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Gaming vs. God

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Whether violent video games make you more aggressive has been much debated. Much less discussed is whether video games make you an atheist.

OK, not make you an atheist—that’s too strong. But a new study in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion does find that playing video games reduces a sense of the numinous, i.e., the feeling that there is a force out there beyond ourselves and the physical world.

In the study, two Canadian researchers first had 56 undergraduates take two short surveys, rating their agreement with statements like “I often feel a strong sense of unity with all the things around me” and “Sometimes I have felt my life was being directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being.” A couple of days later, the researchers brought the students back to the laboratory and assigned them to play either a video game called Uru: Ages Beyond the Myst or a text-based game called Zork: The Great Underground Empire.

After a mere half-hour of gaming, the subjects took the same surveys again. Those who had played the video game scored lower on the numinous scale. Those who had played the text-based game actually registered an increase in their numinous scores. In both cases, to the researchers’ surprise, there was a drop in “unitive experience,” the feeling of being connected to others.

Here’s what the researchers—Christopher T. Burris, a professor of psychology at St. Jerome’s University, and Traci Dow, an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo—think that pattern might mean:

… although religious adherents may find gaming objectionable based on the recurrence of sexual, violent, or occult themes … the present research suggests that a game’s format is at least as important as its thematic content. Very simply, virtual gaming in particular appeared to suppress the propensity for religious/spiritual experience, whereas text-based gaming tended to facilitate at least the more traditional (i.e., numinous) form of the latter.

The paper describing their study builds on research by Patricia M. Greenfield indicating that video games could negatively affect “higher-order cognitive processes” like mindfulness and imagination. Perhaps video games suppress those processes because they are so immersive; there’s no need to engage in a certain kind of thinking because the game does that for you. Also, the study seems to further support research suggesting that atheists and believers have different cognitive styles.

The study follows previous research by Burris indicating that atheists find immersive video games more appealing than religious people do. That research, though, suggested that atheists are drawn to video games. In this newest work, the causation runs in the other direction.

There are caveats galore. This was a small study. The surveys were far from in-depth. The effects were measured directly after gaming, so it’s impossible to say whether they are long-lasting. Of course you can find plenty of committed Christians who shelled out $500 for a Playstation 4 and still show up for Bible study.

It would be interesting to know whether more-sophisticated games had even stronger effects. The one the researchers used in the experiment, Uru, is a decade old, ancient in the world of gaming technology. What happens when you’re playing the newest version of Halo while wearing a virtual-reality headset? Where’s your God now?

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