Left Behind emerges in red-hot video gaming market

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MURRIETA, Calif. — For fans of the widely popular fictional book series "Left Behind," the spiritual underpinnings and eternal ramifications are anything but a game—unless you are talking about the new video game based on the best-selling franchise by Dr. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

"Left Behind: Eternal Forces," a high-quality PC game that was more than four years in the making, is due for wide release in mid-November, just in time for the Christmas shopping season.

The computer adventure is the latest offering in a wide array of products prompted by the commercial success of Left Behind, which has sold more than 65 million books worldwide.

"It creates curiosity right away with people," Danielle Kristjanson, outreach ministries leader for LB Games, said.

Showcased this summer at the annual Christian Booksellers Association Convention, the game has earned early accolades for its quality, an uncommon feature in the fledgling Christian gaming market. In an industry with a projected $13.5 billion in sales this year, according to the Entertainment Software Publishing and Retail Industry Report prepared by Wedbush Morgan Securities, the Christian market is estimated at less than 1 percent.

"When I saw the finished product, I was blown away," author Tim LaHaye said in press materials for the game. "They are using cutting edge technology to reach a whole new generation that desperately needs the truth about Jesus and His plans for the future. The quality of work is far superior than I had ever dreamed."


Major undertaking
Produced by the publicly held Left Behind Games Inc., the Murrieta, Calif. firm employs at least 75 people in four countries. Its chief executive officer is Troy Lyndon, the original developer of John Madden Football, considered one of the most successful video games in America.

Taking its inspiration from the first three to five books of the LaHaye-Jenkins series, the video game is set in post-rapture Manhattan where thousands of Christians have disappeared and the isolated streets are the stage for a battle between good—the Tribulation Force—or evil—the AntiChrist's Global Community Peacekeepers. Both sides rage in intense battle over "the neutrals," the coveted people who have yet to decide on which side to align. The Tribulation Force uses spiritual weapons, including prayer, to combat the guns, hand-to-hand combat and explosives.

"It definitely makes people ponder questions of eternity," Kristjanson, a teacher, said.


Debate over violence
The tool has not been without controversy, though. Several critics have challenged the Christian-themed game, citing that its inclusion of violence contradicts the message of peace instilled by Jesus.

Florida attorney Jack Thompson, a conservative Christian who has lobbied extensively against violent video games, has called the game "reprehensible" in published reports.

In an April 11 Associated Press article by Hillary Rhodes, Thompson accused the game's makers of compromising their values.

"It breaks my heart to realize that the culture has basically transformed the church, rather than the church confronting the culture and trying to transform it," Thompson said.

LB Games maintains that the violence is minimal and merely reflects the real-time scenarios included in the Bible's Book of Revelation. The presence of violence earned the game a Teen rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Jerome Mikulich, the director of outreach ministries for LB Games, likened the video's violence to the type found in "Star Wars." Although there is fighting and weapons, the video contains no graphic or gratuitous violence, its makers said.

"There is violence in the game, there is violence in the world," Mikulich said.

Annette Brown, the company's public relations manager, said Eternal Force contains no gore. Still, violence is required, she said, to remain loyal to the text.

"Some of the most gruesome battles ever are in the Bible," Brown said.


No do-overs
To avoid the prevalent mission-to-kill mentality in gaming, if a Left Behind character is killed during play, he drops to the ground and stays there. There is no video "resurrection," as is common in most games. Developers hope the approach will send the message that every life is valuable and that death signals the end to human life, there are no "do-overs."

"You can still have a lot of fun with all the quality of a PC game and yet they can trust it," Brown said. "It's a game with a conscience. Life is priceless in this game."

Eager to capitalize on the lessons of the Bible story, LB Games is in the process of developing study guides and other resources to help youth pastors use the video as an evangelism tool.

"It's a doorway to the dark side or the presence of God," Mikulich said of the new gaming concept, adding that pastors can use the game as a launching pad to discuss the issues of good and evil, death and eternal life, and other basic Christian doctrines.

"It's a tool to add to their collection, their youth pastor toolbox," he said.

 "It's all about the influence and how can you be a good influence or a bad influence," he said. "It focuses on overcoming the enemy without even having to use weapons … except spiritual weapons."


Pastoral tool
Eager to capitalize on the lessons of the Bible story, LB Games is in the process of developing study guides and other resources to help youth pastors use the video as an evangelism tool.

"It's a doorway to the dark side or the presence of God," Mikulich said of the new gaming concept, adding that pastors can use the game as a launching pad to discuss the issues of good and evil, death and eternal life, and other basic Christian doctrines.

"We don't want them to become addicted to video," he said. "It's very important that they have face-to-face time with the youth pastors.

"It's a tool to add to their collection, their youth pastor toolbox."

Other tools in the planning or developing stages include video clubs and cyber cafés.

Plans are also in the works for a Left Behind blog.

"It could be a really neat, safe place for them to hang out," Mikulich said.

"It's all about the influence and how can you be a good influence or a bad influence," he said. "It focuses on overcoming the enemy without even having to use weapons … except spiritual weapons."