October 14, 2000
2:20 PM   Subscribe

It's common knowledge that Tetris players often see the game in their dreams. Now scientists are using the game to help understand the very nature of dreams themselves. But it doesn't address the question I've always had: Why Tetris? Why doesn't this happen with Quake or Ultima or even Super Breakout?
posted by jjg (13 comments total)
Umm... it does happen. I'm playing Diablo II right now, and for the past week (since I started) I've been having dungeon rompin' dreams.

Same thing when I played Ultima 9 and all the previous ones, every time, I have dreams related to the game.

When we started playing Counterstrike on a regular basis at work, guess who dreamt he was a sniper?

Guess who has dreams about wielding my mystical power and battling insanity surrounded by amazon women while reading Wheel of Time?

I think people who dream a lot (which I do, almost nightly) tend to recognize the influence their daily lives have on their dreams. Usually when I'm semi-lucid while dreaming, it's a dream I've either had many times before, or a dream based on whatever fantasy (as in fantastical, not necessarily as in genre) world I've got my head wrapped up in.

Interesting article though.
posted by cCranium at 3:01 PM on October 14, 2000

I imagine Tetris is particularly repetitive and so dissimilar from ordinary life. You know, most games at least have some kind of character walking around. Tetris is just seven different blocks falling over and over and over and over. Man, I used to be so addicted to that game...
posted by daveadams at 3:24 PM on October 14, 2000

hey cranium! you play cs? We gotta hook up on a server some where.

posted by capt.crackpipe at 3:58 PM on October 14, 2000

Off the cuff, I would think that a brain processing the day would work much more with a single character representing "you" that day while you were playing. I mean, does the brain realise that what we're doing when we're playing a video game?

More specifically, when a brain is processing and storing our day's worth of memories, thoughts, ideas, it could be aware that it's a simulation of some kind, because it better helps us properly complete the simulation. But when it's flushing data past for "later perusal" does that state we're in - simulation - get stored back there too?

If not, then while it's processing our day's work, it could continue to think we ARE that person. That character we're playing the video game? That's a core aspect to remembering the video game, and solving many games requires you to "put yourself" into the game world.

In game developer media there's always talk about needing better characters, more realistic "avatars" (not the Ultima character sense, in the actual definition sense.

OR, could it just be replaying those events, and working on other stuff in the background, that gets represented to us as aspects of that game? When I play a game, it's often for hours at a time, and I'm devoting all my concious cycles to processing the game. But that's pretty elementary, considering our brain is constantly accessing our worldviews in the background, saying "how can I tweak this" or "how can I refine this idea."

So while our imagery of the day is all of the game world, our brains kludges these abstract ideas, and the dragon we're hunting to slay is actually "how do I want this [website|function|spaghetti sauce recipe] to turn out? What paths do I want to take to reach this goal, what problems and beasts and mini-quests do I have to battle and defeat and solve before this goal is reached?

Videos games definetely affect our thinking, but in such a good way. So many different games offer so many different problems so many different paths we can take and pitfalls we can avoid. With genre-crossover, like first person puzzle solvers or role-playing games (ie, Halflife) how many times to we have to learn to apply different skills to different environments, attack an problem that appears to be the same old thing but isn't, with strategies and technics from seemingly unrelated "fields."

(as a complete aside, I wonder how many hits and publicity this site got from having a popular video game's name. I hope it's all been good publicity, too. And I really hope they had the name registered before Half Life the game was released. What's whois say.... They've had it since 1995. I greatly dislike the fact I thought otherwise.)
posted by cCranium at 3:59 PM on October 14, 2000

JJG, I think I've got an answer.

The most compelling theory I've heard about the content of dreams is in the intro to Dennett's Consciousness Explained. Very terse version:

Imagine a game of 20 questions where "yes" was answered to all questions which ended with a last letter between [A-M] and a "no" to all questions which ended with a last letter [N-Z]. Consistency with prior answers is the only exception to these rules. Now try it. You'll come up with something.

And if the person who's asking the questions doesn't know that they are being answered according to these simple rules, there is no difference to them (as far as the questioner was concerned, the answerer/s might as well have had something in mind all along).

This game is an analogy for what goes on in perception: the higher-level complex cells query groups of simple sensory cells, and the still higher-level hyper-complex cells query groups of complex cells, and so on down (up?) the line. (some context)

During sleep, the summed activity of sensory neurons is basically white noise, so the "questions" that the higher-level parts of your brain are asking your sensory systems are answered more or less at random, as in the game. So, based on noisy information, the structures in your brain which pick out certain patterns (like recognizing a face or perceiving movement) do the best they can. One minute you're in a rowboat with your grandmother, next thing you're flying over Neo-Tokyo.

(The corollary is that there is no author of your dreams. No internal you or subconscious one is trying to tell you anything and no secret symbols which need decoding. The more fruitful analysis of dreams arises from looking at prior pre-occupations, things you are "on the lookout for" and so on. But there is no significance to the actions or actors, other than the insight they provide to what is on your mind that you may not have been paying attention to.)

There is no point trying to summarize all the details which make this a truly compelling theory of consciousness in dreams in a MF post, but it is easy to point out why Tetris junkies would be so likely to dream in Tetris shapes and movements.

Since the shapes, movements and rotations of Tetris pieces are very simple geometrically, training up substructures which recognize Tetris shapes or movements can occur much more rapidly than for truly complex things like faces or gestures or language. Big bouts of Tetris get these substructures all primed and ready to go, constantly on the lookout for an "L" shaped piece of one of the 2v2 squares.

When the noise randomly produces these "false" recognitions (the tetris-complex cells are structurally compelled to always on the lookout to them), other related and recently primed structures which consider the context and significance of pieces, determine desired rotation and location, etc., are activated, resulting in all kinds of Tetris-related brain activity abstracted from the context of a normal game. Tetris dreams.

(I've had Freecell dreams too, which require a lot more hour-after-hour playing of Freecell to get going because the rules and "pieces" are more complex, but I don't like to talk about that ...)
posted by sylloge at 4:44 PM on October 14, 2000

I almost never remember my dreams, but when I was a serious Tetris addict I used to see blocks falling every time I shut my eyes. If I blinked for more than a fraction of a second there'd be a Tetris game running on the back of my eyelids.

I wonder if the fact that Tetris is such a simple game, and that its visual structure is so easily identifiable, has something to do with its mental stickiness. If you dreamed about Myst last night, would you be able to tell it was Myst, and not just some random island with tiny bits of monumental architecture and strangely linked bits of machinery?

Not being familiar with the ways of dreamland I can't really answer this, but Tetris does seem to get into your brain like a particularly tenacious earworm.

posted by Mars Saxman at 5:38 PM on October 14, 2000

FYI, the yes/no question game is similar to a parlor game called 'Decadence'. Decadence is a good game to play when someone in your party has just won a previous game and you want to screw with their fragile little minds.

Send "it" out of the room with the knowledge that the rest of you will make up a story while s/he is out. While "it" is waiting, you fill everyone else in on the rules. "It" will ask a series of questions. If their question ends in a consonant, the answer is 'no'. If they ask a question ending in a vowell, the answer is 'yes'. If the question ends in 'y' the answer is 'maybe'. Instruct the crowd to make sure they ham it up a little. Some questions answer immediately, others hem and haw, maybe argue a little even though you know what you should say. Bring "it" in, after a suitable pause and tell "it" that you've made up a story and "it's" job is to guess the story with questions that can be answered in 'yes' or 'no'.

Hilarity ensues as "it" tries to reconcile the inconsistencies that pile up.

An example from a game I played:

It is solid? No.
Is it a gas? No.
Is it liquid? No.
Long pause for much thought.
Is it....plasma?!! Yes.
This story is about creatures made of plasma? Yes.
Will they fit in a trailer? No.
Will they fit in a boxcar? No.
(exhasperated)Will they fit in the Cow Palace?! Yes.

posted by plinth at 5:56 PM on October 14, 2000

I must agree with cCranium--whatever game you play a LOT, that's what you'll be dreaming or at least seeing every time you close your eyes. People will probably dream most about addictive games like Diablo or RTS's or Tetris if thats what they do 24/7. Hey I know from experience.
posted by grank at 7:49 PM on October 14, 2000

I have no idea whether this is related but when I used to play tetris a lot it got to the point where it was almost like meditation. Admitedly I had the advantage of a version I wrote myself in which I could turn off speeding up. It got to the point (fairly quickly) where if I wanted to think about stuff I'd start playing tetris. I supose it had an effect a bit like worry beads.
posted by davidgentle at 8:08 PM on October 14, 2000

sylloge: What a fascinating sounding book. It's officially On My List. Thanks!

I don't think what I'm talking about is exclusive from that though. I definetely don't know nearly as much as I'd like to about the workings of the brain, but lack of knowledge never stopped me from thinking about it. :-)

Whether or not dreams contain deep subtextual purpose - which is something I've never really believed - they do are, essentially, visual stimulation. I've had dreams where every one of my five senses is being triggered.

What I'm trying to say, and not very clearly, is that as whatever thought process occurs churns away in the background, we're treated to hallucinations. Hallucinations that, in my experience at least, reflect on the day or the week or the month I've had in some way or another. Characters from novels, friends, family.

Ever spent all night waking up every hour because you keep dreaming about working, and then you realize "oh crap, I was just dreaming again!"

Whatever causes these images is far beyond my current level of knowledge (and if you can recommend any other books on conciousness - preferably ones like the one in the description you linked to, for the layperson, but not dumbed down - I'd love to hear about them) but these images appear.

The page you linked doesn't discuss dreams much, just processing of information. It seems a lot of it dealt with the "backs" of our memories burning cycles on processing and storing data while we're still perceiving it; while we're awake. Is that the same thing that happens during sleep?

And if so, does the book discuss why dream images and environments are formed?
posted by cCranium at 8:40 PM on October 14, 2000

cCrainium, not much time is spent in that book on dreams in particular — they are just brought up in the beginning to introduce a few points — but you can learn a lot from reading the rest of the book and applying it to dreams.

Consciousness Explained was at least the most important popular work on the philosophy of mind in the last 20 years (and it spawned plenty of controversy, especially the zombie stuff). Even though I've grown skeptical on a few points, it is an excellent book and better than anything else I could recommend on these topics.
posted by sylloge at 3:05 AM on October 15, 2000

About a decade ago, I used to teach kindergarten. Sometimes, we would go on field trips, which would be very stressful occasions for me. I had to constantly look around to make sure none of the 25 kids in my charge was missing or in trouble. I couldn't stop doing this for a moment, and sometimes this went on for four or five hours straight.

After days like this, I would dream this activity all night. These dreams were very different from my regular dreams, which always told stories. But the kindergarten dreams had NO stories--just "Where's Jason? Where's Amy? Where's Peter?" over and over, all night long. Sometimes I would wake up, frantic that some kid was missing, then I would fall back into it again, "Where's Jenny? Where's Alex?..." And in the morning, I wouldn't feel rested (as I would after a normal dream, even a scary one). I would feel as if I had been working hard all night.

I also had these dreams when I waited tables, after a really busy shift. All night long, "table 5 needs water, table 12 is leaving, table 2 wants their check..."

And I've also had these dreams after hours of intensive, frustrating debugging sessions. (I remember when I was learning LISP, I used to dream about parenthesis inside parenthesis inside parentheses, world without end...)

And, yes, I've had the Tetris dreams too.

This may not be true for everyone, but for me, the common prompt for all these dreams is long periods of engaging in repetitive, stressful activity.

Assuming dreams serves some sort of purpose (which, of course, they may not), I wouldn't be surprised if these dreams serve a totally different purpose than regular dreams. In fact, calling both types of phenomenon "dreams" seems like a mistake (although I don’t have another word). They are very different animals.
posted by grumblebee at 6:00 AM on October 15, 2000

tetris. why wait till you go to sleep?

another great topic ruined by filler. sorry.
posted by lescour at 7:48 PM on October 15, 2000

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