Virtual religious, ethnic, and cultural cleansing in "Left Behind: Eternal Forces"
Installments from Jonathan Hutson's groundbreaking Talk To Action series, on the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game, have been read so far by several hundred thousand people, and until early in November 2006 the series was illustrated by images, from the game in play, of soldiers firing at close range at civilians and of piles of corpses building up in the NYC streets, that had been widely disseminated by the Left Behind Games company to promote its new video game. The images depicted, quite literally, an orgy of violence.
However, these promotional images showed no blood at all. Should they have ? Without the depiction of blood, even as humans were shown in the game being shot at close range, was the game somehow more wholesome than other video games that more realistically depicted the nature of graphic - bloody, that is - violence ? The point is open to legitimate debate although even the youngest from the age range the game is being marketed to, 13 year old teenagers, have by that age almost certainly seen rivers of gore on television and in movies and so can, presumably, imagine blood missing from the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game quite effectively.
Indeed, fans of the "Left Behind" series, who have bought upwards of 70 million books from the series and who are the core target audience for the new video game, are doubtless aware of the series' descriptions of gory divine destruction of non-Christians - that are graphic enough to turn cast iron stomachs, make the neck hairs of the initiated stand up in alarm, or curdle fresh milk :
Here is an actual description, by writer Joe Bageant, of the depiction of violence in the "Left Behind" book series:
"Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again." -- From Glorious Appearing by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
In November, Talk To Action received an email from the Left Behind Games company which claimed that the use of those images, to illustrate Hutson's series and other related writing on the game at the Talk To Action website, violated the Left Behind Games Company's copyright of those images. Although we believed the use of the images was within the bounds of the legal doctrine of "fair use" Talk To Action issued an apology and took down the images in question.
Why might the Left Behind Games Company have been so concerned ?
One likely possibility would be because the images called into question an apparent central marketing goal of the company, to depict its new game as a "family friendly" game that promoted "Christian values". Of particular concern was a series of images altered by this author so as to depict the sort of bloodshed one would expect to see when military assault weapons are fired at human beings at close range.
The Left Behind Games Company, in its official FAQ for the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game, repeatedly stresses the bloodless quality of its game :
"LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces was developed to provide an alternative form of entertainment to those desiring more positive game content, while still engaging core gamers in battle. The difference is that our game features fictional battles set on the stage of an apocalyptic world. Our game includes no intestines, no blood spatter, no severed limbs, no vulgar language, no sexual conduct, no morally reprehensible conduct - such as cop-killing, prostitute-bashing, or other criminal behavior, no Bible-bashing believers, no Bible thumpers, no radical extremists killing in the name of God, no abortion clinic stalkers..."
The game is certainly bloodless, that is true. One might wonder a bit however, about the apparently nonsensical prospect of an "apocalyptic battle" between absolute good and evil devoid of "reprehensible" conduct. You'd suppose, at least, that the forces of evil, being... well.... evil, might get a bit rambunctious and flay a few Tribulation Force members alive occasionally, unfairly tempt their faith with the lascivious delights of secularism, or at least pull out some fingernails with pliers. Nope, none of that.
Meanwhile, Lyndon's assurances that the game showed no "radical extremists killing in the name of God" might seem a little suspect given the Left Behind Game Company's description of their game in which :
1) The Tribulation Force does, yes, kill from time to time at least if not a little more - to judge from the corpses shown littering the streets in promotional images from the company.
Needless to say though, Lyndon, Frichner, and the Left Behind Games Company seem to have gone to great lengths to market their game - despite its plot line of religious warfare and at least the implication of accompanying, considerable bloodshed and mayhem that anyone who had the barest knowledge of the history of warfare and religious wars would assume to be an unavoidable consequence - as a vehicle for the promotion of some kindler and gentler form of Christianity suffused with love and teaching morality in warfare, at least in videogame land.
But, beyond the bloodthirsty and vengeful qualities of the Left Behind book series, beyond issues of blood and gore - or the lack of those - in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game there are other, quieter but perhaps nastier and potentially more controversial aspects of the game.
It's Not The Blood - It's The Ideology
Unsurprisingly, the side of "good" in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is described as having strong religious belief and you might reasonably suppose the "evil" side has its own corresponding, but evil, religious belief. You would be wrong. Sort of.
In fact, the (evil) "Peacekeeping" force is comprised of - gasp - secularists ! That might sound quite ridiculous, and reasonably so, to those unfamiliar with Tim LaHaye's theological beliefs that underlie the "Left Behind" book series and the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game.
Why not depict the forces of evil in the game as card carrying satanists who staged bestial orgies around roaring fires while sacrificing children before statues of horned and cloven hoofed demons ? Wouldn't that make more sense ? Or, why not at least populate the ranks of the evil side, in the game, at least with Wiccans, who might not hurt a fly but who might at least be partial to orgies around roaring fires, or at least hulking, sinister Unitarians spouting verses from Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" or humming old Cat Stevens tunes ? What would be the commercial harm in that ( beyond the fact of being be ridiculous, anyway ) ?
Again, the answer lies in the peculiar - and some would add many more adjectives than that - theology of Tim Lahaye. In the LaHayian religious and ideological narrative evil advances mainly by proxy, via "secularism" and "secular humanism" which - as innocuous as they might seem to some, especially for the fact that secularism was a foundational principle for the United States government - actually are stealth doctrines, stalking horses for communism, socialism, and one world government, that advance a satanic agenda. In Lahaye's view, secular government, and all of its institutions - including and perhaps especially public schools, colleges and universities - are downright evil, if quietly so.
Thus, it is no surprise that in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game many members of the ( satanic ) "Global Peacekeeping" force have been trained in..... college ! The Peacekeeping members are 'secularists', they are inclined to swear, they tend to be described as promoting deception, and they have gone to college - presumably where they were inculcated with the satanic doctrines of 'secularism'.
Here's where things get a bit odd : actually, American Baptists were until very recently ( with the conservative right's takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980's ) among the most vigorous defenders of secular government in the US, and support for secular government is not an anomaly but has been ( until recently perhaps ) the norm rather than the exception among the various sects and branches of American Christianity. Being a "secularist" doesn't preclude having religious beliefs at all.... But, Tim Lahaye disagrees.
In LaHaye's world, Christians who uphold the separation of church and state are simply not Christians at all, for the simple reason that Lahaye feels the United States was originally intended to be a Christian, not a secular, nation and that includes the government. That's one explanation as to why no one but the "Tribulation Force" members in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" get to have any beliefs at all besides "secularism" ; in Lahaye's belief systems, all religious beliefs but his own version, are false, not valid or real at - all except in the sense of being satanic.
Talk To Action contributor Chip Berlet, who has written several books and numerous articles on the American far right, hate speech, and related issues, notes the essentially bloodthirsty quality of the beliefs behind the "Left Behind" book series:
The real scandal involving the violent video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces is that the demonization of enemies, bloodthirsty dualism, and murderous rampages on the computer screen are accurate reflections of the apocalyptic theology espoused by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in their Left Behind series of novels which have sold more than 70 million copies.
Tim Lahaye is far from a disempowered crank however, and Michelle Goldberg, for Salon.com, sketches out LaHaye's influence and the extent to which many Americans now view the world through his cognitive lens:
Tim LaHaye isn't merely a fringe figure like Hal Lindsey, the former king of the genre, whose 1970 Christian end-times book "The Late Great Planet Earth" was the bestseller of that decade. The former co-chairman of Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, LaHaye was a member of the original board of directors of the Moral Majority and an organizer of the Council for National Policy, which ABCNews.com has called "the most powerful conservative organization in America you've never heard of" and whose membership has included John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson and Oliver North. George W. Bush is still refusing to release a tape of a speech he gave to the group in 1999.
Talk To Action contributor Chip Berlet has spent his career studying the American far right and political fringe including the American militia movement of the 1990's. In part one, The World According to Tim LaHaye: Chapter One - Hunting Down the Enemies, of his eight part Talk To Action series on the theological beliefs of Tim LaHaye which undergird the "Left Behind" series and the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video, Berlet provides a bleak take on where he thinks the LaHaye's beliefs, the series, and the video game are leading:
LaHaye expects there is an upcoming huge battle between good and Godly Christians and the forces of evil working with Satan's chief End Times henchman, the antichrist.
Perhaps the most chilling feature of "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is not what's in the game exactly, or what's obviously missing.
The creepiest part of the game is an absence - where are the New Yorkers ?
The population of New York City is one of the most ethnically, culturally, probably religiously diverse on Earth.
The population "representing" them in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game looks like what you'd expect to find sitting in the bleachers of a high school football game in Boise, Idaho although if there were any clearly identifiable African Americans in that crowd, Semites, or American Indians - anyone beyond Northern European stock roughly eighteen to fifty years of age - the comparison would not hold.
The "residents" of New York City depicted in "Left Behind : Eternal Forces" look more or less indistinguishable from the "Tribulation Force" members and, in fact, almost all of the games' characters, but for their clothing and equipment, look basically the same. One character who has Asian features represents the one speck of diversity among the characters who populate the game.
The population New York City, according to the "Let Behind: Eternal Forces" video game, appears to be comprised entirely of mid to light skinned Northern Europeans.
In addition, children and the elderly are wholly absent from the game.
Why might this be so ? Couldn't the Left Behind Games company have anticipated and addressed such objections by simply tinting the skin tones of characters to present a facsimile of diversity ? Couldn't they have thrown in at least a few children and a few old people ? And, given that the New York metropolitan area has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, couldn't they have added even a nod towards that fact, perhaps in the form of one stereotypical old Hasidic man shuffling along the streets, waiting to be converted or else mowed down by gunfire ?
According to an article that ran in Jewish Week on October 20, 2006 entitled Jews In The Virtual Cross-Hairs, Troy Lyndon and Jeffrey Frichner are both Jewish and grew up in New York - Frichner in Queens and Lyndon on the Upper West Side. So it would seem almost impossible to believe that both men, one would suppose at any rate, could be unaware of the ethnic and cultural - not to mention the religious - diversity of New York or think think the city was comprised solely of light skinned European stock. Both men, as an additional point, have converted to a branch of Messianic Judaism.
So, what could account for their "virtual ethnic cleansing" of a city they certainly know well ? One possibility is that the decision was purely practical, that the "Left Behind" book series presented the biggest commercial opportunity on which to launch their new video game company, and that the choice for the game's narrative background and branding, the "left Behind Series", determined the setting.
Fans of the series would expect a game set in New York, this explanation might run, and how could Lyndon and Frichner possibly have hoped to make their game a commercial success if it showed the bodies of Jews ( Hasidim even ), Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and the whole range of the NYC ethnic melange, as well as the bodies of children and the elderly, not to mention the dogs, cats, horses, rats, iguanas, parakeets, and other such non-human incidental victims of the conflict one might as well have thrown in too were one to go down the hyperrealism route, piling up and virtually rotting on the virtual streets of "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" ? That would have amounted to commercial suicide.
But would it have been too much to throw in some variety in skin tone, some black and curly hair, some gesture - any gesture at all that acknowledged however briefly that New Yorkers do not all appear look like the crowd one might expect to see at a football game in Boise, Idaho ?
There are, of course, other explanations.
Let's sum this picture up :
It's Just The Dehumanization
Let's pause to consider the perspective of someone who has carried out professional research into the process of "moral disengagement" which makes it easier for individuals to perpetrate acts of mass violence:
The moral disengagement may center on the cognitive restructuring of inhumane conduct into a benign or worthy one by moral justification, sanitizing language and advantageous comparison; disavowal of a sense of personal agency by diffusion or displacement of responsibility; disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of ones actions; and attribution of blame to, and dehumanization of, those who are victimized. - From "Moral Disengagement In The Perpetration Of Inhumanities", by Albert Bandura, , Dept. Of Psychology, Stanford University [ link to Pdf file of Banduras' 1999 research paper ]
Research into the processes by which people can be socialized to commit mass violence ( link to summary of a several recent research works ) suggests that the use of sanitizing language can be very effective in creating states or moral disengagement that allow actors to carry out mass violence.
The official FAQ for the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game presents violence depicted in the game and the violence described in the "Left Behind" book series - which the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game is based on - in a bland, sanitized fashion and in the passive voice, as something which merely "happens" rather as a result of human or divine agency :
"[question] Does anyone get killed in the game ?
Notice that this description of the violence in the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game, which depicts a campaign of religious warfare to convert or - alas! - regrettably kill all of the inhabitants of a major world city, quickly leaps from the fact that people "perish" in the game to this sterile comparison : the game is like chess ! Indeed, the game certainly is one of, like chess, complex strategy but that elides the context, and context is the point : the game depicts a campaign to force religious conversion or otherwise kill, the citizens of a major world city.
On its website, the Left Behind Games Company begins the official description of the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" video game with the following:
"Wage a war of apocalyptic proportions in LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces - a real-time strategy game based upon the best-selling LEFT BEHIND book series created by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Join the ultimate fight of Good against Evil"
The description continues, extolling the martial thrill and grandeur the game will impart to the 13-35 year old male players the company expects will play the game:
Conduct physical & spiritual warfare : using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world.....
Notice that the description - invokes the active voice : those who play the game are actors, because - by definition - playing video games is not a passive process, and that's the very point : otherwise "players" wouldn't be playing a game at all. They would be watching a movie.
Now, let's shift to the official FAQ for the "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game, on the very same website as the official description of the video game. One FAQ question asks:
What aspects of the game will keep it challenging to the players?
The storyline play within the game allows the gamer to defend themselves from the forces of the Anti-Christ, ending in a major battle for the streets of New York City. In multi-player game mode, gamers will command the Tribulation Forces and Global Community Peacekeepers and defend themselves from total destruction.
Observe that the "Tribulation Forces", which certainly seemed to be playing an aggressive role per the tone of the official description for the game, are cast as passive : the Christian forces fight to "defend themselves from total destruction". Is this the same game ?
Let's look at the verbs used in the game description, to characterize what game players will be doing : "Lead", "Conduct", "Recover", "Command", "Control", "Enjoy", "Play".
In the FAQ, however, that characterization abruptly changes : gamers will "defend themselves from total destruction".
But, a later FAQ question makes things a bit clearer -
"Are guns used by Christians against non-Christians? Why or why not?
The storyline in the game begins just after the Rapture has occurred....
The remaining population - those who were left behind - are then poised to make a decision at some point. They cannot remain neutral. Their choice is to either join the AntiChrist - which is an imposturous one world government seeking peace for all of mankind, or they may join the Tribulation Force - which seeks to expose the truth and defend themselves against the forces of the AntiChrist." [ emphasis added ]
Offensive wars, and also wars of genocidal extermination, have since time immemorial invoked variants of "Just War" theory, and recent research suggests there is good psychological ground for the strategy, which amounts to the claim "we had to fight and kill - they forced us into it".
The "Tribulation Forces" - depending on whether we pay attention to the official game description or to the FAQ - seem to have simultaneously an offensive and a defensive role in the game, but one thing is clear :
By definition, there are no civilian noncombatants in the game, no "innocents". So, if the Tribulation Forces prevail, the simple logical outcome - whether their role is characterized as "offensive" or "defensive" - will be that all of the residents of New York City have either been converted to Christianity or - regrettably - exterminated.
Within the game's depiction, those exterminated New York residents had no names, no personalities, no real beliefs of any substance, no ethnic or cultural identities, and they were also evil - having sided with the evil forces in totalistic manichean war.
Their utter lack of any freedom or role in the game except to serve as nameless carnage to litter the streets of the virtual city should raise questions, as should the attempts by the "Left Behind Games" company to depict their game as essentially wholesome, for the narrative is not. The narrative concerns, quite plainly, the elimination of all those who fail to conform to a single, intransigent belief system, and "Left Behind : Eternal Forces" may indeed be a game of complex strategy. It is also a game in which a nameless, faceless other is killed in quantity, with no protest and a minimum of fuss. The game's makers have compared their "game of complex strategy" ( and it may be that ) to chess, and abstract exercise, a game of mere strategy :
How would we react were the makers of a game of "strategy" - in which players could take on the role of Adolf Eichmann, to more efficiently design methods by which to transport and then kill millions of Jews and others designated by the Third Reich for extermination - to compare their game to the game of chess ?
And, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" is not an abstract enterprise, no mere game of strategy. It has a context, it is culturally embedded.
The core population the game is being marketed to - readers of the "Left Behind" series - will understand New York City through the ideological lens of the series, as a center of secularism and hence a great locus of world evil.
Via LaHaye's books, they have been taught - and the game reinforces this claim - that many of the residents of New York City are secularists, and hence probably evil, but have no legitimate beliefs, and must be killed if necessary, for the common, greater good.
The Left Behind: Eternal Forces" game presents a fantastically accurate virtual New York, A stage in which players familiar and receptive to LaHaye's eliminationalist beliefs can act them out. The game serves as a stage on which players can easily practice certain elements of totalistic religious warfare, in an accurate mockup of a contemporary city.
The game will teach them valuable skills, the nuances of complex strategies with tradeoffs, the organization of forces, the staging of campaigns. They will learn those skills within the framework of playing at being generals waging war - as wars have been often waged in our time - against entire cities and all of their inhabitants. They will have been provided with a narrative justification that chases away moral qualms and renders the exercise as a righteous act of self defense.
So, these little generals will hone their skills and the will hone one skill that is not so specific nor so obvious - the power of imagination, of what it is to conduct total war in a virtual city almost identical to a real city where millions live, work, live, love, raise children, marry, suffer, pray, share compassion, and live out their daily lives. The little generals may come to regard those humans - for they certainly will be aware of the real city - as possible future logical problems to be solved - in terms of ratios of residents converted to residents killed, of collateral damage and tradeoffs made to advance campaigns, gain resources and recruits, and achieve objectives towards the advancement of master plans.
They may learn those skills, and - above all - they will learn that religious warfare, on a grand scale, to forcibly convert an entire city, is a project thinkable, for sure, and in principle at least, doable.
At the tactical level, players will be able to learn every twist and turn, nook and cranny, in the city, and there they will encounter residents to "convert", yes, but those will not be the real residents of the city.
The real residents will have vanished and the "New Yorkers" who players of the "Left Behind : Eternal Forces" video game will encounter, on the streets of the virtual New York Jeffrey Frichner and Troy Lyndon have created will be mere cardboard cutouts, human in shape only, who will serve to help persuade those with slim years or experience, and the less credulous among the game's players, that the task of converting their fellow humans to a new belief system is probably an easy task but that - in the event that it should not prove so easy, should the targets for such Christian compassion prove recalcitrant or quarrelsome, they can be easily and cleanly gunned down, because they do not bleed, and this will prove easy for they are not actually people at all, they have no real faces, voices, thoughts, opinions, or identities. Those who resist conversion can be gunned down cleanly and with minimal moral qualms - and the slight cost of doing so will be the nuisance entailed as players are forced to pause game play, perhaps to also sip some soda or reach for a snack, and press "prayer" buttons on their joysticks to cause their virtual fighters to momentarily "pray" and recharge their spirits. Then, they can proceed with business as usual :
convert, convert, kill ( press pray button ) , kill ( 2 X pray button - pray pray ) , convert, convert, convert, kill ( pray button again .........
And, so on.
( for more on the socialization of violence, see:
Virtual religious, ethnic, and cultural cleansing in "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)
Virtual religious, ethnic, and cultural cleansing in "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)