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Converting Video Games Into Instruments of God

A title based on the `Left Behind' books embraces the medium's violent style. It may reach a new audience, but can it impart spiritual values?

May 10, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

As the video game industry gathers at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, a devout group of publishers is praying for a direct strike on their elusive target: the eternal souls of game players.

One game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," which debuts today at the expo, features plenty of biblical smiting, albeit with high-tech weaponry as players battle the forces of the Antichrist in a smoldering world approaching Armageddon.

The creators hope the game packs enough action to appeal to a generation of kids reared on such titles as "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" and subtly coax them to consider their own spirituality.

"Eternal Forces" is part of a new wave of religious games coming out at a time when the mainstream industry faces increasing criticism that its products celebrate misogynistic mayhem. Another publisher is marketing games based on the "Veggie Tales" series of Christian videos for children. Another is pitching "Bibleman: A Fight for Faith," about a superhero who stands up for the word of God with his sidekicks Cypher and Biblegirl.

Games "will be a new tool to get the two-minute generation to think about matters of eternal importance in a way that isn't religious," said Troy A. Lyndon, one of the "Left Behind" game's creators.

Christian-themed games historically have had limited appeal. Developer Digital Praise has sold a reported 30,000 copies of its most popular product, a Christian title called "Dance Praise." By contrast, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" has sold 5.1 million copies worldwide.

" 'Left Behind' has the Antichrist, the end of the world, the apocalypse," said co-creator Jeffrey S. Frichner. "It's got all the Christian stuff, and it's still got all the cool stuff."

That's why industry watchers predict that titles like "Eternal Forces" will find a broader audience in the same way Christian houses of worship like Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest have attracted followers -- in part by not being overly doctrinaire.

"The reason that I think this game has a chance is that it's not particularly preachy," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I will say some of the dialogue is pretty lame -- people saying, 'Praise the Lord' after they blow away the bad guys. I think they're overdoing it a bit. But the message is OK."

The game is based on the best-selling series of "Left Behind" books, which offer an account of the end times as predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. One of the series' authors, Tim LaHaye, said the game had the potential to communicate ideas such as salvation to people who might not think of themselves as particularly interested.

"We hope teenagers like the game," LaHaye said. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

But critics counter that, in an effort to make Christian games appealing, developers such as Lyndon and Frichner are doing little more than putting a religious veneer on the same violent fare.

"We're going to push this game at Christian kids to let them know there's a cool shooter game out there," said attorney Jack Thompson, an author and outspoken critic of video game violence. "Because of the Christian context, somehow it's OK? It's not OK. The context is irrelevant. It's a mass-killing game."

The game's heroes belong to a group of fighters called the Tribulation Force, people whose husbands, wives or children disappeared in the Rapture. This is the moment referred to in the title when, some Christians believe, God calls the faithful to Heaven, leaving the rest behind to face seven years of tribulation.

The game is set in New York City, where the Tribulation Force clashes with the Antichrist's Global Community Peacekeepers in a tale that makes the United Nations a tool for Satan. Each side attempts to recruit lost souls in the battle for the city. "Eternal Forces" is a so-called real-time strategy game -- players act as battlefield generals for their virtual armies, deciding where to place units and when to order attacks or retreats.

In the game, Tribulation squads unleash the usual arsenal against the Antichrist: guns, tanks, helicopters. But soldiers lose some of their spirituality every time they kill an opponent and must be bolstered through prayer. The failure to nurture good guys causes their spirit points to drop, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment by the other side.

The player's choices prompt intervention by angelic forces or unleash demons who feast on the faithful. As players progress through the increasingly difficult levels, they see Scripture passages presented as secret scrolls and hear inspirational music.

In multiplayer games, participants can choose to command the Antichrist's forces.

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