Is Your LARP a Cult?

I’ve heard it joked about, in that anxious “humorous” tone people use when the punchline manages to collide with something actual. “LARP is like a cult,” haha, no way, it’s just a hobby…

Or worse, when people have bought into the party-line bullshit about an event that sucked, yet somehow gets praised, and someone wisecracks “they drank the Kool Aid,” maybe forgetting the source of the joke (Jonestown, hundreds poisoned, actual cult), or maybe not.

Take a deep breath, gird your loins, and gaze into the abyss with me.

Is your LARP a cult?

koolaid

Merriam-Webster helpfully divides definitions into simple and full, IE colloquial and actual.

A cult’s simple definitions (relevant content in bold):

  1. a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

  2. a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much

  3. a small group of very devoted supporters or fans

And the full definitions (relevant content in bold):

  1. formal religious veneration :  worship

  2. a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also:  its body of adherents

  3. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also:  its body of adherents

  4. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgatorcults>

  5. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially:  such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad 

  6. the object of such devotion

  7. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

I’m not going to go into the definitions. I’ve put them there for the reader’s use. Moving on…

1. No, LARPs Aren’t Cults

Let’s get through the obvious: no, LARPs are not actual cults. No one is following the creators of White Wolf to a promised land through cups of poisoned sports drinks. There are no gods anyone is seriously prostrating themselves before based on he-who-wins-on-ties.

DIRTY-SECRETS.jpg
Thou shalt not form a cult around garbage

2. But Being Cult-Like is Profitable

The LARP wants to be a cult. It wants bodies. Hype. Adherence to rules. It wants to be the social center of your existence. It wants you to spend money. It wants you to cast off your free time. What’s galling isn’t that LARP can be cultish, it’s how often this is the desired outcome, or how often some game staff foster this atmosphere for attendence or personal profit. This is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous and emotionally manipulative, and must be known for what it is.

3. Community is the Commodity

What makes LARPs cult-like is their communal aspect: you’re not playing a game, you’re playing a game with people, with a lot of people. It’s a ready-made social network for the socially awkward. The game can, and likely will, lose all mechanical or thematic appeal, but the social ties it fosters are priceless, rare and oftentimes irreplaceable.

Chronicles, seasons, story arcs, these are the labors of years. Whole quadrants of our lives are demarcated by LARP, and we inevitably become heavily invested in the communities around our hobby. Weddings, holiday parties, group vacations, conventions, birthdays, the occasional funeral, our communities are rich, complex and living. And we are bound to them.

4. LARP Cache Only Exists Within the LARP

The amazing deeds of fiction we accomplish at LARP, our costuming, our intense roleplay and deeply forged connections, they exist in extreme subjectivity, delicate and temporary. If we stake our self-worth upon them, we must stake our self-worth upon the LARP, for they are inexorably linked. It takes a strong will to recognize one’s own self worth outside of the community that enabled it. Not all of us nerds have strong self worth.

Those of us who dragon-horde, who spend real money on fictional boons, or invest thousands in costuming, campsites, altars and other accessories, they’re even more tied to the LARP because in addition to personal cache, they’ve spent actual cash and the products they’ve purchased become – generally – valueless once outside the boundaries of that world.

5. The Invested are the Vanguard

Consequently, those who invest MOST are party to the cult’s entrapment of others through choice-supportive bias, where for fear of acknowledging a terrible failure of judgement or expenditure, those who have bought in most are the loudest proponents and hatchetmen of the cult. In a sense, the victim becomes the victimizer.

Worse still, when the investment in LARP is volunteered time or effort, you’re not only committing yourself further to a cultish, emotionally manipulative venture, but you’re setting the community standard for others. And if this feedback loop of vulnerability and labor use is a design element of the game, it is morally reprehensible and exploitative.

6. Leadership Fosters a Cult of Personality

Whether it’s the smug managers of blockbuster LARPs or your local bully-and-ST, it seems that small scale LARP stardom gives people rediculous delusions of grandeur. One of my favorite axes to grind, the LARP world is full of cool kids who could be seen as cool cult leaders in a different light. Fanning their own flames on Facebook, self promoting, sharing fatuous costume albums and playlists, the level of attention and social capital they demand is cult-like, as is the vendetta they will enter if they are not satiated.

7. Leaving, Shunning, Abandonment and Exile

The unspoken and ultimate penalty for any transgression, deserved, accidental, real or imagined, is a ban, and what makes this penalty so painful isn’t the lack of the game and its mechanics, but the loss of community. This could be 10 years of your life, gone, rendered meaningless at first glance.

And once you’re gone, you’re a persona non grata, you aren’t contacted, you aren’t included, you aren’t invited. Your social life is cut off, perhaps because those still in are afraid to be associated with you, or perhaps because, without the LARP, there’s nothing to talk about. The similarities cease to exist.

8. Fear of Punishment is Toxic

And this pain could be arbitrary. It could be the result of drama, the result of a disagreement, the result of an ill-conceived Facebook post or an impolitic roleplay decision. Consequently we spend our time in LARPs running between chairs as the Mad Hatter calls “CHANGE PLACES,” out of fear of reprisal and banishment.

So great is the threat of abandonment that we often live in fear of it. We participate in drama, witch hunts, shunnings and social warfare so that we ourselves aren’t the victims of it. That’s what makes LARP cult-like: it drives otherwise rational people towards irrational behavior in the name of self preservation over a fictional hobby.

salem.png
Yeah, Salem was a great LARP, till it became a witch hunt

How to Escape the Cult Mentality

If your LARP is cultish, boiling over with drama, and emotionally draining, it’s not a game anymore, it’s an unhealthy habit. How you deal with that habit is up to you. Here are my suggestions:

  1. It’s a hobby: Treat it like one. Let real life, real emotions, and real concerns take precedent. Always. No exceptions.
  2. Accept no Bullshit: If a community exhibits behaviors that upset you, it’s not a community worth participating in. If it’s toxic to you, get out.
  3. Limit Investment: Don’t go bankrupt on props. Save money. Save time. Know going into the LARP what kind of roleplay or connection you want, and commit to that, and nothing more.
  4. Call out the Cult: If it starts to feel like a cult, call it a cult. Compare it to a cult. Point out the behaviors which make it cult-like. There are enormous psychological case studies on the difficulty of extricating oneself from a cult. Extricating oneself from a LARP isn’t quite so bad, but help and open dialogue make it easier.
  5. Treat it like a Business: If it’s a for-profit LARP, treat it like a business. Call yourself a customer. Call the game runners business-people. Speak in terms of service, satisfaction, and money. It’s a lot easier to get out of a toxic place when you view it as an expenditure. Business owners are not entitled to your business, and customers aren’t guaranteed perfect service. Imperfections are acceptable, so long as you find them financially acceptable.
  6. Know its Value: Know what the LARP means to you. Know what you get or got out of it. Do not despair if it’s over. Take the skills you’ve learned, the experiences you’ve had, and enjoy them for what they are, even if the community that created them is no longer habitable.

I am OPTIMISTIC

For once. As LARPs spread, grow more complex, grow more profitable and we increasingly become customers and not hobbyists, our tolerance for cultish, clannish behavior will lessen. But we must be vigilant, call it as we see it, and be ready to leave when an event goes from Camarilla to Children of the Corn.

Share this post on social media. Discuss it. Have rational, sane dialogues about it. Be salty, but be introspective. The cult doesn’t want you to think, it just wants you to be present and obedient.

For more PSAs on a hobby that dare not speak its name, follow me on Twitter @The_Larp_Cynic

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Is Your LARP a Cult?

8 thoughts on “Is Your LARP a Cult?

  1. I dont think all Larps are cults but my most recent experience over the last few years has been with a Larp that closely resembles a cult. There are some Larps that have the one non-official leader that controls the game even if they hold no official position. If they say something it goes even if allot of people disagree and those who disagreed get punished by people intentionally destroying there in game rp or targeting them to ruining the game till either they leave or conform. We cant say all larps aren’t cults but Not all are.

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  2. I would point out that most large scale hobbies could and often do fall under the same issues look at sports fans painting themselves for the big game or screaming at their tvs, other geekdom hobbies such as Warhammer or even animeathon and comicon goers with their cosplay costumes. I think at the end of the day most people do these things simply to belong and that it’s inherently a part of the human condition.

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  3. I will grant you that “There are no gods anyone is seriously prostrating themselves before based on he-who-wins-on-ties.” is one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a LARP blog post. And also kudos for providing arguments for not simply spending more time, more effort, more money, on making stuff in LARPs look good.

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