What does belief in God have to do with video games? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Researchers at St. Jerome’s University in Canada discovered that atheists and theists are significantly different in their preferences and enjoyment of certain kinds of games. These differences offer provocative insight into the differences between believers and non-believers, and might explain why some people are more prone to religious belief than others.
Here’s how it works. Atheists, generally speaking, “are less capable of internally simulating vivid, emotionally evocative experiences” than theists. This difference translates into how we enjoy games. Atheists, it turns out, are more fond of immersive video games with intricate visual details. In other words, games where they don’t have to imagine lots of emotionally evocative details. They prefer WYSIWYG games. (For non-geeks, that means “what you see is what you get.”) Theists, on the other hand, are more likely to enjoy “table top” role playing games where the bulk of the experience is internally generated.
Yes, you read that right. Theists are more likely to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons than atheists. No, I wouldn’t have guessed it, either.
Here’s something else that might challenge a few beliefs. The difference also applied to agnostics and those who claim “no religion” but don’t identify as atheists. In other words, people who choose to identify as agnostic process emotion differently than those who identify as atheist. This finding ought to inspire pause in “hardcore atheists” who describe agnostics as intellectual cowards or fence-sitters.
In addition to differences in emotional experience, the researchers also found differences in the way atheists and theists become absorbed in games. Simply put, the more an atheist is prone to become psychologically absorbed in a game, the more (s)he is drawn to visually intricate video games. This tendency was only present in atheists, and not in either theists or agnostics, which gives us even more reason to believe atheists are a unique subset of non-believers.
What does this all mean? Quite a bit, actually. According to the authors of the study, these differences offer us a clear theoretical foundation for understanding why some people become non-believers in the first place:
Like tabletop gaming, many articulations of religion require that an individual behave “as if” a set of propositions concerning an unseen realm is true. If the “atheist brain” and the “religious brain” have different processing strengths and weaknesses… then rejecting the unseen may be a logical outcome of atheists’ relative inability to generate “as if” experiences in the absence of multisensory “proof” of the sort provided by immersive, externally imposed virtual environments. Indeed, based on the results of the present research, we suspect that if Doubting Thomas were alive today, he would be an avid video gamer.
The study also gives us insight into why some people do not become atheists — including agnostics. It gives atheists new tools for interacting with both theists and agnostics, and reminds us that atheism is not necessarily the pinnacle of enlightened human existence. There are certainly advantages to some detachment from emotion, and sometimes emotional reasoning leads humanity down very dark paths. However, emotional reasoning is the prime mover behind a great deal of human goodness, and detachment from emotion also has a dark side. It’s probably no coincidence that some atheists are drawn to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which requires a great deal of emotionally detached self-interest to fully embrace.
Finally, for self-professed atheists, this study might serve as a bit of a reality check. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to imagine a culture in which most people self-identify as atheist. It might be that agnosticism is the natural “endpoint” for many people on the spectrum of belief. Maybe we have wasted a lot of energy (and perhaps made unnecessary enemies) by dogmatically insisting that people must embrace atheism to be “proper” skeptics. Might it be that agnosticism is the most natural way for more “emotionally connected” people to express lack of god belief? It’s certainly food for thought.
Burris, C. T., & Petrican, R. (2011). Hearts strangely warmed (and cooled): Emotional experience in religious and atheistic individuals. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 183–197.
Burris, C. T., & Elyse K. Redden (2012): No Other Gods Before Mario?: Game Preferences Among Atheistic and Religious Individuals, International Journal for the Psychology
of Religion, 22:4, 243-251