'Left Behind' Video Game Draws Fire

A video game based on the popular "Left Behind" series of Christian novels draw criticism. The game allows players to be tempted by the forces of evil, convert others to Christianity... or even kill them.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Another video game that's being marketed to a niche group is creating controversy this holiday season. It's target audience? Christian teens. The game's producers say it's meant to teach the power of prayer and faith. But its detractors, who include other Christians, say it's promoting intolerance and violence. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: The game's called Eternal Forces. It's based on the best-selling "Left Behind" book series by evangelical Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The novels, which have sold more than 63 million copies and spawned a movie, tell the story of the end of days, and so does the video game narration.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #1: Without any warning, all infants, children and many people mysteriously disappear. Terror and confusion reign the world over. For those left behind, the apocalypse has just begun.

SYDELL: Children and good Christians have been whisked off to heaven. A battle is raging on Earth between the forces of the Antichrist and those Christians left. Jeffrey Frichner, president of Left Behind Games, which produced Eternal Forces, says the game is for Christians like himself.

Mr. JEFFREY FRICHNER (President, Left Behind Games): We wanted to create entertainment that really had a moral and positive message, that they could purchase for themselves and for their kids.

SYDELL: The game has gotten support from conservative Christian groups like Focus on the Family. Frichner says it's an action game, but the most important weapon is...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRICHNER: Prayer. There's a pray button

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man #2: With all speed, consider it done. Praise the lord.

SYDELL: That's one of the Christians, out on the street, trying to convert non-believers. Eternal Forces is what's called a real-time strategy game. It takes place in post-apocalyptic New York City, and the good guys are fighting the Antichrist for souls. And if prayer doesn't work, Frichner says...

Mr. FRICHNER: You're engaging in a battle to save people from this villain of villains, and you're supposed to do that through spiritual means. If you're attacked, then you have a choice. You can defend yourself, or you can engage in attack, and you can actually build your force to actually fight.

SYDELL: So if the prayer button doesn't work and a soul joins the Antichrist, you can kill them if they attack.

Mr. JACK THOMPSON(ph) (Attorney): It's either praise the lord and pass the ammunition or praise the Antichrist and pass the ammunition.

SYDELL: Attorney Jack Thompson is an evangelical Christian who has written extensively about what he believes is the damage done to children who play violent video games. Thompson doesn't feel Eternal Forces is a Christian game.

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't find anywhere in the gospel that we're supposed to take up arms and kill people because they don't believe, and in fact in the garden of Gethsemane, when a follower of Jesus cut off the ear of the centurion, Jesus restored that ear and said don't do that.

SYDELL: While Thompson often finds himself fighting with liberals, this time they're on the same side. Reverend Timothy Simpson, the president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, a liberal Christian group, thinks the game sends the wrong message, especially now.

Reverend TIMOTHY SIMPSON (President, Christian Alliance for Progress): At this particular point in American history, where there is such conflict raging around the world between Christians and Muslims, introducing a game like this where Christians are presented as being killers of non-Christians is like throwing gas on an already-roaring fire. It is singularly unhelpful.

SYDELL: Recently, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized Eternal Forces. The Christian Alliance for Progress and other critics are asking Wal-Mart, the nation's largest game retailer, to stop selling it. They've also asked Tyndale House, which owns the license to the "Left Behind" books, to pull it off the market. Tyndale says it's not responsible for the game's content. Wal-Mart issued a statement saying the company will continue to sell the game to customers who want it.

Despite the protests, Left Behind Games claims that Eternal Forces is selling well. However, reviews in game publications have ranged from bad to mediocre. Ben Kuchera, gaming editor of the Web site Ars Technica, liked it more than most. He gave it a six out of 10.

Mr. BEN KUCHERA (Gaming Editor, Ars Technica): It does very much push its Christian agenda on you via in-game essays, but when it comes to that sort of agenda-pushing, I've seen other instances of that on television and magazines, and while it's there, it's a lot less obnoxious than you find in other Christian sources, and I kind of appreciated that.

SYDELL: This is not the first video game aimed at a Christian audience, says Kuchera, but Left Behind may be the first interactive entertainment company that's tried to create a blockbuster Christian game. It is available not only at Wal-Mart, but at Best Buy, Target, Circuit City, as well as certain self-identified Christian retailers. Kuchera thinks Eternal Forces is an important game...

Mr. KUCHERA: ...because even though the actual game play is mediocre, it's making us ask these questions about what video games do. What are their place in society right now? How are we rating them? Who's playing them?

SYDELL: Both fans and detractors of Eternal Forces agree those are good questions to ask, they just don't agree on the answers. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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