Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.
The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today (Tuesday, this week) that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.
The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.
Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, 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," Frichner, whose previous company produced Bible software, said of combatting the Antichrist. "You are a sort of a freedom fighter."
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the retailer has no plans to pull Left Behind: Eternal Forces from any of the 200 of Wal-Mart's 3,800 stores that offer the game, including just seven in California. The nearest are in Chico and Redding.
"We look at the community to see where it will sell," said Tara Raddohl. "We have customers who are buying it and really haven't received a lot of complaints about it from our customers at this time."
Clark Stevens, co-director of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, said the game is not peaceful or diplomatic.
"It's an incredibly violent video game," said Stevens. "Sure, there is no blood. (The dead just fade off the screen.) But you are mowing down your enemy with a gun. It pushes a message of religious intolerance. You can either play for the 'good side' by trying to convert nonbelievers to your side or join the Antichrist."
The Rev. Tim Simpson, a Jacksonville, Fla., Presbyterian minister and president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, added: "So, under the Christmas tree this year for little Johnny is this allegedly Christian video game teaching Johnny to hate and kill?"
Both groups formed in 2005 to protest what their 130,000 or so members feel is the growing political influence and hypocrisy of the religious right.
In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."
Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.
When asked about the Arab and Muslim-sounding names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice. But "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ" -- and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game.
"That is so obvious," he said.
Left Behind is a real-time strategy and adventure game. Players don't role-play like in Grand Theft Auto -- it's more like the board game Risk than Clue.
Frichner said more than 10,000 retailers -- including Sam's Club, Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, GameStop, EB Games and various Christian stores -- offer the game. He said sales are terrific, though he wouldn't reveal figures.
Protesters are targeting Wal-Mart, where the game retails for $39.96, because it is one of the biggest video game sellers in the United States.
More than 60 million copies of books in the series have sold since the first volume came out in 1996.
Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at Gamespot.com, an online publication, said the game sn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.
"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."
But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
Frichner said that is precisely his company's ultimate goal in offering the game: to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible. He said most teens are playing video games, so it was natural to turn the books into one.
His business partner, Troy Lyndon, created Madden Football, one of the top-selling sports video games. Left Behind Games Inc. is based in Murrieta (Riverside County).
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