Thursday, June 01, 2006

Elimination Gaming

My last serious gaming addiction was Doom, which pretty much dates me as far as these things go. At some point, I had to choose between being a gamer or being a writer, and I obviously picked the latter.

My experience with video games has always made me skeptical of the charges that these games lead to mass murders and mental health issues, which often seem like the latest version of the comic-book and rock-and-roll they're-polluting-our-youth hysterias.

Still, there was something about the role-playing and first-person games that deeply hooked me. Maybe it was finally getting to play out my youthful comic-book fantasies in real time, to see how I responded under pressure. Maybe it was dwelling in a fantasy world. Whatever it was, once I got into the games, they invaded my thoughts away from them, even in dreams.

Nonetheless, the end feeling, even when I won, was kind of hollow -- more emotionally draining than fulfilling. And when I sat back, I realized that I wasn't getting much out of it, other than the satisfaction of figuring out an extremely ornate puzzle. So I moved on. But that was just me, and understand well why people are drawn to them.

Now, when I read about video games like the one that lets you shoot border crossers that was created by white supremacists, I tend not to worry much: it's simply a cartoonish Flash-based game with little depth or resonance. It's a novelty that won't be getting anyone hooked.

Much more troubling, in my view, are games like the one described recently by Jonathon Hutson at Talk2Action (via Crooks and Liars):
Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission -- both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state -- especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is "to conduct physical and spiritual warfare"; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice. You have never felt so powerful, so driven by a purpose: you are 13 years old. You are playing a real-time strategy video game whose creators are linked to the empire of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life.

... This game immerses children in present-day New York City -- 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).

Paul the Spud at Shakespeare's Sister notes just how bizarre the worldview of the game really is:
This is really incredible... a "Christian" video game, the purpose of which is to kill as many people as possible. And not only non-believers... no no no. Other Christians (not true Christians like you, the player, of course) are also fair game! It's all done in the name of Jesus.

As Hutson's piece goes on to explain, Warren -- described by Time Magazine as one of the most influential evangelicals in America -- is the front man for a large Dominionist organization whose purpose is nothing short of fundamentalist theocracy in America:
Could such a violent, dominionist Christian video game really break through to the popular culture? Well, it is based on a series of books that have already set sales records -- the blockbuster Left Behind series of 14 novels by writer Jerry B. Jenkins and his visionary collaborator, retired Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye. "We hope teenagers like the game," Mr. LaHaye told the Los Angeles Times. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

The Dominionist -- or, if you like, Christian nationalist -- faction at work here is deliberately targeting young people, as in the recent Battle Cry rallies attracting young audiences in the thousands to their particularly martial brand of Christianity.

And gaming offers a particularly vulnerable recruitment window, because of the immersive qualities of richer, well-designed games like this. The strangely Manichean worldview -- you are either with the theocrats or against them -- combined with the overt eliminationism of the actual play involved seems to suggest the authors are intent on inculcating a deeply totalist mindset.

My friend Mrs. Robinson, a Silicon Valley refugee who comments frequently here, sent me a note along with the link to this piece:
I spent eleven years in the games business. I left in large part because I realized that most of what was being turned out by the mid-'90s were games designed to desensitize kids to killing, either covertly or very overtly. I felt like I was helping the right-wing train its next generation of soldiers. It wasn't a good feeling. I needed to do something else.

When something like Abu Ghraib or Haditha happens, I feel the weight of that all over again. This game...well, I guess it speaks for itself.

Here it is: your at-home training camp for the next generation of eliminationists.

It will be revealing, I think, to see how many good "Christians" snap up copies of this game -- and how many actually endorse it or defend it.

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