The Sweet Dream Theory

I used to be terrified of video games. I loved them, but they scared me at the same time. And I mean seriously scared me, on a few occasions to the point of not wanting to go to sleep. Of course, back then I was little, and I was awfully squeamish when I was little. I could easily rattle off a long list of groundless fears like thunderstorms and mushrooms and Medusa and whatnot.

But the scariest of all was the videogame, the little interactive torture chamber inside the television set, where you could die in a million ways, in lovingly animated and agonizing scenes of pain, where you could wander down ominous hallways waiting to be preyed upon by unrecognizable low-res monstrosities and the occasional creepy glitch or worse, the detailed Game Over screen (You know how those can be sometimes.) My parents would tell me they were "just images" but I couldn't care less, and try as they might, they could never find a clear way to calm me down. Well, here's an idea nobody was thinking of at the time: more video games. That is, better, cuter video games. To be concise, therapeutic gaming.

It all started when I was invited to see the movie I Am Legend with my father and my teeny-tiny little brother. As it turns out, the newest addition to our family is just as squeamish as I was, and the poor tyke had been reduced to tears before the end of the first act. He slinked into his room, and I was dispatched to console him as usual, although this time with a knowing smile on my face and a trick up my sleeve. There'd been this theory tumbling about my mind for just under a year now and I'd been itching for a lab rat, er, test subject, erm, scared innocent child to test it out on...darn it.

You see, I frequent Tv Tropes. They have this page, called "Nightmare Fuel", that's basically a compendium of every scary moment in every TV show, film, game, book, comic, anything ever. Here's the entry on Neon Genesis Evangelion, since that's such a good example. The implication is that scary things equal sleepless nights, and post-horror paranoia. And that's where Little Brother comes in, since he naturally doesn't take seeing this stuff very well even after it's over.

Funny thing is, somewhere between elementary school and now I went from being afraid of so many things to having developed a morbid fascination with the morbid, an inquisitive attitude toward fear and the things that cause it in myself and others, and so I found myself on the Nightmare Fuel page a lot, maybe too much. Or maybe not too much, because a few wiki walks later I found out about Sweet Dreams Fuel. And that's when it all came together.

The Sweet Dream Theory

Sweet dreams!The Sweet Dream Theory

...Or not.

Sweet Dreams Fuel is the polar opposite of Nightmare Fuel, and is frequently touted as its antidote: fluffy, cute, happy works designed to paint a smile on your soul. The name was just a play on the nightmare-sweet dream dichotomy, and I doubt anyone has gone out there and actually proven that there was some sort of correlation. But it seems like such an elegant idea, and I thought that maybe there was more truth to it than I might've realized.

I had to try it out, or at the very least put the old joke to rest. And anything that had even the faintest chance of helping the situation deserved a go. So I invited Little Brother to play Kirby's Dreamland 3 with me. And you know what? That did it.

The Sweet Dream Theory

Just to put things in perspective, this is the game we were playing. I'm not all that surprised how things turned out in hindsight.

Games like these are perfect for this job. In much the same way that the best games tend to make players feel like they're entering a self-contained world, cute games like these make the players feel like they're entering a self-contained and pre-prepared happy place. The visuals and music certainly do their share of the work, but what what really drives it home is the sense of safety that comes from inhabiting an idealistic virtual space. (So no, he didn't see the ending.) It, in a sense, tricks the players into thinking that they are in an environment where one's guard can be let down. And as we all know, the sooner we can get ourselves to stop thinking compulsively about something scary, the sooner we can get over it, or better yet settle into a mental state where we can deal with our fears rationally.

I call it the Sweet Theory of Dreams! Gah! No, wait, the Sweet Dream Theory!

And now I fear I've reached an empirical dead end. So I've found a few odd things about a few cute games. What am I supposed do now, conduct a formal experiment? I wonder in the back of my head if I'm not overselling something that probably isn't even an original idea. Cute things make people more comfortable, but that's obvious, no? And does the format of a video game actually bring enough new angles on this old practice to be worth any special attention. And if so, how much? Is this worth a shot at all?

But that's a needlessly cynical question. Of course they're worth a shot. To throw away this hypothesis without giving it a fair chance would be a disgrace to the Scientific Method. I'd like to formally look into how these kinds of games affect people, and whether there are meaningful advantages comfort games can offer in a therapeutic setting. But that's an undertaking for another day, and a lot more money.

So for now I'll leave you with a link to the page image, and a link to the other image, as it's only fair (although I don't remember where that last one came from), and the note that this piece was a brutal exercise in excluding personal information. And, I don't know, maybe sound off in the comments section about the game that you think is the most potent source of sweet dreams fuel.

And on a final note, this post and my last two are under the tag "Radical Helmet Special." Thanks for reading!

(Oh, God, I feel like I'm gonna look back on this post soon and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote it. Well, here goes.)