Left Behind Games Inc. Sent me a Nastygram

Let me preface this blog by saying that I thought very carefully about whether to post this at all. I'm not clear of the legal ramifications of blogging about this, but ultimately I decided that whatever action does come of the following, it affects the gameology community (which, by reading this, you are a part of), so it make sense to bring it before you all to see what you think.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you've probably seen that we've posted some rather critical remarks on the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Of course, we are far from alone in our criticism and are, in my opinion, far less harsh than some other reviews I've read. We're also a pretty small fish in a very large pond. Still, we're apparently on Troy Lyndon's radar as critics of his game because they've hit us with PR-spam here and here. On Monday, they escalated their response by sending me a nastygram threatening me with legal action unless I remove "false and misleading" comments from this website. The full text of their letter appears below.

Quote:

Subject: Legal Matters Regarding Cameology [sic]
THE LAW OFFICES OF GORDON D. KATZ
[snipped address]

September 25, 2007

RE: False information posted on your site about the computer game LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces

To whom this may concern:

I represent Left Behind Games Inc., the developer and publisher of the LEFT BEHIND series of video games. Your organization hosts a website that has information posted about this game. Unfortunately, there are many statements on your website which appear to be false and misleading. This type of misinformation may cause significant and irreparable harm to Left Behind Games Inc. and must be removed.

Left Behind Games Inc. generally supports free speech in the media and understands how important it is to have various opinions presented for public consumption. It will not, however, tolerate the publication of information regarding its products that is false or misleading.

Left Behind Games Inc. is demanding that you immediately remove any and all information contained on your site about the above stated game that is false and/or misleading, including any such statements or commentary and the responses thereto. This includes posted comments made by others in the context of reading the incorrect or misleading statements.

If you do not comply immediately, the company will be forced to pursue additional legal action which will include claims for damages, costs of suit and attorney’s fees. This may subject you and your organization to significant legal and financial damages. If you need to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact my Administrator on this matter, Robilyn Lyndon at [snipped].

Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Very truly yours,
Gordon Katz

Gordon D. Katz, Esq.

Now, this is obviously a form letter, and since Mr. Katz doesn't refer to any specific comments or articles, this is probably just a fishing expedition. I've been keeping an eye out for other websites who may have received identical, and as I suspected, there now appear to be quite a few. There's already a diary up at Dailykos with a thorough overview and some responses, including a rather outraged one from Tim Simpson, an outspoken public critic of the game.

Incidentally, though, I earlier used a plural first-person because this does potentially affect any of us who posted here, really most of the comments that I imagine they object to have been posted by me. So if there's a question of whether or not a site operator (me) is responsible for content created by users (everyone else), I'm both user and operator here, so that distinction probably doesn't matter for this case.

This is an issue that, for me at least, is more complex than it may first appear. On the one hand, I do feel that I would be vindicated legally if this were taken to court, because I've looked over my comments and I'm sure that nothing I say passes the legal tests for defamation. However, that's not necessarily the point. The goal of this letter is apparently to intimidate me, a poor grad student, with the fear of a costly and time-consuming trial. That is, regardless of its outcome, a trial like this would be a serious enough emotional and monetary strain that they hope I realize that the risk is not worth the benefit and I'd be better off. They're not going to be able to get much money out of me, so their goal must be to just scare me into removing and/or recanting my comments. On free-speech grounds, then, I feel obligated to stand by my comments and not be intimidated by a frivolous threat intended to chill legitimate criticism.

However, there's also a moral issue. It would indeed be wrong of me to make misleading statements, and if I have unintentionally done so, I would correct the mistake. Ultimately, though I disagree with their game, and do still find its representations of women and minorities troubling, I harbor no ill will toward Troy Lyndon, at least not with regard to the game itself. Left Behind Games has a right to create games promoting their beliefs, and while I wish they had made a better game, I'm not going to try and harm them by making false statements, certainly not statements that I know to be false or made with the intent to deceive anyone. I think the phrase they may go after (and possibly have a case against) is the "convert or die" reference that fueled much of the original controversy about the game. They've explicitly called that idea false in their response, so they may be able to prove it by showing the content of their game. I don't recall stating that myself, and I couldn't find it in any of my blog entries. But, moreover, from what I played in the demo I can agree that, at least in those first levels, there really isn't much violence at all, and I as player was never in a position to kill non-believers. I was, however, gunned downed by the bad guys, which one could argue is still potentially offensive given the context. Anyway, the game does contain violence, but we're not talking GTA. My point here is just that if someone showed me an unintentionally false statement I had made about the game, and I agreed that it was false, I would apologize and remove it. Whether illegal or not, it would be immoral of me to deceive others with the intent of causing harm.

So this is where I turn to you. As I said earlier, I hesitated to post this at all (one reason being that I wasn't sure if publicizing the nastygram could expose me to more litigation if this ever did go to trial -- I don't think it does; it's definitely out there now), but I'd really like to hear your take on this, either legal or moral. If you've played the game or the demo, do you think that any statements or comments on gameology.org about Left Behind: Eternal Forces are misleading or false? Is there anything that could be construed as misleading or false? If so, should I delete it?

For reference, here are (I think) all of our blog entries or reviews discussing or mentioning the game:
Left Behind: Eternal Forces -- First Impressions, Finally
Local News Coverage of Left Behind: Eternal Forces
"Kill the Non-Believers": The Christian Edition
Tribulation Knights, Another Christian Game on the Radar
Religious Games
Left Behind Game Back in the News

Here are the other websites I know have received letters:
Radical Congruency
Raving Atheists
Earthside (actually removed their content)
PublicTheologian.com (Tim Simpson)

The letter as it is written

The letter as it is written is a bullying tactic. What you should do as your first response is not ask your blogosphere what they think is inappropriate, but respond to the letter and request that THEY point out what they believe to be false and why said statements are indeed false. "Take down all false statements" is too broad a request if you believe your statements are correct. Their lawyers should know better than that.

Yeah

I probably should have mentioned that this was indeed my first response -- calling their bluff, more or less. When I received the first email, I did write a polite request that they inform me which statements were false or misleading and which articles/comments contained those statements.

If I hear anything back, I'll post an update.

Chilling effects

You might want to consider adding a copy of the letter to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a database the Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains that documents these sorts of things: http://www.chillingeffects.org/

It's partly a useful raw data repository, and partly an attempt to turn the "chill" the other direction by publicly shaming companies that use such nefarious tactics, via a hosted-for-all-eternity black mark in the database.

Politely resist chilling effects

I think you're doing exactly the right thing - object to intimidating vagueness but politely ask for specifics. My guess is that this will go nowhere, but there is a small chance it could turn into a productive conversation, not about sending past criticism down the memory hole, but clarifying or updating misleading descriptions of core game mechanics.

Regardless of their response, I'd second that you should also forward this to Chilling Effects.

Support

Hi Zach,

At your convenience please check my site for a post related to this appalling situation. For what it's worth, I think you're handling it quite reasonably and professionally.

Best,
Michael Abbott
http://brainygamer.com

Thanks

Thanks all for the comments and encouragement. The more I've thought about this, the more I realize that this is just silly. There really isn't even a claim being made in the letter that I could reasonably respond to. That is, I have removed statements that were false and misleading, because as far as I know, there aren't any. So for now, I guess the ball's back in their court. Even if they just made public what specific statements or phrases they're complaining about, we'd have something to work with, but I haven't seen anything yet.

I did try to add this letter to the Chilling Effects database, but got a server error. I guess I'll try again, though I'd bet others have already added theirs by now. On that note, it appears that Kotaku got seven of these letters.

Also, I want to add that, at least rhetorically, I don't think it's the best tactic to criticize Mr. Katz personally, as some have been doing in the Game Politics and Destructoid comments. Whatever his personal involvement in deciding to send these letters out, he was hired by someone to do it. And unlike the DailyKos diarist, I don't think it matters where Mr. Katz lives or practices law; as long as he's licensed to do so, his threats have some weight behind them. That's why I excised his address from my quote. I also removed his client's phone number for the same reason, since someone pointed out that it appears to be her home phone.

My point is just that these people deserve to be criticized, but not harassed, and ad hominem's never encourage a productive dialog.

Ethics

I disagree with your characterization of Mr. Katz. This is obviously a frivolous threat to launch a frivolous lawsuit meant specifically to suppress the freedom of speech of a large number of people for the financial gain of a company. Lawyers have an ethical responsibility to not take on this sort of job. The fact that he is being paid to do it is no more an excuse than it would be for a hitman. He was under no obligation to send these letters, he could have just said no.

Re: Ethics

Ditto BlackCat. Lawyers can potentially be disbarred for filing frivolous lawsuits. Katz knows (or maybe just hopes) that you don't have the resources to pursue a case against him and his client otherwise he wouldn't risk his situation. In other words, the only reason he is threatening you is because he thinks he can get away with it. He wouldn't do this to the NY Times. He therefore is slimy and deserving of reproach. Have at 'em I say.

Student Legal Aid

It sounds like you've handled everything perfectly and they should stop at this point, or point to a specific article/section that they claim is false and then the issue can be handled from there.

However, it might be good to have legal support on this and as a grad student at UF, you do get free legal help through student legal services. They normally handle small stuff (helping students get their money back from crooked landlords), but they know general legal workings like what letters to send when and how to handle things (when to use certified mail, verbiage) and that can be really helpful. Plus, since the initial letter does seem to be an intimidation tactic (otherwise, why not mention specifics and get the real process moving if there was a real issue), then showing legal representation can make them back down (or it could make things escalate).

I don't know enough about the games or the game makers to have any specific advise, but the legal aid folks are really nice and really helpful. They helped me get an apartment deposit back when the landlord tried to steal it (pictures of a different apartment and all--freaky!). They're only there for students, though, so you'll have to do it before you graduate.

Boo hoo

Aw, poor babies. You post false - potentially libelous - information about the game and then get upset when the people behind it ask you to stop.

I'm rubber, you're glue

I suppose this hardly bears repeating, but I have not made false statements about the game. Moreover, I have invited anyone to point out any of my statements which are false, and I don't mean that sarcastically or in order to be combative. I'd rather have a productive conversation about these issues I've called attention to, and that can't happen if there isn't a common agreement about what the game content consists of. I feel strongly that legitimate criticism should be carried out in good faith, so it is important to me both rhetorically as well as morally that I be honest, and I'd like to hear about it if I've gotten something wrong.

However it is possible, after all, for two people to look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions without either party being untruthful.

Don't worry about it.

Who is this Jason fellow? Zach, please don't take him seriously. I consider myself a very reasonable and polite fellow, but compared to you, I'm Bill O'Reilly. Anyway, as everyone else has said, you have absolutely nothing to worry about legally or morally here. I think that you were contacted at all is a testimate to the impressive layout of the site and google placement on buzz word searches. It is a sign of the sites growth that you are getting threating form letters from lawyers representing lame, ideologically frightening games.

All too

All too easy:

http://www.gameology.org/blog/local_news_coverage_of_left_behind_eternal...

"the game has more problems than the representation of faith-based violence."

The game doesn't represent "faith-based violence."

"It perpetuates stereotypes by preventing female characters from taking on leadership roles"

Hardly. Look here:

http://eternalforces.com/characterProfiles.aspx?profileID=charProfilePra...

That is the strongest character in the game.

"homogenizing all converts to Christianity by depicting them as dorky Caucasians"

A minor quirk due to limited character design. There was no intention by the game's creators to portray all Christians as "dorky Caucasians."

"a game that uses depictions of violence to actively promote a violent world-view"

Which the game doesn't do.

"God of War may be incredibly violent, but it's context is purely fantasy."

So is Eternal Forces. At no point do the game's creators treat the story as anything other than fiction. As to the theology behind the fiction, they readily admit that it's not absolute and only a possible interpretation of the Bible. They encourage people to find their own answers regarding the issue.

"the selling point of the entire Left Behind series is that it's real."

No, it's not on both counts. If you think LB is real, you need to have your head examined.

"it's presented as something like historical fiction from the future"

I consulted one of those cavemen from those Geico ads about that statement and he said, "Uh... What?"

"the basic facts of rapture and violent conflict are presumed to be true."

No, they're actually not. Had you bothered to actually research the issue, you'd know that.

http://www.gameology.org/blog/kill_the_non_believers_the_christian_edition

"Kill the Non-Believers"

Nope. No killing non-believers to win the game. In fact, killing is clearly condemned in the game, the game manual, and the game's website. There is no reward for killing non-believers. The soldier characters in the game are there only for self-defense purposes if need be. They will not target noncombatants (i.e. neutral non-believers and non-soldier Antichrist forces) even if you try to make them do so.

That was in response to "I'm

That was in response to "I'm rubber, you're glue" comment above. Not sure why it appeared at the end of the page. Substandard commenting software, probably.

Re: That was in response to "I'm

Jason wrote:
That was in response to "I'm rubber, you're glue" comment above. Not sure why it appeared at the end of the page. Substandard commenting software, probably.

Perhaps, it's not exactly up to date; I'll be working on it soon.

There's no reason for you to insult it, though.

The idea is that it's supposed to put an indent out to the left that shows what level the reply is at. So it's semi-threaded, but not entirely. If you hit the "quote" link at the comment you're replying to, you'll get the whole text of the previous comment in your composition window, which you can then break up by moving the quote tags around, as I've done in my reply.

Re: All too

I suspect that this may not do much good or go very far toward changing your mind, but since you went to the trouble to actually read some things, I may as well address your comments.

Jason wrote:
All too easy:

http://www.gameology.org/blog/local_news_coverage_of_left_behind_eternal...

"the game has more problems than the representation of faith-based violence."

The game doesn't represent "faith-based violence."

Yes it does. When I played the demo my characters got slaughtered because they were Christians.

Quote:
"It perpetuates stereotypes by preventing female characters from taking on leadership roles"

Hardly. Look here:

http://eternalforces.com/characterProfiles.aspx?profileID=charProfilePra...

That is the strongest character in the game.

I don't recall that character being in the demo, and doesn't appear to be a leader. She's certainly a strong character, but she's not a Disciple, Evangelist or Worship Leader. Anyway, as I've repeatedly stated, my assessment is based on playing the demo.

Quote:
"homogenizing all converts to Christianity by depicting them as dorky Caucasians"

A minor quirk due to limited character design. There was no intention by the game's creators to portray all Christians as "dorky Caucasians."

Well, whatever they may have thought they were doing, what they did was create generic character designs that are caucasian and dorky-looking.

Quote:
"a game that uses depictions of violence to actively promote a violent world-view"

Which the game doesn't do.

Yes it does; see my first reply above. Even if we ignore the fact that tribulation forces can kill NPCs (whether that's encouraged or not is a separate and rather nuanced issue), the other violence in the game assumes at a very basic level that Christians will be killed for their faith, which to me sounds like a world view containing violence.

Quote:
"God of War may be incredibly violent, but it's context is purely fantasy."

So is Eternal Forces. At no point do the game's creators treat the story as anything other than fiction. As to the theology behind the fiction, they readily admit that it's not absolute and only a possible interpretation of the Bible. They encourage people to find their own answers regarding the issue.

This is actually an interesting point, and one worth exploring. The question is whether a work of fiction can make claims that are capable of conveying truth. When we're talking about a cultural context, though, it's pretty obvious that the audience for this game is going to be sympathetic to the idea that rapture is going to happen any day now (that is, even if they don't necessarily believe it, they don't think that such a belief is unreasonable), and the interstitial bible verses and ads for Christian products makes the game's appeals to that culture pretty clear. Presenting the game as a work of fiction in that context reinforces the truth claims of that context, whether it's intentional, explit or neither. I chose God of War as a counter example because the setting -- mythically ancient Greece -- is itself purely fictional. LB:EF, on the other hand, is set in the real (future) world with a layer of fiction. Critics of Grand Theft Auto (a work of fiction) argue that its representation of certain ethnic groups is offensive because it provides a realistic context in which those representations are taken for granted. These critics say that that makes it easier for those offensive representations of ethnicity to affect player's perceptions of ethnicity. Of course, that transferral relies on the extent to which GTA's setting is actually realistic -- i.e. not very. Still that's kind of like what I'm arguing about LB:EF -- it gives the player the ability to make constrained choices within a rule system based on facts which only make sense when interpreted in a theological context.

Quote:
"the selling point of the entire Left Behind series is that it's real."

No, it's not on both counts. If you think LB is real, you need to have your head examined.

See above. Left Behind is a work of fiction based on real eschatological interpretations of Revelation. Of course people don't read Left Behind and expect things to unfold exactly as described, but I suspect that a lot of its success depends on people agreeing with its basic "what if."

Quote:
"it's presented as something like historical fiction from the future"

I consulted one of those cavemen from those Geico ads about that statement and he said, "Uh... What?"

Perhaps that's not my best simile, but if you didn't understand it, why'd you quote it?

Quote:
"the basic facts of rapture and violent conflict are presumed to be true."

No, they're actually not. Had you bothered to actually research the issue, you'd know that.

The game starts with the rapture and contains violence. Some people, including those the game is marketed to, think that really will happen. I don't know what could be more clear.

Quote:
http://www.gameology.org/blog/kill_the_non_believers_the_christian_edition

"Kill the Non-Believers"

Nope. No killing non-believers to win the game. In fact, killing is clearly condemned in the game, the game manual, and the game's website. There is no reward for killing non-believers. The soldier characters in the game are there only for self-defense purposes if need be. They will not target noncombatants (i.e. neutral non-believers and non-soldier Antichrist forces) even if you try to make them do so.

This refers to a posting made before the game had been released, and the quoted phrase is pointing back to a talk2action article. I think the comments discussion on that thread make it pretty clear that we didn't actually have any direct information about the game at the time. I think it's fair to quote and discuss someone else's claims or conclusions, based on information presently available don't you?

Anyway, what you've offered above are your conclusions, which you're entitled to, and I respect your right to make your conclusions known. Though you've come to different conclusions than I have, I don't think any of my comments are provably false. I mean, if someone said that LB:EF was a soccer game starring Felix the Cat, that would be pretty easy to prove false, but proving different conclusions about theological implications wrong is going to get pretty murky in a court of law. My point is just that, although I've arrived at conclusions which may be unpleaseant to you or LBG, I haven't had to misrepresent the content in order to make those claims.

Re: All too

Jason wrote:

"It perpetuates stereotypes by preventing female characters from taking on leadership roles"

Hardly. Look here:

http://eternalforces.com/characterProfiles.aspx?profileID=charProfilePra...

That is the strongest character in the game.

Not to quibble, but I wouldn't preclude the category of "Prayer Warrior" from perpetuating female stereotypes.

"Prayer Warriors are women tapping into their exceptional, unconditional care for people and transform themselves into outstanding fighters who will never fire a shot."

Anyone with a basic familiarity of female stereotypes will immediately recognize the problematic association of women with "unconditional care" for people, which is a standard assumption that has been used to lock women into domestic, caregiving roles for centuries. From the perspective of someone who pays very close attention to the construction of women in heroic roles vis-a-vis games, the fact that the strongest female in the game "will never fire a shot" while various male characters might (and likely will) is very telling.

In a setting that condones violence, which many games do, I would say this is a direct function of the anxiety over women usurping the power of the weapon. But let's just assume that this game specifically condemns violence as a way of winning. The game's mechanics then forcibly prevent women from tarnishing their souls with violence - even while males are specifically given this choice to sin. While anxieties about female power are not explicit in this sort of context (although they do remain), anxieties over female purity are. Is she too precious to perform such an act? Is she naturally uninclined to harm others? Stereotypes.

Not to mention, having been raised in a Christian environment in which Prayer Warriors were a regular feature, I feel obligated to point out that the term is not without gendered associations. Strictly speaking, gender does not exclude you from becoming a prayer warrior, but it was always understood, at least in my community, that it was something that women (housewives in particular) seriously pursued. At the very least, there are contexts in which this is still a gender stereotype.

But since you've provided some additional information about the series, I'd like to point out a few other gender-related things drawn from the website's descriptions of its characters. I will preface this by saying that these thoughts are based solely on the aesthetic representations and character descriptions provided on the website.

Healer Class:
One of the things that immediately stood out is the decision to top the Healer class with a male doctor, despite the fact that Healers (lvl 1) and Nurses (lvl 2) are explicitly described as both male and female. Perhaps this is an unintentional omission by the website - can women be doctors, too? Aside from Zach's observation that women seem to be limited to the healing class (though we see that they can also function as Prayer Warriors), the fact that they are excluded from the highest level of that category seems like a glaring inequality.

Civilian Man and Woman:
In the Neutral forces, as Zach also observed in his review, the population is divided into male and female, with each gender theoretically providing different advantages in terms of recruitment usefulness. I would like to draw attention to the website's character profiles of these neutral units, in which the man left behind is in crisis over his "sense of providing for and protecting [his family]." The profile for the Civilian Woman also dwells on her traditional role as mother: "Some were busy working—taking their kids to day care or school. Others were caring for younger children and their homes." While this is admittedly a minor point, there are other grounds for accusing the game of neglecting female careers.

Peacekeepers:
If we'll take a look at the bad guys for just a moment, it's easy to see where I'm coming from. All five of the named characters in the Peacekeepers team are described with reference to their careers. There's the unscrupulous but powerful Enigma Leader. Or Jim Hickman, a brilliant military man. Steve Plank, the journalist. Dr. Samuel Kline, who "was well-known and respected among his peers." Then there is Hattie Durham:

Quote:

Hattie Durham had it all. Good looks. A sultry voice. A great job that took her to exotic places. And a bevy of friends who had some of the same interests as she had.

Sounds like she was a serious(ly chatty) career woman. Way to dominate the office with your sultry voice, Hattie.

Chloe Williams
Chloe Williams, on the Tribulation side, meanwhile, is 20, married, and seems mainly to regret (if her profile is any indication) that her stay-at-home-mother never let her be a latchkey kid.

These two women are characterized in completely different terms from the men on the same pages. Why is that? Pay close attention to the specific issues that are emphasized: protection vs. care, career vs. appearance, professionalism vs. domesticity. How does this indicate, in any way, that this game is doing anything but reinforcing stereotypical female roles?

I would just like to conclude with the observation that this game does adhere to a very particular family values program - which makes sense given its overarching purpose and ideological background. However, one of the main complaints about this very patriarchal system is that it limits the access women have to "more important" roles in society. And I don't want to neglect the fact that it also forces men into certain roles (such as protector and provider). The fact that it limits anyone, period, from becoming something that they may in fact be qualified to do is reason enough to question its wisdom.

But as we can see from these very rudimentary observations that I have put together, the result has more of an impact on women, who are severely limited to two character classes, than it has on men, who can be everything, it seems, except a Prayer Warrior.

As perhaps a final image, I'd like to point your attention to the Widow, who appears to have no function in the game other than to wander aimlessly around the city. Without playing the game, I can't say for sure what her function is, but it appears that, bereft of her husband, she cannot be trained to do anything useful for either cause. In absence of any Widowers in the game, I think she might make the most powerful statement of all.

reading the letter, this

reading the letter, this part:

"This includes posted comments made by others in the context of reading the incorrect or misleading statements."

suggests this "lawyer" is most likely part of one of those groups that gets paid to harass internet blogs that contain information that their "clients" simply don't like.

Wesley Elseberry over on the Pandas Thumb (and Austringer), has had some experience with these groups.

the legal threats of these people are entirely overblown. Not to say they aren't really lawyers, but there really is no substance to their claims. It's just a club they sell to the highest bidder. Nothing but legalistic mercenaries.

Barratry much, Mr. Katz?

Take a look at The Public Citizen .pdf here - http://www.citizen.org/documents/directbuyresponse.pdf - it's their response to much the same sort of threat, but reference a different product. If things get more intense, you might want to contact the folks at the Electronic Freedom Foundation - www.eff.org They are very happy to fight the right of free speech for bloggers.

Arrrrggghh! Correction

How about we make that: "...they are more than happy to fight for the rights of free speech...."

Must work on reading comprehension when proofing....