By William Fisher
NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A coalition of U.S. religious and progressive groups has stepped up a formal campaign to protest a controversial new Christian fundamentalist video game in which players battle the "forces of the Anti-Christ" and kill or convert non-believers.
"This is the first time any Christian religious instructional video has recommended killing all non-Christians who refuse to convert to Christianity. It is unprecedented and dangerous," Rev. Timothy Simpson, president of the Jacksonville, Florida-based progressive advocacy group the Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS.
The game, titled "Left Behind: Eternal Forces", is packaged with a book explaining its philosophy, and is currently being sold by WalMart, the United States' largest retailer. The chain has thus far has refused demands that it remove it from its shelves, indicating it would continue selling the game online and in selected stores where it felt there was demand.
"The product has been selling in those stores," according to spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. "The decision on what merchandise we offer in our stores is based on what we think our customers want the opportunity to buy."
Nearly 25,000 members of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, one of the groups critical of the video game, have submitted letters to Wal-Mart, asking the store to stop selling religious violence for Christmas.
Aimed at conservative Christians, the game's story line begins in a time after the "rapture", when fundamentalist dogma contends that Christians will go to heaven. The remaining population on earth must then choose between surrendering to or resisting "the Antichrist", which the game describes as the "Global Community Peacekeepers" whose objective is the imposition of "one-world government".
"Part of the object is to kill or convert the opposing forces," Simpson said. This is "antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he was dismayed by the concept in "Eternal Forces" of using prayer to restore a player's "spirit points" after killing the enemy.
In the game, combatants on one side pause for prayer, intoning, "Praise the Lord". A player can lose points for "unnecessary killing" but regain them through prayer.
But Simpson counters, "The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one's foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people here at Christmas time."
Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games Inc., which is promoting the new video, has defended the game as "inspirational entertainment" and said its critics were exaggerating. The game is based on the popular "Left Behind" novels, a Bible-based end-of-the-world-saga that has sold more than 63 million copies.
Lyndon told the New York Times the game has received a T (for teen) rating, meaning it offers more violence than an E-rated children's game, but less graphically than games rated M (for mature). M games have often been criticised by conservative Christian groups.
The "Left Behind" game is based on the popular series of novels series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Left Behind Games says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.
"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game. You are a sort of a freedom fighter," the company says on its web site. "Our game includes violence, but excludes blood, decapitation, killing of police officers."
Simpson, whose group was formed last year to counter the influence of the religious right, told IPS that he and a number of his colleagues would be initiating a conference call to the game's promoter Thursday, to try to persuade the company to withdraw the game from the market.
Another participant in the critics' news conference, author Frederick Clarkson, argued that "Eternal Forces" was less violent than many other video games, but was more troubling in some ways.
"It becomes a tool of religious instruction," he said. "The message is... there will be religious warfare, and you will target your fellow Americans, people from other faiths, people who you consider to be sinners."
Clarkson criticised the Rev. James Dobson's powerful Colorado-based Christian ministry, Focus on the Family (FOF), for publishing a positive review of "Eternal Forces" on one of its web sites. Dobson's group is close to the White House and is considered highly influential in shaping the George W. Bush administration's conservative agenda.
"Eternal Forces is the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior and use to raise some interesting questions along the way," wrote the FOF reviewer, Bob Hoose.
Simpson's group has joined with other progressive Christian organisations to protest the video game. These include the CrossWalk America, the Beatitudes Society, the Centre for Progressive Christianity, and the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon)