By Zack Pelta-Heller, AlterNet
The Rapture is headed for New York City, and just in time for Christmas. In Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a Christian-themed videogame due out this October, the New York skyline smolders during the End of Days, the faithful have been called up to heaven, and the remaining New Yorkers are engaged in an epic clash between the Tribulation Forces and the Antichrist's army of Global Community Peacekeepers (aka UN Peacekeepers).
Evangelical videogame makers are praying that Eternal Forces will finally enable them to tap into the $25 billion global videogame market. They hope their "Christian" values-themed game will capture the same audience that has made bestsellers out of violent standards like Grand Theft Auto and Halo 2.
The Left Behind: Eternal Forces videogame is based upon the wildly profitable "Left Behind" series, written by Rev. Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The "Left Behind" books have sold roughly 65 million copies and are second only to the Bible in sales of Christian texts. The series revolves around an eccentric interpretation of the Bible that sets the Armageddon in Iraq and refers to Saddam Hussein as a servant of Satan. President Bush is a big fan of Rev. LaHaye's brand of dominionism. Prior to the 2000 election, Bush met with LaHaye and other Christian fundamentalist leaders to cultivate the support of the religious right.
Game point, spirit point
Eternal Forces is a real-time strategy videogame, meaning that a player manipulates an entire army simultaneously, as opposed to the common first-person shooter games in which a player controls only one character. In essence, the player becomes the commander of a virtual army, deciding when to unleash weapons from an arsenal of guns, tanks and helicopters. Of course, since this is an evangelical game, soldiers lose "spirit points" each time they kill an opponent, leaving them prey to the Antichrist's forces and in dire need of replenishment through prayer. To top it off, each time a soldier slays one of the Antichrist's soldiers (who are UN Peacekeepers, remember), he triumphantly cries, "Praise the Lord!"
Eternal Forces caught the media's attention in May, when it premiered at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The Los Angeles Times reported that in order to foster buzz for the videogame, the game's co-creators, Troy Lyndon and Jeffrey Frichner, plan to issue a million advanced copies to churches nationwide. That announcement galvanized Jonathan Hutson of Talk To Action, a forum for discussing the religious right, into action. Hutson, who identifies himself as a Christian and a patriot, said by phone, "I'm offended by a game that allows children to rehearse mass killing in the name of Christ or the Antichrist."
In several lengthy blog posts, Hutson charged that Left Behind: Eternal Forces usurps the now iconic imagery of 9/11 because it is set in a post-apocalyptic New York. "Why are the ambulances patrolling the streets with '911' written on their roofs instead of a normal paramedic star or cross?" Hutson questioned. "It's outrageous to exploit September 11th to make a buck!" Hutson also alleged the game's "Praise the Lord!" battle cry is not far from the "God is great!" words of the World Trade Center terrorists. (Left Behind Games was formed in October 2001.)
Hutson's primary objection to Eternal Forces is Left Behind's proposed marketing campaign. The strategy of advanced distribution through mega-churches and pastoral networks has been employed in the past few years with resounding results. Both The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia were screened in churches throughout the country before theatrical release. A more notable example is The Purpose-Driven Life, the bestseller by evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Prior to publication in 2002, Warren distributed a million copies through his Purpose Driven Network of mega-churches with congregations in 162 countries worldwide. The book went on to sell over 22 million copies to become the all-time best-selling nonfiction hardback.
While Left Behind's decision to follow a proven business model isn't particularly surprising, Hutchinson discovered a startling level of collusion between Left Behind and Rick Warren.
Mark Carver, the executive director of Purpose Driven Ministries in every region except North America, turned out to be the business advisor to Left Behind Games. Hutson was incensed by this apparent conflict of interest, which he termed "endorsement by association." He challenged, "Where is the pastoral leadership while a bigoted videogame is being networked and marketed through mega-churches?" After two heated posts on Talk To Action that echoed across the blogosphere from the Huffington Post to BlondeSense to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Mark Carver resigned on June 5. A day later, Hutson received official word from Purpose Driven notifying him of Carver's resignation and declaring that Warren and Purpose Driven had no plans to endorse Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
Hutson isn't the only one outraged by Left Behind: Eternal Forces. When Jack Thompson, an attorney and crusader against videogame violence, learned that Tyndale Publishers permitted Left Behind Games to adapt the Left Behind series, he dissolved his relationship with the publishing company. In addition to the Left Behind books, Tyndale also publishes James Dobson and Thompson's own manifesto on the dangers of videogames, Out of Harm's Way.
Thompson said he hadn't read the "Left Behind" series, but says there is a difference between the books, which are targeted toward adults, and the book-based videogame for adolescents. "[Left Behind Games] is taking adult-themed violence and marketing directly to kids," Thompson said from his Miami office. "It's a perfect example of how we're exporting pop-culture sewage to the rest of the world."
Thompson cited brain scan studies by Harvard and Indiana University that he claimed illustrate a link between witnessing videogame violence and copycat crimes. "There's an inherent, emotion-driven impulse in juveniles," he said. "Every parent knows that what kids get in their heads has behavioral consequences." Thompson said Left Behind's decision to distribute a million advance copies of their videogame to mega-churches nationwide is "a dangerous, hypocritical, non-Christian thing to do, and an example of how pop culture is transforming the church."
Level of violence
Jonathan Hutson says he wasn't opposed to videogame violence per se. "The level of violence in this videogame is not at issue," he said. "Rather, it's the indoctrination in Christian supremacy because the game rehearses and instructs children in the mass killing of New Yorkers for the sake of Christ and that is an abomination." He also said he was appalled that in Eternal Forces, corpses are left on the streets. "It's outrageous that this game has a feature to allow cold corpses of New Yorkers to pile up on the streets. No one gives them a decent burial."
While Left Behind denied repeated requests for an interview, it did issue a formal statement. The company dismissed Hutson's remarks, insisting that he was unqualified to comment on the game because he hadn't played it. Left Behind did, however, verify that LaHaye's anti-government philosophy had found its way into the videogame. "The Antichrist's forces are on the warpath, actively hunting down and exterminating all resistance to his one-world government. This includes the good guys -- the Tribulation Force -- defending themselves against Satan."
Left Behind maintained that while there is violence in the game, it's not bloody or graphic, and it anticipates getting a Teen (T) rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
The question remains whether Left Behind can justify its videogame violence with the Bible. If a player's only penalty for killing New Yorkers is a loss in spiritual points, then violence actually goes less punished in Eternal Forces than in seemingly more violent competition like Grand Theft Auto, in which homicide results in being pursued and arrested by the police. And in Grand Theft Auto, bodies disappear shortly after being killed.
Evangelical Gamers fire back
Although Left Behind wasn't eager to discuss its videogame, other evangelical videogame developers regard Eternal Forces as the breakthrough they've been waiting for to bring Christian games into the mainstream. Ralph Bagley, the godfather of Christian gaming, runs Christian Game Developers Foundation. Until now, its titles Catechumen and Ominous Horizons have been the darlings of the Christian videogame industry, having sold about 80,000 and 70,000 copies, respectively. "We've fought the perception that if it's a Christian videogame," Bagley said, "then it has to be cheesy with sub-par graphics."
Bagley hopes Left Behind: Eternal Forces will prove that Christian videogames can be both high-quality tools to reach people through ministry and entertaining alternatives to current videogame hits. He is not alone. Greg Schumsky, CEO of Covenant Studios, knows there are not a lot of Christian games out there for older audiences. Following in the wake of Eternal Forces, Covenant plans to release a game next spring called Journey of the Time Pilots, which involves traveling through time to catch Nazis who have stolen religious artifacts for Hitler.
"I think this game is going to open the doors for other games to get into the mainstream market," Schumsky said of Eternal Forces. Like Schumsky, most Christian game developers covet the mainstream audience and feel the reason they haven't broken through is because videogame critics compare their games to more successful market standards like Grand Theft Auto. Christian game developers say the comparison is unfair because they believe their games are morally superior.
Neither Schumsky nor Bagley seem too worried about violence in videogames.
"'Revelations' is pretty darn violent to begin with," Schumsky said, "so how do you candycoat that?" In the past, however, Bagley has spoken out against violence in games like Grand Theft Auto and Narc. When I asked Bagley whether he would mind gamers playing as the Antichrist, he replied, "As long as Christ wins out in the end, I'm open as long as it doesn't go overboard, though the last thing I would want to see is people getting on there just to kill."
Bagley said there was a distinction between running street gangs in videogames and commanding the anti-Tribulation force in Left Behind. He thinks this violence can be portrayed in a "tasteful manner," if done within the storyline. Unlike Jack Thompson, Bagley doesn't believe that videogame violence invariably leads to enhanced aggression in game players. "I think maybe 99.9% of kids playing Grand Theft Auto and other games probably won't be affected. I pray the rest won't be affected by the violence."
"Used with the permission of AlterNet.org."