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Christian game pits angels against demons on the desktop

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1999


The last time Robert Westmoreland promoted a new computer-game concept, the industry first laughed, but then chased him after his idea proved a huge winner. He hopes that history repeats itself -- the Lord and the marketplace willing.

The fresh gaming idea he is pushing now? Christian action games. And his company's first entry, the War in Heaven, is heading to stores. Whether this Doom-meets-the-Bible game will be a success is anybody's guess. Yet the 32-year-old Westmoreland has a track record as someone with an instinct for popular tastes in a game market that is broadening beyond its technophile roots -- a byproduct of the spread of personal computers into more and more American households thanks to fast-falling PC prices.

"It may sicken traditional gamers, but my gut feel is that this game will be a hit," said Ann Stephens, president of PC Data Inc., a research firm that tracks the $1.5-billion-a-year PC game market. "Besides, it sounds a lot more interesting than the last idea he championed."

Westmoreland's last unconventional stance came a few years ago when, as the computer software buyer for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., he prodded the industry to make budget-priced hunting games. At first, his suggestion met bemused derision. But one adventurous computer-game publisher listened, and the result was Deer Hunter, a surprise bestseller, prompting a flurry of hunting games and even a spoof title, Deer Avenger, in which the buck stalks the hunter.

So next comes the Christian action game. War in Heaven is published by Valusoft, which Westmoreland, after leaving Wal-Mart, joined in September as part-owner and executive vice president of marketing and development.

Software with a Christian theme has tended to be staid and didactic, mainly Bibles and children's games that quiz players on their Bible knowledge. What qualified as a big-budget, entertainment product in the Christian niche was Charlton Heston's Voyage Through the Bible, a CD-ROM released in 1995, with readings by Heston and video clips of the Holy Land.

By the standards of the genre, the War in Heaven is a striking departure. In the action game intended for Christian males 15 and older, a player is confronted by snarling monsters with horns and wings, wielding swords and other lethal weapons. That is the challenge if the player chooses "the Divine Path of Obedience," becomes a good angel and climbs the game's 12-step ascent to heaven. Yet a player also can choose "the Fallen Path of Power and follow Lucifer," become a demon and fight against shapely blondes with feathery wings.

"When you mention that it's a Christian game, people assume there's no violence," Westmoreland said. "Sure, there's violence."

Still, he says, there is no gushing blood and gore, so frequent in games rated for adults only. The War in Heaven is rated "T" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which means it is recommended as suitable for people 13 and older.

Before the game reached store shelves, its playful approach to religious instruction raised eyebrows in the Christian community and elicited qualms from some retail chains. But the two young men who created the War In Heaven -- Theodore Beale and Andrew Lunstad, co-founders of the software design firm Eternal Warriors -- say they have tried to create a Christian game that might appeal to a broad audience among computer gamers reared on Doom and Diablo.

The violence, they say, is a role-playing depiction of "spiritual warfare," a concept that has made some inroads into mainstream theology. Spiritual warfare, theologians say, is the notion that non-physical agents of good and evil are constantly at war and that their behavior affects people on Earth.

Valusoft (http://www.valusoft.com) does publish some irreverent games, such as Lawyer Hunt, but the company insists War in Heaven is not among them. And both of the game's creators are devout Christians who say there should be no contradiction in having fun on a computer game and learning spiritual truths.

"Honestly, this is a spooky thing to be attempting in some ways," said Lunstad, 30, who was the chief programmer for the game. "And let's face it, when you have angels fighting demons, it is going to be controversial.

"But," he said, "I truly feel that God called me to do this."

To explain the instructional side of the game, Lunstad said that if a person chooses to play as a demon, he progresses by disobeying the Bible. "But as you progress down the evil path, you have to do things that are more and more distasteful, from blasphemy to striking a praying angel," he said.

Without giving away the game, Lunstad says that the evil path leads to self-destruction. "And Theo and I really believe that to be true," he said.

Gregory Boyd, a theology professor at Bethel College, finds the new computer game impressive. A scholar with graduate degrees from the Yale Divinity School and the Princeton Theological Seminary, Boyd is the author of God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, which made the case for spiritual warfare being a serious theological concept.

Boyd also has a 14-year-old son, Nathan, who has played a test version of War in Heaven. "He loved it," Boyd said. "He compared it to Doom, except with a spiritual twist."

The early reaction from Christian groups seems to be guarded, though not antagonistic. "Our concern would be if this game mocked people of faith in any way," said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition. "It doesn't sound as if it does, though it does seem to take a pretty unique approach to religious education."

Some of the big retail chains are taking a wait-and-see stance toward the game, aware that customers can be unpredictably sensitive about products with religious themes. Wim Stocks, a senior vice president at GT Interactive, the distributor of War in Heaven, said many major chains had agreed to distribute the game, but several were sitting on the fence. "Some of the chains are nervous," said Stocks, who declined to name the retailers carrying the game or those balking.

Priced at $19.95, less than half the price of traditional adult PC games, War in Heaven meets the industry definition of a budget game -- a fast-growing slice of the market, built largely on sales at big discount chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart.

Pocketbooks, a division of Viacom's Simon & Schuster book publishing subsidiary, is betting on War in Heaven. It is publishing a mass-market paperback novel by the same title, written by Beale, next spring. "It's a good fantasy story, though definitely one with a different take than most science fiction," said Scott Shannon, director of science fiction for Pocketbooks. "And I thought it would be highly marketable."

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