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Playing with Religion: How videogames became the world’s biggest dealer in religion

Date:30 October 2023
Author:Lars de Wildt
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Young people in the West are more likely to encounter religion in a videogame, than in a church, mosque or in a synagogue. This is especially startling when we realize that the demographics for non-religion are very similar to the demographics for people who play videogames – and there are many. So many, in fact, that it is the largest cultural industry in the world: videogames generate more income yearly than music and movies combined.

Let’s unpack these statements, as I try to do in my recent Open Access book on what I call the ‘Pop Theology of Videogames,’ in which I question who makes and plays these games – and why mostly secular videogame producers are so successfully selling religion to mostly secular videogame consumers (de Wildt, 2023a).

Young people in the West are more likely to encounter religion in videogames than in a place of worship.

This may sound simply provocative, but it is true that weekly church attendance for adults under 40 years of age is 36% globally, 28% in the US, 16% in Canada and 10% in Europe, and declining – especially in the so-called ‘West’ (Pew Research Center, 2018). At the same time, religion is not exactly ‘disappearing:’ as research across religious studies, sociology, political sciences and cultural studies shows. Religiosity exerts a lasting influence over our social values, our voting behaviour, our news cycles and popular media consumption. Without wanting to claim that ‘church time’ has been replaced by ‘screen time,’ it does happen to be true that ~3.2 billion players globally (>28.5%) and 447 out of 512 million Europeans (87%) spend about 12 hours per week on average in-game (Newzoo, 2023; WePC, 2023).

Simply put, for many adults, especially well-educated Western-Europeans below 40 like me, religious cultural heritage is far more likely to be a thing we encounter in virtual worlds – where the magic is real – instead of in a place of worship.

The people who play and make these games are mostly non-religious.

Videogames do not happen to be a medium (or an industry) for especially religious people. Actually, videogame players are mostly educated, ‘young’ – although the average age is creeping up to the mid-thirties – relatively affluent, and living in predominantly secular countries. In short, there is a lot of overlap in the statistics of videogame consumption and secularization, as I explore elsewhere (de Wildt, 2023b). But that is not the point: while there certainly are more than enough religious players (most people will play a game on their phone or computer at some point during their week), and religious videogame makers (many of whom I interviewed as part of my research); this presence or absence of religiosity does not explain videogames’ obsession with religion.

The largest cultural industry in the world is nonetheless obsessed with religion.

With the exception of sports games such as FIFA , or abstract puzzles like Tetris, games across genres are deeply immersed in religious meaning, ritual, and cultural heritage. Just this year, one of the best-selling games was of the Legend of Zelda franchise, as it also was in 2017, 2000, 1991 and 1986. The Zelda games have, for almost 40 years, compelled millions of players to visit temples, pray to statues modelled after the Holy Mary, and at one point use the Bible as a weapon – a testament to Japanese popular culture’s fascination with Catholicism in the 1980s.

This year’s other big sellers? Assassin’s Creed, about the Christian Templars and Muslim hashashin’s vying over the Apple of Eden. Or Baldur’s Gate, the much-awaited roleplay game in which players can take on roles like the Cleric (“a priestly champion who wields divine magic”), Druids, Monks, or Paladins (“a holy warrior bound to a sacred oath”). Recent examples are endless (Civilization, Final Fantasy, God of War, Hades, Halo, Skyrim), and each of those was a massive commercial success.

So what?

What does that mean? In my work, which is sometimes about conspiracy theories, sometimes about religion, but always about popular media production and consumption, I repeatedly come back to the same question. Namely, how popular culture doesn’t just represent worldviews to make us believe in them; it proposes worldviews for consumers to actively play with. A case in point: few people take the fictional worlds on their screens as fact. That is, research shows that playing military shooters, watching romantic comedies, or running around as a healing Priest in World of Warcraft does not straightforwardly make us want to be soldiers, heteronormative romantics, or divine healers (e.g., Breuer, et al., 2015; Ferguson, 2015). Most consumers do not walk away from these examples believing that war is the solution to geopolitical problems, that the guy who insists gets the girl (consent be damned), or that men in white cloaks can cure disease — although some people still hold these convictions nonetheless.

Rather than instilling belief, popular media let us play with these worldviews. This difference between belief and play says everything about how videogames, and popular media more broadly, present religion to their mostly secular audience. As something to try on, compare, and discard; to entertain the thought of it. This is not a bad thing. Many of these experiences lead to lasting change in religious attitudes or even beliefs (e.g., Daneels, et al., 2021; de Wildt, 2019). But we must acknowledge that for many of us, religion has become a plaything. Who wants to go back to the uncertainty and worldview-changing convictions of religious belief in a world like that? Instead, millions of players choose to have all the possible religions in the world available to them as an experiment, playing with religion at the push of a button.


Breuer, J., Kowert, R., Festl, R., & Quandt, T. (2015). Sexist games= sexist gamers? A longitudinal study on the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking18(4), 197-202.

Daneels, R., Bowman, N. D., Possler, D., & Mekler, E. D. (2021). The ‘eudaimonic experience’: A scoping review of the concept in digital games research. Media and Communication9(2), 178-190.

de Wildt, L. (2023a). The Pop Theology of Videogames: Producing and Playing with Religion (p. 160). Amsterdam University Press.

de Wildt, L. (2023b). Franchised Esotericism: Religion as a Marketing Strategy for the Assassin’s Creed Franchise. In Marcato, L. & Schniz, F. (eds.) Fictional Practices of Spirituality: Vol. 1: Interactive Media (pp. 297-315). Transcript Verlag/Columbia University Press.

de Wildt, L., & Aupers, S. (2019). Playing the Other: Role-playing religion in videogames. European Journal of Cultural Studies22(5-6), 867-884.

Ferguson, C. J. (2015). Do Angry Birds Make for Angry Children? A Meta-Analysis of Video Game Influences on Children’s and Adolescents’ Aggression, Mental Health, Prosocial Behavior, and Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(5), 646-666.

Newzoo. (2023). Global games market report 2023. Amsterdam, NL: Newzoo.

Pew Research Center. (2018). The age gap in religion around the world. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

WePC. (2023). Video Game Industry Statistics, Trends and Data In 2023. Manchester, UK: BGFG.

About the author

Lars de Wildt

Assistant Professor Media Studies at the University of Groningen and Research Fellow at the Center for Religion, Conflict and Globalization