In a post-apocalyptic New York, two sides wage battles for dominance throughout the city as they try to learn why a large portion of the population suddenly disappeared. The latest "Command and Conquer" game? No, this is "Left Behind: Eternal Forces."
Based on the best-selling series of novels about a Christian "Last Days" scenario, the upcoming real-time strategy game includes military battles between the Tribulation Forces and the Global Community Peacekeepers as well as uncovering the meaning behind the mysterious disappearances worldwide of the faithful during the Rapture.
Christian-themed games aren't new, of course. But as the video game industry gathers this week for its annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, developers of Christian video games are aiming at wider audiences, hoping to copy the mainstream success of movies such as the "The Chronicles of Narnia" and books like the "Left Behind" series.
Christian game makers also see themselves as offering a much-needed alternative in an industry often criticized for games that feature graphic violent and sexual content.
"I think there’s a void of games that are good, in terms of morality," said Left Behind Games CEO Troy Lyndon.
In the most sensational case last year, sexually explicit content that could be unlocked by a downloadable hack was found in the blockbuster game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The incident was condemned and politicians, , who called for new penalties for retailers who sold such adult-oriented games to children. In the wake of the outcry, the video game industry's ratings board reclassified "San Andreas" from M for Mature to AO for Adults Only, but the action did little to quell critics.
Just last week, the Entertainment Software Rating Board dealt with a similar situation involving "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," changing the game's rating from a T for Teen to the M rating.
Christian game makers say they aren't trying to convert anyone — just offer better choices.
"American media culture is focused on violence, death and sex," said Rick Tewell, co-founder and CEO of Virtue Games. "The most popular shows on television, like 'CSI,' are all based on death and violent behavior," he said. "We feel the need to produce products that counter the major media companies' message."
Virtue Games produces "Isles of Derek," an adventure game about a community that is trying to break free of a tyrannical society that forces them to worship "false gods," and the upcoming "Mayabin," in which players are presented different world views and spiritual philosophies. "Our games aren't out there to evangelize, but to present a Christian world," Tewell said.
Bill Bean, co-founder of Digital Praise, expressed a similar sentiment. "Our titles aren’t Sunday-school-in-a-box, but they are consistent (with the teachings of the Bible)."
His company’s titles include games based on Focus on the Family’s "Adventures in Odyssey" radio series and the "Hermie and Friends" videos. Bean said his company’s target audience is mainstream America, and not necessarily just the religious market.
"We have people sending us e-mail that say, ‘This is a really great game. We don’t go to church, but we enjoy it anyway.’ We’re trying to make games with positive messages," Bean said.
Bean said his company is planning to produce more games for older audiences as well, such as a dancing game, "Dance Praise," that is similar to the popular "Dance Dance Revolution" series.
Patricia E. Vance, the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, said that many criticisms lobbed at the video game industry are based on the myth that all games are for children. "The average age of a gamer is 30," she stated.
Another myth, Vance said, is the belief that most games are filled with graphic violence and sexual material. The majority of the controversy is actually based on a very small number of games, she said.
Some of the Christian game makers agreed that not all mainstream video games were bad. "'Star Wars' is a good example of morality," said Left Behind's Lyndon. "George Lucas is setting a good example in his movies and his LucasArts (video game) titles."
"There are non-religious companies that are making an effort," said Virtue Games' Tewell. "Nintendo produces many family oriented titles, and the Pixar movies have good moral messages."
Buena Vista Games, a division of Disney, distributes video game titles based on the Disney and Pixar movies, as well as Disney Channel and ABC television shows. "The bulk of the games business is very much in line with what the public resonates with," said Buena Vista Games General Manager and Senior Vice President Graham Hopper.
Among Buena Vista’s titles is a game based on "The Chronicles of Narnia" movie. "It’s designed to encourage cooperative game play. We try to foster positive values," Graham said.
But Buena Vista company will also be releasing a more adult title based on the "Desperate Housewives" TV series. "It will be marketed to different age groups," Graham said. "We’re not about serving one market ... Gaming is no longer just for kids."
It's ultimately up to the parents to protect their children, several of those interviewed said. ""It's really [their] responsibility to pay attention to what a kid is consuming," said Bean of Digital Praise.
Parental awareness is on the rise, Vance said, citing research commissioned by the ratings board. Eighty-three percent of the parents of children who play video games are aware of the ratings system, she said, with 74 percent saying the ratings play a factor in their purchasing decisions.
Lyndon said that last year’s public outcry was overblown. "A child can get on the Internet and within five minutes, get porn that is far more graphic than any video game. This is a far worse problem (than video games). I think our lawmakers need to get their priorities straight."