Hungering for Blood in The Hunger Games

Hungering for Blood in The Hunger Games

by Justin Schier, Chief Creative Officer, Dopamine Inc.

Now that just about everybody has seen or read The Hunger Games, it’s time to take a look at just what makes the successful movie and book series tick, in light of what we know about gamification.

It’s a futuristic heroine’s lonely struggle to master both a brutal gladiator competition, and ultimately the root of the evil – the government that enforces its gameplay every year. The three novels build to an ultimately difficult climax and a not-entirely-happy ending.

Can a gladiator competition to the death even be called a game? It’s a bit of a far cry from a chess match or earning a Juan Valdez badge for checking in to 5 different coffee shops. And yet some of the oldest known sports had much in common with warrior skills – martial arts, wrestling, one-on-one fighting, spear throwing, jousting.

And some even guaranteed a fatal or near-fatal outcome for the losers — the Mayan ball game, ancient Greek pankration, Egyptian fisherman’s joust, and of course the Roman gladiator competitions. Far from being only tolerated by society, gladiators were celebrated in art high and low for their value as entertainers. But those entertainers were adults, right? Maybe. The ages of the ancient participants isn’t clear, but it’s hard to believe any child labor laws existed to save younger players from the lion’s mouth.

The Hunger Games competition certainly does implement some tried and true game mechanics and dynamics, although the players aren’t having the least bit of fun. Their motivation is simply to stay alive longer than the rest of the players. Before the Games begin, there’s an onboarding process, which involves training and a progression to mastery in survival and weapon skills.

In addition to setting up the “board” (the arena), the Gamemakers use a series of real-time challenges to keep the players interacting with each other, such as starting a forest fire or introducing ferocious animals to terrorize the players as the game is drawing to an end. Player feedback comes in the form of a canon firing each time a player is killed, and as a video playing in the sky overhead each night detailing the players who fell that day. And of course the reward system is simple: the winner lives, and their district is rewarded with an abundance of food for a year.

As for Bartle’s player types, well, the Killer is the only one that comes to mind.

For many who saw The Hunger Games movie without reading the books, the setup may have seemed absurd. The movie doesn’t spend much time explaining how the Games came about. Suffice it to say, the books do explain the Games as a punishment for rebellion in much more detail. Writers love to cater to the basic instincts of the reptile brain when concocting savage games for post-apocalyptic stories. It feeds into a fear that our children are losing their “religion”, and in turn their moral compass.

It’s hard for most of us to believe the ancients ever engaged in such savagery for sport. Since we think we’ve come so far as a species, it’s also hard to believe it could ever be possible again. But it stands to reason that if people were capable of it once, they’d be capable of it again. Especially as a way of maintaining political power. Just look at the adversaries of the Arab Spring – dictators who would stop at nothing, allowing their soldiers to die in order to hang onto power. It’s a pattern that has repeated throughout history.

So why the focus on the 12-17 age group, both in the main characters and the intended audience for the books? Suzanne Collins, the author has said the premise came to her while watching footage of the Iraq war, and contemplating how most people truly are desensitized spectators. As an Army Brat, she was all too familiar with the horrors of war, and had a desire to educate young people about it, saying in the New York Times:

“If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have?” she said. “We think we’re sheltering them, but what we’re doing is putting them at a disadvantage.”

One of the most popular criticisms of gamification and engagement science is that they can be manipulative. But the truth is that throughout history, leaders have engaged in abuses of power, and have employed the techniques found in games to rattle their sabres at best, and oppress, control, and intimidate at worst. Caesars exercised their power and demonstrated their absolute power by not only having their political enemies put to death, but doing it as a socially acceptable form of entertainment.

Modern society on the other hand doesn’t generally accept games where the participants are actually fighting for their lives. About the closest we come to that on TV is having drag queen opponents lip-sync for their lives (which only means moving on to the next episode). But perhaps modern society just represents a lull between more brutal time periods, and modernity will give way once again to socially acceptable lethal games as entertainment.

Somewhere deep in the human psyche is the inalienable hunger for blood and war. Satisfying this Hunger is what ultimately brings the masses of spectators to the Games both in, and to, the movie.

— Photo credit: Renee Jones Schneider/The Minneapolis Star Tribune/AP



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  1. This is spot on. I’ve been reading Johan Huizinga’s classic Homo Ludens, and he regards “agon”, or conflict, as the most basic form of play, including conflicts which end in death. In our age, war has been divested of it’s play element with the advent of “total war” (the military concept, not the Activision games!) but, thankfully, outside war we are much less violent, and thusreluctant to classify things like gladiatorial fights as games.