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Why Not Just Ask The Real Question: Is It A Good Game?

Yesterday's DailyKos open thread ended with the curious tagline:

In the American theocracy, video games which allow you to kill those who don't convert to Christianity are apparently okay.

The comment is a bit odd because the story--from a Kos diary--actually reports that a conservative Christian lawyer is starting a lawsuit against the publishers of Left Behind: Eternal Forces. This would seem to suggest it's not OK. Indeed, the only bit of 'okay' any of the authors can dredge up is that major leaders of evangelical Christianity haven't denounced the game yet.

Meanwhile, the secular authors speaking about the game have become deranged:

Comparisons to Grand Theft Auto and other such video game titles are irrelevant to this discussion. It is not the level of violence that is at issue, but the Christian supremacy. This game immerses children in an environment that copies present-day New York, and indoctrinates and rehearses children in the mass killing of New Yorkers. This is religious indoctrination that forms children's identities and teaches that they must be prepared to do a deadly deed to defend their creed. That message is unAmerican and unChristian; patriots and Christians alike should oppose this game.

Wait a second... the argument against GTA III and its ilk is that what one does in a videogame (casual sex and car theft) provides a "message" that the same actions are OK in real life, and that it "indoctrinates and rehearses" children in violent crime. The message of Mr. Hutson (author of the above) is that games which involve "kill or convert" scenarios teach children that they must be prepared to do such things in real life. How is the comparison irrelevant?

Further, Left Behind: Eternal Forces has one thing going for it in the "don't do this at home, kids," stakes that GTA does not. I've not read the Left Behind books, but my impression is that they're apocalyptic in very a literal sense. The rapture has occurred, a bundle of the righteous have used their "Get Out of Perdition Free" cards, and the world is now caught in a last-days type battle. The anti-Christ shows a significant lack of political savvy and starts taking over the United Nations. (Management, unsurprisingly, seems to improve.) God, in the meantime, plays a more active hand in events, causing squadrons of planes to fall from the sky rather than attack Jerusalem, etc. In other words, in this setting the existence of the Almighty is not much more in question than the existence of sunlight.

This reminds one of the old C.S. Lewis comment about why we object to the persecution of witches: burning them is improper because we do not believe that they exist, not because those who actually aligned themselves with the devil to torment their neighbors would not be evil and deserving of burning. Similarly, if the question of the existence of a divine creator were settled, there's a reasonable argument that qualms about religious toleration can be set aside more lightly.

In this sense, the Left Behind game shares an ethos with just about every fantasy game that has a supernatural element. (In Dungeons & Dragons terms, any game that has clerics.) In the new Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, the demon Mehrunes Dagon may have a colorable argument for the ownership of the "real" world. Were the various characters making claims about a supernatural eminence who never appears, then religious toleration would have its place: seeming 'heretics' would be members of an alternate religion who ought to just found a political party. When gates to hell start popping up all over the place, however, the game sets aside a need for interfaith dialogue.

By contrast, GTA III actually takes place in a "realistic" world, and indeed a modern setting. Mr. Hutson's concern thus leaves out a required predicate: any "indoctrination" seems predicated upon the happening of rather fantastical events. If all Left Behind communicates is that in the face of concrete and tangible evidence of the existence of God normal rules of religious toleration should be reconsidered, we can rest pretty easy. After all, if you're an atheist (or even not an evangelical), you aren't really putting the Rapture in your project plans.

The various left-wing blogs writing on this also seem a bit perturbed by the "kill or convert" aspect of the game. According to reports--I can't find a demo of the game, and I don't have time to play it--protagonists have the choice of either killing their enemies or converting them. I'm not sure why this is so upsetting, however. It's a pretty standard real-time strategy (RTS) game mechanic. (In the game Sacrifice, one converts one's enemies through a form of rather energetic altar torture, as I recall.) The game is set in a world where one is either for God or quite busy following an AntiChrist. Assuming we take that as a factual premise (within the game), kill-or-convert becomes nothing more than a gameplay decision.

None of the above should be read as an endorsement of the Left Behind books or the eventual game. I've not read the books, but they certainly don't sound like my cup of tea. The game--at least judging from the website--doesn't look like it's breaking any new ground in RTS, and I'm not sure the world needs another inferior skin of StarCraft. But one should at least be consistent in dealing with video games. I credit the players of Grand Theft Auto with enough sense to know that hijacking cars is a no-no. I'm pretty certain that anyone paying for Left Behind: Eternal Forces is going to know that the Rapture doesn't come at the double-click of a mouse.


I'm pretty certain that anyone paying for Left Behind: Eternal Forces is going to know that the Rapture doesn't come at the double-cllck of a mouse. That's my plans for world domination screwed then. More seriously, it's an interesting discussion. I haven't come across the game (the UK release date is probably behind the States), but I now want to read up about it. Also, in terms of indoctrination, what cert does the game carry? Because I always though GTA had an adult rating so that it wasn't shown to impressionable youngsters.
Dawn: I know you have better plans for world domination. In any event, I can't believe that the game ever gets released in Britain. The books don't sell over there, do they? According to the site, they're going for a "T" rating, which means sales to teens are OK. Don't know how that compares to the UK system.
The fun part of GTA for me was not so much stealing the cars as seeing how far I could jump them. Well, and using them as pedestrian-mowers on the sidewalks did have a certain charm, I admit.
A good friend of mine where I used to work said that you could steal a lot of cars, shoot a lot of cops, and finally when the national guard showed up, if you were really good you could steal one of their tanks. That sounded a bit farfetched to me, but maybe you can suggest otherwise, Mr. Bingley?
Hmm, I never played it long enough to get to that stage (the language was a bit much at times with my bride and child in the house); it wouldn't surprise me if that were true, however.

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