How Playing A Game Can Protect Against Cults

How Playing A Game Can Protect Against Cults January 27, 2022

Yesterday, I was talking with my facebook friends about the things I was learning about the Sword of the Spirit community. We all know I grew up in and out of several toxic and cultlike Catholic sects, including a stint in the Charismatic Renewal. It’s not exactly fun to talk about, but it’s cathartic to banter with other people who have been through similar things.

My friend Angela said “I think we need a PSA campaign warning people that if it sounds like a DnD group, it’s probably actually a cult.” And I laughed for the first time in awhile.

They do sound like DnD groups. Sword of the Spirit. Servants of God. Quiverfull. They sound like really unimaginative Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.

Maybe, I thought to myself, this is the real reason the Charismatic Renewal was so terrified of Dungeons and Dragons: someone might try to join one of their “communities” and end up playing a fun game instead.

In case you’re not aware, this was a huge part of the Satanic Panic that our Charismatic community absorbed from similar Protestant groups: there was a long list of fun activities we were to have nothing to do with, and playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons was near the top. Dungeons and Dragons was devil worship and inviting evil spirits into the home; its players, we were told, literally worshipped demons, practiced real magic, and gave themselves over to demonic possession. We weren’t supposed to even walk into a game store that sold Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia. Doing so could make you catch a demonic possession, like a cough. I even saw religious pamphlets on how to examine the conscience before going to confession, which claimed that playing Dungeons and Dragons was a mortal sin against the first commandment.

As we got to be teenagers, after our Charismatic community with the terrible Sister Angeline collapsed, we rebelled against the Renewal in geeky ways like playing Neverwinter Nights on the computer and not telling our mother it had anything to do with the tabletop board game. I didn’t play an actual Dungeons and Dragons game with actual human beings until I was in my thirties. And that was when I found out for certain that it has nothing to do with devil worship. It’s a group of geeky people sitting at their computer or around a table in their pajamas, eating snacks, and playing pretend as if they were children. The game involves math but I love it anyway. It’s fun and relaxing to pretend and to make up stories. I’ve made good friends with the other people in the group, people I wouldn’t have known otherwise.  I like them.

And a lot of the time, people who get sucked into cults really just need friends and to spend time with people they like.

I’m joking about games being an effective antidote for cults, but I’m also being serious. Having fun with friends can be a powerful protection against ending up in something like that.

People who find themselves in a cult are not usually stupid, gullible people. They’re people who are suffering. They are lonely or afraid or otherwise vulnerable, and the cult entices them with something that will fill that gap. The cult love bombs them with the promise of a loyal community that really cares about them. Or, it sucks them in by telling them their fears are all real and actually worse than they imagined, and the cult will provide a refuge. And once they’re sucked in, they can’t get out. The cult starts to control their lives. Besides the fear of hell, they are afraid that they’ll lose all those friends and that home and that sense of being protected if they leave. They are stuck. We shouldn’t look down on people who end up in cults, because getting trapped in one is easy. We should admire people who extricate themselves, because that’s difficult. And we should help them by providing the love and stability the cult claimed to provide and is now threatening to withhold.

You should invite people who are lonely and afraid to play Dungeons and Dragons with your group. Or invite them to play softball with you and your friends. Or ask them to sit with you in the cafeteria or bring some chocolate chip cookies to their house. This is courteous and polite, but it’s also an anti-cult. If people have real friends, they won’t get trapped.

And if you know someone whom you believe is trapped in a dangerous and abusive religious practice that walks and quacks like a cult, you should keep being friendly to them and inviting them play game with you, or whatever it is that you do. Because that is one way of throwing them a lifeline, helping them to get out of the cult. It’s not always that simple, but it is a help.

Helping people is something we should all want.




Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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