogames. The Blue Bomber and tunic sporting elf were just two of the reasons our parents feared the worst for us. When my older brother preferred to sink hours at a time into obliterating Metroids to playing outside with the neighborhood kids, and I preferred to sit there and watch him, my parents decided to intervene, and so our forced mid-day exoduses began.

They assumed, like most parents of the time (and many still) that those colors on the screen and constant flashing lights must be burning holes in our brains. Further still, they worried about our cognitive development; specifically, how would we form healthy, active and voracious imaginations when we preferred staring at a screen to reading books or make believing on our own?

Needless to say, our imaginations developed just fine. But whether that’s because our parents intervened, or despite it, still isn’t clear.

In his recent article at the New Yorker (hat tip Jamin Warren), Jonah Lehrer addresses the benefits of letting our minds wander. Researchers Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara performed an experiment that tried to compare the creativity of people who had recently been allowed to let their minds wander while doing something boring with others who had remained actively engaged in a difficult task during the same time. What the study found was this,

“[T]hose students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.”

In other words constant stimulation can sometimes be counterproductive. Lehrer’s take-away is the following,

“A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.”

Every moment not spent checking Twitter, watching a video, responding to an email, listening to music or playing a videogame isn’t necessarily time wasted. And yet this is where many of us find ourselves in the modern media landscape. We don’t just spend hours trying to get to the next point in the story, level up once more, or collect that last piece of loot. Now, with mobile gaming, every minute, from waiting in line at the store to sitting on the john can be an excuse to play.

As Leher notes, “Humans are a daydreaming species.” So what happens when we stop dreaming?

Several years ago Will Wright, writing a guest post at Wired, claimed people wouldn’t stop daydreaming just because of videogames. Instead, videogames would be what helped us to daydream in new and heretofore impossible ways. After all, those same iPhone games that eat up all of our spare time also allow us to connect with people in fundamentally different ways. Draw Something was not an anomaly, but rather one out of many possible ways for creativity to flourish in the gaming space. Isn’t doodling the quintessential daydreaming activity?

Still I remain worried sometimes. Even if videogames encourage all sorts of whimsy and casual fun, their brand of imagination is fundamentally different from the old school kind, isn’t it? From books to radio to television to videogames, each successive step has closer to an all immersive media. We don’t just think, listen, or see, but all of the above, and increasingly all of the time. Doesn’t there come a point where our heads are so full of the background rumblings of ambient sociability and digital stimulation that the daydreams we have are no longer the patient, organic creatures they once were?

I think back to the time my parents forced me to play outside. To be bored and find ways to occupy myself, with no help from a 21st century Mother Box. I think about how my imagination ran wild as I donned a green felt hat and clumsily crafted bow and arrow to explore my quarter acre backyard. It was silly and ridiculous and utterly compelling. Now I have grand delusions made by teams of people and constructed to scintillate every nerve in my body.

Planettscaping in Mass Effect or running through the streets of Constantinople offers me the fantastic and uncanny with the push of a button, but I did nothing to shape the inner edges or outer limits of these fantastic encounters. These dreams are made for me, but are not of me, and yet how easily they turn in my mind, as if they’d been there all along; an opiate that overwhelms and pleases and leaves you dazed.

These days I can’t help but wonder if the softening of my imagination is due to more than just age. Like a media addict, my mind requires endless amounts of comic books and movies and videogames to keep it solvent. I tell myself it’s because I like it this way, because the stories out there are always more fun, more interesting, more real than the ones inside. And perhaps this is the truth. But somewhere buried in sprawling heat of those early summers that kid knew balance. Now I can hardly imagine what that balance was or would have felt like.

Maybe there’s a game that can show me how.


  1. wademcgillis

    @ethangach @patriciaxh No. I am still able to daydream.

  2. TB_Love

    Maybe now? For sure.
    But way back when, WHEN I WAS A KID (lol I sound so old), you had to use your imagination in a lot of games. I remember playing the original Final Fantasy and imagining the heroes carrying a key outside of the dungeon, except the key was the size of a human being and they had to lug it out inch by inch, intermittently stopping when monsters attacked.

  3. Rachel Helps

    I think we use our imaginations/creativity differently as adults. Instead of questing off to kill imaginary monsters, we’re trying to figure out how to make a meal with those leftovers, or thinking of what to write about for our next article. Doing something unusual with one’s leisure time is also creative–just not in a constant way?

  4. ethancgach

    James Dilks wrote more on this subject in newer Kill Screen post:
    His basic fear is that every bit of realism new video game tech affords us will leave us with less that requires our imagination (e.g. Super Mario Bros. leaves a lot to the imagination, Max Payne 3 no so much).
     @Rachel Helps I think it’s all a matter of degrees, and how passive vs. active we are with what we’re doing. Creative stuff especially requires a lot of our imagination. But unlike playing make believe in the backyard (or in Skyrim) many video games seem to play more like movies, delivering a full and complete representation, needing nothing from the player/viewer.
     @TB_Love So yea, that’s a great point, and that’s basically what Dilks explores in more detail (though still not as much as I would have liked.

    • Rachel Helps

       @ethancgach I totally saw that post on KS! In fact I copyedited it. 🙂 And I agree with the premise–we don’t need super-real graphics, but while we have them, we might as well focus on interesting things like systems. That’s one reason I can’t see myself like the Uncharted series… is there any room for creativity?

      •  @Rachel Helps  @ethancgach I’m with you, that’s the very reason I have interest in Uncharted. It just bores me. 

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  6. patchwork_doll

    Instead of replacing daydreams, Skyrim and Minecraft have been daydream fuel in my life. Videogames themselves aren’t replacing daydreams, rather it seems for some people their habits involving videogames and other media consumption seem to be the culprit.

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  8. Christians mostly shared their beliefs with the Hebrews and thought that dreams were of the supernatural element because the Old Testament had frequent stories of dreams with divine inspiration. The most famous of these dream stories was Jacob’s dream that stretched from Earth to Heaven. Many Christian men preached that God talked to his people through their dreams.