Video games: they have what atheists need

Connor Wood


Any regular consumer of Internet content may have developed some stereotypes about atheists. Atheists like They enjoy cat videos (but then again, who doesn’t?). And they mistake fundamentalist Protestantism for all religion. But while these claims could easily be refuted by hanging out with actual atheists – for instance, many are quite religiously literate, and not all have Reddit accounts – a burgeoning academic field is trying to identify the genuine cognitive and personality differences between atheists and religious believers. In one recent paper, researchers found that atheists strongly preferred video games to board games, and argued that this difference was due to atheists’ reduced inclination for conjuring imaginative worlds.

Canadian psychologists Christopher T. Burris (St. Jerome’s University) and Elyse K. Redden (University of Guelph) were inspired by Burris’s previous work showing that atheists appeared to process emotional information differently than religious believers. This research, which has been covered elsewhere on this blog, demonstrated that atheists showed less intense emotional responses to stimuli than their religious peers, and were less capable of reconstructing the subjective details of memories. At the same time, atheists were more articulate about their emotions and experiences. Burris interpreted these findings to suggest that atheists may simply have less capacity than religious believers for internally simulating emotionally detailed environments. In other words, atheists may have imaginations that are good at relating facts and labeling things, but which aren’t as good at generating rich sensory or emotional detail.

In a leap of scientific creativity, Burris and Redden used these previous findings to generate a new, unconventional hypothesis: atheists would prefer video games to tabletop games, since tabletop games require a more vivid imagination in order to be enjoyable. After all, a bunch of cards, dice, or plastic figures aren’t much fun when they’re just sitting there. They need to be imaginatively animated or “brought to life,” as it were, in order to provide entertainment. If you’re not as naturally inclined to bring imaginary worlds to life, you just might not be so interested in tabletop games.

Video games, on the other hand, don’t require you to do as much imagining. They serve up rich, colorful, and detailed worlds automatically – no need for extra sensory input on your part. So, the researchers presumed, atheists would tend to prefer video games, since they wouldn’t need to do as much imaginative work in order to participate in and enjoy them.

Of course, video games are pretty fun for most people, atheist or not. Surveying more than 220 students at an Ontario university, the researchers found that, in fact, everyone preferred video games to tabletop and board games. Religious, agnostic, and atheist students alike all indicated that a round of Mario Kart or Guitar Hero was more appealing than a sedate evening of Trivial Pursuit. However, this preference was much stronger for atheists – while religious students indicated a mild preference for video games over board games, their atheist peers reported that they would much rather play something that required cords, controllers, and screens.

Trying to understand the ramifications of this difference, Burris and Redden used a survey to determine the students’ capacity for what’s called “absorption” – that is, the ability to become totally engrossed in an experience or task. For atheists, absorption predicted increased preference for video games, and an even further reduced preference for tabletop games. For other students, including both religious believers and agnostics, capacity for absorption didn’t affect game preference one way or another. The researchers hypothesized that this effect was due to the fact that atheist gamers who were capable of “really getting into it” were able to enjoyably connect with the prepackaged sensory content of video games. But when they were confronted with tabletop games, there just wasn’t as much “it” to get into – and so they were faced with the unpleasant prospect of being mentally absorbed in an experience that wasn’t very interesting, or rewarding.

Following previous researchers, Burris and Redden found that certain personality characteristics were generally associated with atheism – in particular, atheists tended to be extraverted, open to new experiences, and not especially agreeable (at least in comparison with religious believers). But in statistical analyses, none of these personality factors explained the association between atheism and preference for video games, leaving the researchers to conclude that their original hypothesis was correct: self-identified atheists preferred video games because those types of games didn’t require them to construct vivid imaginary worlds.

Interestingly, these effects held true only for atheists. Self-identified agnostics and merely non-religious students didn’t prefer video games over tabletop games any more than religious students did. Burris and Redden argue that this aspect of their findings lends support to the growing consensus that atheists are distinct from other nonreligious populations when it comes to certain identifiable personality and cognitive factors.

So does this research mean that atheists are somehow inferior to religious believers? Of course not. A more useful interpretation of these findings might be that different personality types and cognitive patterns simply lead to  different approaches to a wide variety of experiences, from religious inspiration to Saturday night gaming with friends. And, since this is a world with as many different personalities as there are people, maybe that’s all right. As long as there’s still someone to keep posting new cat videos.

Click here for the original article, “No Other Gods before Mario?: Game Preferences among Atheistic and Religious Individuals,” in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

  • Selah

    Atheists really need a life , and by that I mean eternal life. Put away the video games and spend some time in His Word and I guarantee you it will be more fulfilling for your eternal destiny than wasting time on such trivial pursuits.One characteristic of an atheist not mentioned is that atheists are ” fools “. Hey , don’t get mad at me , it’s what God says in Psalms 14:1.

    • johan

      Other gods in other texts say other things, and since you don’t follow those gods it would be utterly ignorant for those other believers to call non-believers fools for matching some nonsensical claim in some nonsensical book.

      You use your bible as an excuse for throwing out insults and you should be ashamed of yourself. Atheists don’t believe in gods due to lack of evidence. For your education, your god did not write Psalms. Those are songs, written by people, gathered into textual form. It is you who believe atheists to be fools and you use your bible as an excuse to insult people. Your bible has no problem at all with slavery, don’t get mad at me, its all over the place, even in the ten commandments. Not some little passing phrase in a song that no thinking person actually claims that your god wrote, but actually there in the ten commandments: do not covet your neighbors female slaves nor his male slaves.

      Don’t use your book to justify your hatred. Your book has so much hatred in it that it will destroy you.

      • connorwood

        Johan, I agree that Selah’s comment could easily be upsetting to atheists. But I also think that religious texts take real work and engagement to learn to understand. This includes challenging the aspects of the Bible that, say, condemn slavery – by challenging the Bible and committing to wrestling with it rather than giving up on it, religious people find that their interpretations become deeper and more relevant to real life. If Selah’s comment shows a simplistic understanding of the Hebrew Bible, your own assertion that religious books contain nothing but hatred could likewise be seen as a little one-dimensional.

        • johan

          Their interpretations tend to be based on not fully understanding the bible since they avoid those uncomfortable facts. Few people these days realize that slavery is part of the ten commandments. I also never claimed that religious books contain nothing but hatred, and it bothers me that you would assume that (or take that straw man position.) I find that an all too common response from religious apologists to what should be simple statements of fact.

          I assume you meant condone slavery, not condemn it. The bible doesn’t condemn slavery, it embraces it and gives a set of rules for proper slave owning. I don’t see that being condemned by modern believers, I see it being ignored and swept under the rug out of shame and denial, unwillingness to accept that such a disgusting thing was part of their religion until relatively recent times. People still want those ten commandments on the courthouse wall, slavery included. They do that out of ignorance, not by developing a deeper and more relevant interpretation. They get out of the slavery issue by pretending it isn’t there or that slavery was different or whatever excuse suits them at the time.

          It also isn’t about his comment being upsetting, it’s about his comment being hypocritical and false. He uses the bible to justify his hatred of atheists and it bothers me that such things aren’t immediately called out for what they are. If I find a religious text that says all non-believers are fools and use that as an excuse to call your or anyone else a fool, that text is merely an excuse. The hatred is in the person who uses that excuse. Selah happens to hate atheists and happens to use your particular religious text as an excuse for his hatred. Deal with that honestly, don’t excuse him and those like him.

          He ends his comment with something like “hey, don’t hate me for hating you, its actually God that hates you.” That kind of thing ought to be called out immediately, regardless of religious affiliation.

          • connorwood

            Yep, Selah’s comment was inflammatory. But I also responded to her, challenged the position she took, and did not “excuse” the comment. I want comments on this blog to avoid tar and feathers, period, regardless of the convictions of the commenters.

          • David Szaks

            although I would not make an argument that slavery is not portrayed in the bible or even that it does not seem to be sometimes condoned by it, or EVEN that many practitioners of the bible’s faiths don’t try to deflect inquiries in that direction. I feel that I must ask…… Where do the 10 commandments outline slavery?

            Except for the 4th commandment regarding the Sabbath and the 10th commandment about coveting other’s etc. nothing even skirts the subject. And the in these instances the bible uses the term servant… and offers no further implications stating that such a person is enslaved as apposed to simply a ‘employee’ (as the word would apply back then) such as a maid or scribe or anyone of lower station than oneself.

      • Selah

        johan , I must clear something up for you in that in 2 Timothy 3: 16 it says: Every scripture passage is inspired by God , all of them useful for teaching, pointing out errors , correcting people, and training. Yes , men wrote but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit . I do not hate atheists and my only desire is to share the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ. John3:16,17

        Getting back to Psalm 14 : 1 , the Psalmist , David ,said , inspired by God , ” the empty headed fool has said in his heart there is no God “. My one and only desire is to be a herald , an ambassador of Jesus to proclaim His amazing love and sacrificial death on the cross for us sinners. I’m not into atheist bashing and only wish to see people escape the bondage and darkness of Satan who doesn’t want you to know the truth of God’s word and come to the marvelous LIGHT of Jesus Christ who holds our eternal future in His hands.

    • connorwood

      Selah, plenty of religious people enjoy video games. The point of this article wasn’t to claim that atheists are flawed because of their game preferences, but to point out a pattern of personality differences between atheists and believers. See johan’s reply to your comment to get an example of how well atheists react to atheist-bashing.

    • David Szaks

      New to this site, Interesting Study thanks for posting. Always nice to see new thinking and observations.

      The conclusion may be a partly erroneous though. Although it may seem like common sense that Atheist may be less incline to imagine worlds beyond our own and would prefer interactions where the worlds were already created for them, the totality of this hypothesis isn’t entirely supported by the data (at least what is shown here as I don’t have access to the full article).

      To the point the presented hypothesis is in fact two separate ideas presented together as a bound unit when they may not necessarily be connected. Specifically the study predicts that Atheist will prefer video games over board games more than that of non-Atheist. And additionally predicts that this is a result of Atheist having a diminished capacity for creative imagination and a greater mental focus on non-relative facts (Paragraph 2). And seems to make an assumption beforehand that these two ideas are already linked.

      While the study seems to STRONGLY support the first hypothesis that Atheist do have a stronger inclination toward video games than Non-Atheist, from what was discussed here, it did not provide any information to show that this trend was a cause of being less imaginatively creative. There was no data connecting the two hypothesis as correlated other than they were presented together and nothing else tested seemed to correlate either so it must be our original idea.

      To use an old idiom, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. In other words just because nothing showed that the reason Atheist preferred video games wasn’t due to their imagination doesn’t meant it was. Also they seemed to come to this conclusion by use of minimal use of deductive reason to conclude that because it wasn’t A B or C it must be D, but forgot the rest of the alphabet. That is, because they didn’t find that Atheist extroverted personalities or open mindedness seemed to influence there preference of video games doesn’t mean that it must be due to their lack of creativity by default. It could just as easily be for a different reason. For example; perhaps Atheist simply prefer a greater amount of control in there lives and activities and are less inclined to enjoy games whose results are influenced by a greater force… ie luck of rolling dice or drawing the correct card. Or perhaps Atheist prefer more complexity of situations as apposed to the general simplicity of board game rules. Although deductive reasoning is a useful cognitive tool it can only produce a sound conclusion when ALL other possibilities are ruled out.

      Not saying the conclusion of the second part of the hypothesis isn’t correct just doesn’t seem to be supported by the data as much as the first hypothesis. And ideally two hypothesis should mean two separate studies.

      OK rant over… with a background in science I couldn’t help but notice that. Sorry to everybody’s eyeballs for my probable wall of text. Once again can’t see the full study through the link yet so I may just be blowing hot air, sorry if I am.

      Anyway…. like I said new to this site. Just wondering is commenting on older articles locked? I went back and read several and many where quite interesting but I couldn’t seem to find a way to discuss them there. This is the only article I was able to find a post comment button.

  • Per Smith

    Connor, how was “atheism” measured? If it was based on self-identification then there are a lot of other possibly confounding variables to consider than those the researchers discounted. It would seem to me that a project with this kind of hypothesis/conclusion would want to measure (dis)belief and not identity. Curious to know…

    • connorwood

      Per, self-report was the measure. So you’re correct that there might be other variables involved, but from my perspective the interesting finding was that people who claimed a (self-reported) “atheist” identity showed collectively distinctive patterns of behavior when compared with others who chose to call themselves “agonistics” or “non-religious.” So something about people who claim a hard and fast identity as “atheists” seems to reliably distinguish them from both religious people and other non-religious people. Based on my familiarity with this kind of research, I’d hazard that this distinguishing cognitive/personality feature probably has to do with atheists’ very high levels of analytical (versus intuitive or synthetic) thinking, extremely high value placed on individualism (versus collectivism), and relatively low levels of relational thinking. People who have these personality traits probably tend to move towards taking on a social identity of “atheism” more than others, in part because its cultural history (Bertrand Russell, Pierre Laplace, etc.) makes it an appealing identity for people with a high proclivity to analytical thinking. A future post in the coming weeks will highlight all these possibilities.

  • Worthless Beast

    I am not a scientist, but, as a gamer, I see loads of problems with this – at least, if it’s taken as an assumption.

    Firstly. I am not an athiest. I’m theist- in fact, off-kilter Christian flavored. I’m also a videogame hobbyist. And a writer – a wanna be fantasy novelist. So, you can see why this would strike me as just “wrong!” on so many levels. While I do think videogames may “replace” spiritual experience for some (I’ve played a few that were really that damn good), I find that they actually *generate* imagination with me. (Then again, I do fanfiction writing, so I’m a freak, anyway). The best of games provide wonderful, detailed worlds, but they also leave you wanting to explore them and ultimately to wonder about them. Personally, I find them to be aids to imagination – like watching a really good movie.

    There is also the matter of retro games – early Nintendo and arcade stuff, Atari games… those leave about as much to the imagination (sometimes more) than most board games. Has the study been adjusted for retro-gaming fans – folks who love stuff from the 1980s and early 90s?

    It really would seem that the study didn’t factor in enough variables. In any case, all those forum-goers with John 3:16 in thier signitures on the large Legend of Zelda fan forum I frequent would attest to a whole lot of religious people preferring videogames, too. From my perspective, I supsect they’re like cat-videos – something a wide variety of people enjoy, not something to be pidgeonholed.

  • summers-lad

    “If you’re not as naturally inclined to bring imaginary worlds to life, you just might not be so interested in tabletop games.”
    Is there an implication here that the spiritual world is imaginary? As a Christian, I don’t believe that. Or is it saying that atheists are less inclined to think beyond the immediate, the material, the superficial? That isn’t true of many atheists I know. I find the research you have presented here both unusual and interesting, but I’m not sure what conclusions it leads us to, although it’s intriguing enough to lead somewhere. Perhaps the first lesson is that correlation is not causality.

  • Derek Michaud

    [About the voices Joan hears.]
    St.Joan of Arc: They come from God.
    Robert de Baudricourt: They come from your imagination.
    St.Joan of Arc: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us, through our imagination.

    - Saint Joan (Film; 1957)

    • Matti

      Obvious follow up question: How do you propose to differentiate the voices that are purely imaginary from those coming from God if in fact they both come to you through your imagination? Does God perhaps use public key cryptography or some advanced watermarking scheme?

    • connorwood

      Thanks, Derek. People in our culture need to be reminded that “imaginary” is by no means synonymous with “not real.”

  • Chris Burris

    Connor — I’d like to commend you on your generally quite respectable coverage of our work. A couple of clarifying comments will hopefully address at least some of the methodological questions raised above. First, it is inevitable that someone will say “that’s not my experience” and therefore conclude that “the study is wrong.” Please remember that our research revealed differences *on average*, but that by no means predicts what will be true for any given individual representative of a given group. Secondly, I agree that our preferred interpretation shouldn’t be held too tightly yet — but it does seem to be the best fit to the data *so far*. But here it’s important to be clear what we are and aren’t saying: We are *not* saying that “atheists have no imagination,” for example — our results don’t speak to the capacity to generate abstract cosmological models, for example. Rather, the focus so far is on *narrative* — so games (or memories, or written stories, etc.) with a storyline. Atheists appear less able/motivated to follow “in the head” narratives of this sort compared to agnostic/no religion individuals, as well as being more interested in *narrative-oriented* video games compared to self-identified religious individuals. At the same time, we never implied that the object of (any) religion is imaginary: That would be presumptuous. What we *can* say is that the object of religion typically cannot be apprehended through conventional sensory means, and so must instead be approached *in the head* — that is, in the inner narrative world. Thanks to those who took a sincere interest in our work.