Apr 16

When is a religion not a religion?

When its a $2 million game played by a San Francisco start up.

The linked article is long, and fascinating, but maybe not for everyone. The "Too Long; Didn't Read" version: A woman receives a mysterious invitation to a group that sometimes acts like an alternate reality game, sometimes like a secret society, and sometimes like a cult. What is important for this blog's purposes is the meaning the game had for its players and their reaction to it shutting down unexpectedly.

The game was centered around "The Fable"

The Fable was part of the induction process and eventually a communal experience for new recruits in what was known as "Praxis." The game centered around a fairly familiar structure to those who have studied games, subcultures, or cults: you are special (you got an invitation), there are secrets, the deeper you get the more secrets you know, the more secrets you know the more special you feel (and are!). The author of the article talks about taking time for the group no matter what - new boyfriend, new business, new job- everything was adjusted to fit. Some kind of real need was being met by her involvement. It wasn't just social, there was something more to it than that as her need to share that one last Praxis session shows.

The devastation felt by the participants in the aftermath shows how much impact it had on their life. It sounds a lot like the comments after a bad church conference where a church splits.

The founder may have thought he was creating a game and the participants may have thought they were playing one, but ritual and participation create meaning, the structure reinforced it. Even if that meaning was being created by the collective experience of players. They made the game a religious event. A micro-religion, undefined and short lived, but real while it lasted and clearly having long term effects on its members.

Those of us who are serious about religion are cautious about manipulation, or I like to believe the best of us are. We do not want to create an "artificial" experience, we want to create a real and meaningful one because ultimately we believe what we are doing as much as we want you to believe. But this game raises questions that are important to consider, questions about what we do and how we do and whether or not we should do less or more.

I will not start a cult.

Unless there is a PhD in it, in which case I might be willing to at least consider it.

No, I will not start a cult.


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