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Friday, December 15, 2006

Moral ambiguity in 'Left Behind' videogame.

The P.R. stunt to pressure Wal-Mart to stop carrying the "Left Behind" videogame — led by the anti-Christian Right watchdog group Talk2Action and the left-leaning Christian Alliance for Progress, whose leaders I met last summer at the Progressive Religious Blog Con — has brought the game itself back into the spotlight just in time for the war against the war against Christmas, but I wonder if the game's opponents are presenting it fairly.

Last month, the Boston Globe's technology reporter Hiawatha Bray reviewed the game and highlighted its moral ambiguity:

[In the game,] former Romanian president Nicolae Carpathia . . . finally gets the job he's always wanted — Antichrist. Now Carpathia's goons scour Manhattan, in an effort to wipe out the Bible-believing scum. For their part, the believers form an army of sorts — the Tribulation Force. Their goals are simple: Spread the gospel, and stay alive.

But staying alive may sometimes lead to the taking of life — "fighting hellfire with hellfire," as Corddry put it. And that raises a knotty moral conundrum for any game designer who worships Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Left Behind follows the classic real-time strategy format. Game characters explore the map, acquire resources, build and upgrade structures, tools , and weapons. But some of the weapons are unusual. Prayer, for instance. The game's most powerful character is a woman whose prayers can bring hordes of enemy forces over to the side of virtue.

"That really enters in this whole new dimension called spiritual warfare," said Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games. "You can actually play the entire game without firing a shot."

Or you can create a band of soldiers who'll protect Tribulation Force territory from Carpathian incursions. But they're supposed to use minimal force. Every time they kill, even if it's justified, it weakens their moral fiber. Force them to kill too often, and they'll fall away from the faith and move to the Dark Side.

Bray asks Lyndon about the moral ambiguity of violence in the game, and Lyndon talks about his son's experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The game is also apparently cheesy and unlikely to convert gamers into Evangelicals. Its audience appears to be fundamentalists who wish they had a streetfighter game of their own. And although, like any card-carrying religious leftie, I'm able to work myself up into a righteous lather about the evils of religiously motivated violence, I have to say that our whole culture is dripping in militancy. Picking on the "Left Behind" videogame feels a lot more opportunistic than principled to me.

Happily, we'll soon get a review of the game from Chalicechick. My question: When can we have the "ChaliceFighter" videogame for UUs, in which players can capture people in an interdependent web of antioppression workshops and shoot flames from their chalices at homophobes?

("Moral choices are in play in faith-based Left Behind," Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe 11.11.06; "Groups urge chain to drop Christian game," Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe 12.13.06; see also "Action and adventure, by the Book," Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe 10.2.03)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 15 December 2006 at 8:01 AM

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Rev. Timothy F. Simpson:

December 15, 2006 09:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

It wasn't a publicity stunt at all, and it is having an impact, both on the sales of the game, and potentially its content as well. The leaders of CrossWalk America met with the CEO of Left Behind Games yesterday, during which he was shown that his game does not play the way he is representing it to the media or to the parents who buy it. He has been telling people that the use of force will cause you to lose, when in fact, a simple prayer after a kill will restore one's "spirit points" almost immediately so that one is free to kill again without worry of losing. He said that if this was the case he would issue a patch and promised to get back with us in a week or so. If he follows through with this, it will not be satisfactory, but the curbing of any violence in the game, which has Christians killing non-Christians in the name of God, should be welcomed by everyone.

I reject your criticism of our actions as "opportunistic," that because we can't attack every violent video game that we should not be critical of this one. If this path were followed consistently hardly any social change for the better would ever occur in any sector of society. One has to begin somewhere. In this case there was every reason to believe that the public could be moved by an appeal to their better selves. That is because the differences between this and every other violent video game are stark. This one is presenting the violence as the will of God for the followers of Jesus Christ, not like a Crusade game of the duistant past, but in downtown Manhattan in our own time. The people to be killed are the Global Peacekeepers, a thinly veiled reference to the UN. Children are being taught that God wants non-Christians killed and that all they have to do to overcome the consequences of their violence is to say a prayer and move on. The game is being marketed primarily through religious bookstores, where families expect to get wholesome entertainment and where games like Resident Evil or Grand Theft Auto are not sold. Moreover, the company and its employees and financial backers are explicitly Christian, unlike most gaming companies, which means that they have accountability responsibilites to the larger Christian community which they could not shirk without losing face. In short, this game is sui generis---there isn't anything else like it which has ever been produced by the gaming industry--and the people who produced it share with us a common faith and its language and are thus more receptive to the arguments from our faith than would be a secular gaming company.

I would have expected a much more thoughtful response from you than what you have provided.

Rev. Tim Simpson
President, Christian Alliance for Progress
Editor, Political Theology


December 15, 2006 09:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't know, Tim. Your argument sounds similar to the ones politicos use when they're making hay about violence on tv. Do you really think this game will cause fundamentalist kiddos to think killing non-Christians is okay?

I play City of Heroes. When playing a hero character, I "arrest" the bad guys, a thinly veiled form of killing. After they've been "arrested" for a while, the baddies even disappear! Do you think this game is teaching kiddos that true heroes kill people then call it "arresting" them on behalf of justice?

I don't much like the idea of the game because it's a lame rip-off of Warcraft and Billy Graham's Bible Blasters. And the awful, awful pre-trib dispensationalism.

Fundamentalist games have always been the suck. Now that suckage has been brought to MMORPGs. Big deal.


December 15, 2006 10:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

Is going after the videogame and Wal-Mart an effective way to raise the profile of the Christian Alliance for Progress, a group I respect? Almost certainly. But that is a publicity gambit. Is it an effective way of saying that progressive Christians disagree with premillennial dispensationalism? Perhaps, although that angle hasn't popped up in the media, so as a theological education initiative, I'm not sure how it's faring.

I also suspect Tim's group has different motives than Talk2Action, which is not a liberal Christian organization. It's an anti-Christian Right group that is susceptible to a certain amount of hype and projection. I don't have anything against watchdog groups, and hype and projection has its place, but in their eagerness to find any and every angle against their target, they do things that don't line up with my own agenda.

Do children of moderate and liberal Christians play violent video games? Yes. Do they sing "Onward, Christian soldiers"? Probably a whole lot less often. (A Unitarian wrote that one, by the way.) They probably think Christianity is quite a bit less central to their lives than the kids of fundamentalists; that strikes me as a whole different and rather significant problem.

And sure, I could be wrong and it might turn out that this game — and the novels and movies and apocalypticism that bred it — needs all this vigilance my friends on the religious left are bringing to it. I guess I see it is as a small symptom of much more general problem.


December 15, 2006 10:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

It is also possible, of course, that Hiawatha Bray didn't play the game he reviewed for the Boston Globe, although that would surprise me. But I also have no reason to doubt Tim when he writes:

The leaders of CrossWalk America met with the CEO of Left Behind Games yesterday, during which he was shown that his game does not play the way he is representing it to the media or to the parents who buy it. He has been telling people that the use of force will cause you to lose, when in fact, a simple prayer after a kill will restore one's "spirit points" almost immediately so that one is free to kill again without worry of losing.

Steve Caldwell:

December 15, 2006 10:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm curious ... has anyone here seen the following book:

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson,,0_9781573223072,00.html

Here's a snippet from the publisher's web site:

"Drawing from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and literary theory, Johnson argues that the junk culture we're so eager to dismiss is in fact making us more intelligent. A video game will never be a book, Johnson acknowledges, nor should it aspire to be-and, in fact, video games, from Tetris to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto, have been shown to raise IQ scores and develop cognitive abilities that can't be learned from books. Likewise, successful television, when examined closely and taken seriously, reveals surprising narrative sophistication and intellectual demands."

One could ask what cognitive problem solving abilities are developed by the "Left Behind" game and how it compares to the "Grand Theft Auto" series.

Finally, I'm less worried about the message in the video games and more worried about the "Christianist" message being taught in conservative Christian churches, schools, and homes.

I know from personal experience that my teen son knows that "Grand Theft Auto" isn't reality and he has a grounding in liberal religious values from his experiences in UU religious education and YRUU. I figure that the typical conservative Christian kid also knows that his video games are not reality as well. However, he's still being exposed to a "Christianist" worldview when not playing video games and that troubles me more.

[Note - "Christianism" is a phrase coined by Andrew Sullivan and others to describe what others call "Christian Dominionism." This is defined on Wikipedia as "a trend in Protestant Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism ... that seeks to establish specific political policies based on religious beliefs." The term "Christianist" can be viewed as analogous to "Islamacist."]

h sofia:

December 15, 2006 01:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

The game sounds offensive to me, but I wouldn't want to spend my time launching a big campaign against it. Rev. Tim Simpson's thoughtful letter caused me to realize, however, that if UUs had come out with a similar game, I would want to discourage other UUs from supporting it, and I would want people who weren't UUs to know that the game was not representative of UU values. At the very least, the Christian Alliance for Progress's efforts can encourage heartfelt dialogue among Christians.

I was surprised at your take on this issue, Chris; your disapproval of the anti-game campaign is more vehement than I'd have expected. Still, I heartily agree that "our whole culture is dripping in militancy." The Left Behind game seems almost a natural extension of that.

Bruce Wilson:

December 15, 2006 03:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Here's a very interesting aspect of the game that has received little mention so far:

Religious Warfare Game CEO Thought Product Would Desensitize Players To Killing

"The CEO of Left Behind Games, who has recently characterized the nature of "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" as potentially wholly nonviolent such that "You can actually play the entire game without firing a shot." ( from a Boston Globe review of the game ) said in February 2006 that play resulted in "hundreds of dead bodies" piling up on the lovingly detailed streets of the virtual New York City in his game and that he thought the game might gain a "mature" audience rating for its depiction of mass killing. But Lyndon expressed a concern that making those piles of corpses magically vanish would desensitize gamers to violence.

Then, Troy Lyndon's game was redesigned prior to commercial release so that those dead bodies Lyndon referred to just disappeared... and it was marketed to a 13 to 34 age range that included teenagers. "


December 16, 2006 07:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha, maybe I was uncharacteristically strident. I can understand the Christian objection to the game -- and I suspect that Tim's group objects to it for theological reasons, although I don't think the game was getting all that much attention on its own -- but I haven't been able to overcome my skepticism about Talk2Action's motives. Talk2Action has been flogging this game as part of its shrill anti-Dominionist campaign for months, and I just haven't been sold.

I don't like exaggeration. I really don't like media manipulation. And I find myself reluctanct to join the religious left blogswarm when it heads off to fight Evangelical culture. (In UU circles, fighting doesn't seem to have gotten us anywhere in recent decades. There must be better approaches for us to take.) But the contrast between what reviews of the game say and what the critics of the game say is really almost unaccountably large. That's what inspired my dissent.

And I could be wrong. I'll be eager for Chalicechick's take on the game.

Bruce Wilson:

December 16, 2006 12:02 PM | Permalink for this comment


Do you have any specific objections to facts mentioned in Talk To Action pieces describing the Left Behind: Eternal Forces game ? If you've noticed substantial factual innacuracies in our accounts of the game that would be useful to know so we could make appropriate corrections.

You're making strong accusations that would seem to merit some substantiation, and not through argument by reference to authority but actually by confronting the details of the game.

I'm happy to engage you in that discussion if you want.

h sofia:

December 17, 2006 03:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, I'm curious to see what CC will say, too.


December 17, 2006 11:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bruce, I haven't played the game and don't especially have much interest in it. I have been trying to read up on it — goaded on, perhaps, but Talk2Action's relentless criticism of the game — but from the material I've read so far, I get the impression that you're seeing something other reviewers of the game just don't see.

I don't doubt at all that the game reflects premillennial dispensational apocalyptic scenarios that have no place in my own understanding of Christianity, but I guess I think a different sort of persuasive engagement is needed to help Christians who do believe in tribulation and rapture embrace a less apocalyptic view. Attacking them from what really feels like a secularist stance doesn't cut it, from my perspective. And that's what I find off-putting by your group's approach.


January 14, 2007 10:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

ChaliceChick reviews the video game that Talk To Action and the Progressive Christian Alliance have gone to battle with — and confirms the impression I took from other reviews of the game: The anti-Christian Right organizations that have gotten press for their campaign against "Left Behind" found a P.R. springboard into mainstream media coverage by exaggerating the game's violence and downplaying the fact that it is apparently not especially good as a game.


February 8, 2007 03:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hey, with so many people having an opinion about this game, how many have actually played it? And what credibility do they have? Focus on the Family has publications which can set the record straight for everyone.

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