'Left Behind' Battles Rage On

The Christian community is engaged in its own skirmish over the virtues or vices of the concept of a Christian video game that involves killing.

The rapture has come, and the believers have been gathered up and taken to heaven. As for everybody else: They've been left behind to duke it out in a smoldering, apocalyptic New York City.

That's the scenario in a soon-to-be-released Christian-themed video game. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Christian community is engaged in its own skirmish over the virtues or vices of the concept of a Christian video game that involves killing.

"Left Behind: Eternal Forces," which is made for PCs and will be unveiled at the E3 show next month, is a classic struggle of good vs. evil.

Here, the angelic Tribulation Forces and the demonic Global Community Peacekeepers, led by the Antichrist, battle it out to convert secular, neutral units to their respective sides.

Players participate in "battles raging in the streets of New York," according to the game's fact sheet. They engage in "physical and spiritual warfare: using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world."

The scenes and challenges that unfold — as players control more than 30 unit types from Prayer Warrior to Hellraiser to Spies, Special Forces and Battle Tanks — are based on the prophecies from the Book of Revelation as interpreted by the popular "Left Behind" book series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

On the one hand, it's perfect content for a video game — set in a fictional, futuristic world with a black-and-white view of what's good and what's bad. Take those elements and tie them directly to the Bible, and now you can market an exciting, conflict-ridden game to the Christian community, enticing them with something that, if packaged differently, might come across as potentially harmful to wholesome Christian youth.

But on the other hand you have ... something that's potentially harmful to wholesome Christian youth (or any youth for that matter).

A Newsweek article last month said the level of violence in "Left Behind" makes it "reminiscent" of "Grand Theft Auto" — a game well-known for depicting shocking levels of brutality and accused of inspiring hooked teenagers to commit real-life copycat crimes.

The CEO of Left Behind Games — a company started specifically to turn the book series into video games — said the Newsweek article was uninformed. He said the game won't be rated any higher than a "T" for teenagers, and that it depicts nothing more menacing than what he calls "Star Wars violence."

"Our game has no blood, no decapitation, no vulgar language," Troy Lyndon said. "Our game does not have gratuitous violence for the sake of showing intestines on a doorknob."

He insists his company has produced an inspirational source of entertainment with a good message, without compromising on quality.

"We believe parents need a substitute for the degrading moral values of 'Grand Theft Auto' or some of the top-selling titles," Lyndon said. And you can't get gamers to switch over from "Grand Theft Auto" if you only offer a conflict level of, say, Pong.

Christian attorney Jack Thompson, a fervent anti-video-game-violence activist in Miami, says the makers of "Left Behind" are compromising their values as they try to provide an effective substitute for mainstream games.

"It breaks my heart to realize that the culture has basically transformed the church rather than the church confronting the culture and trying to transform it," Thompson said.

Having litigated and been involved in many cases fighting against violent video-game content, Thompson said studies show young people's brains are not developed enough to properly process simulated violence.

He thinks the company is counting on a naiveté within the Christian community to embrace the "Left Behind" game just because it is produced by self-proclaimed believers.

The negative effects of violence in video games should not be underestimated, he said, even if it's delivered in a box that is supposedly blessed.

"You've got a generation of boys in this country who are spending sometimes dozens of hours a week blowing away people," Thompson said. "Now they're going to have the opportunity to do it in a Christian setting and, you know, where does it stop?"

But it's not going to stop, some argue. Pop culture is there to stay, and maybe you can win out in promoting your ideology or theology by embracing pop culture and making it your own rather than spending your energy in a fight you might never win.

"Rather than forbid young people from viewing their favorite pastime, I prefer to give them something that's positive," said Tim LaHaye, an author of the "Left Behind" book series who is supporting the game developers.

The Christian community has long been leaving its mark on radio, television, music, movies and fashion. Perhaps it's only natural that video games would come next.

"This is just part of a long trend, part of the cultural DNA of evangelicalism, to make whatever it's doing relevant to pop culture," according to John Schmalzbauer, who is a Protestant Studies chair in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.

However, enticing believers with movies, books or video games is only half the picture. Great sales or high numbers could mean people just like a good game.

"Whether it helps them actually live out their faith is a different question," said Lynn Schofield Clark, an assistant research professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who wrote an upcoming book called "Religion, Media, and the Marketplace."

"To evaluate whether a game is a 'Christian' game you need to ask this: 'Does it make young people more compassionate? Does it make them more interested in human rights?' " she said.

And of course, there's another question: Does it connect with players spiritually?

Lyndon, the Left Behind Games CEO, said parents who have seen the game are thrilled. They say it will instill good Christian values in their children — and they're especially excited about the "pray" button.

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