Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gaming the Hunger Games



I confess to knowing next to nothing about The Hunger Games.  So when the movie was announced last year, and a subsequent wave of excitement swept across the internet, I was intrigued to say the least.  As I dug into it a little more and learned that the novel involved a futuristic death sport, I found myself becoming excited as well.  It's not because I am a sadist but because I am a gamer - that is what most games are about these days (but more on that later)!  So, I was also enthused...well, until the movie premiered and I started seeing things like this:

Photo from:  http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/03/05/hunger-games-fan-event/

Screaming teenage girls and soccer moms are not exactly the first things I think of when the term "death sport" enters my mind.  I started to have serious misgivings....


Well, the movie finally came out on DVD and I gave it watch.  Truth be told, it was better than I thought - my Netflix score is 3/5 stars - but still not the movie I had hoped it would be.

I will say that I really appreciated the fact that the movie was very dark, something that is entirely suitable for the subject matter.  One of the things I hate about other death sport movies, be it the original Death Race 2000, or former CA governor Arnold "keep the hired help away from me" Schwarzenegger's The Running Man, is the farcical nature of the tales.  On one hand, such gladiatorial movies want to disturb (and titillate?) us by the prospect of spilt blood as sport, but on the other they proceed to make the whole thing resemble a silly skit on SNL with such over-the-top and devil-may-care characterizations as Buzzsaw.  Well, you can't have it both ways.  Fortunately, The Hunger Games is very clear-sighted in its approach:  the movie is heartrendingly realistic in its emotional tact.  The children and teenagers who must fight to the death to satiate the cruel blood lust of their Capitol overlords are anything but lighthearted; all face their impending doom with suitable gravity, as do those around them.  In fact, the movie provides absolutely no respite from the grimness of the tale, something I greatly appreciated as it served to add a powerful emotional punch.

Speaking of the Capitol, The Hunger Games might well be yet another conservative movie to sneak out of Hollywood in recent years (the Gen X effect?)  You see, the Hunger Games - the sport, itself - are gladiatorial contests organized as a form of punishment for "twelve districts" that revolted against the centralized government some 75 years or so before the events of the movie.  Why they revolted is, unfortunately, never made clear (Obamacare?), but the way the movie creates a dialectic between the hardworking and rustic districts versus the foppish Capitol is striking.  While The Hunger Games - back to the movie - shies away from serious social commentary (unlike Walter F. Moudy's classic sci-fi story The Survivor), the superficial picture it paints of Big Government tyranny and blood lust is not a pleasant one.  So high marks for this, too.

Unfortunately, though, those are the only aspects I found interesting.  The rest comes across as rather haphazard.  For example, the games themselves raise all sorts of issues such as:  how is it sporting to pair 12 to 18 year old boys and girls in the same competition?  I might be able to swallow this if the kids were allowed to use firearms - the great equalizer, or, as the saying goes: "God made man, but Samuel Colt made them equal"- but seeing how the combatants are limited to swords, spears, bows and other primitive physical weapons, the end result is often never in doubt. 

Then there is the whole issue of how the game masters, who run the Hunger Games from day to day, feel free to announce rule changes and / or introduce new challenges, such as a slavering pack of lethal hounds, on a whim.  I find it difficult to believe that such capricious alterations to "the deal" (as Darth Vader might say) wouldn't be a ratings killer as it makes the games quite clearly fixed.  I even found myself saying "that's ludicrously unfair!" as I watched the movie.  Perhaps this was just another way to expose the corruption of the government, but if so, the movie needed to be clearer about it.  

Then there is the whole idea about the 12 districts participating in such obscene games for 75 years!  Really?  Sending your young off to be slaughtered for the amusement of an Orwellian government is not something I would expect any parent to tolerate for long, certainly not for almost a century (but then again, parents have agreed to continue to send their kids to the government-run meat grinder that is the failing public school system.  Could the public schools be the real Hunger Games?).  Yeah, I get it that the forces of the government are super-advanced when compared to the primitive districts, but in the words of Lord Byron:

They never fail who die
In a great cause: the block may soak their gore:
Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs
Be strung to city gates and castle walls—
But still their Spirit walks abroad. Though years
Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,
They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts
Which overpower all others, and conduct
The world at last to Freedom.

Considering the bleak reality of The Hunger Games, I expect that most parents would be training their kids to be proficient in the militant arts from an early age.  While the movie does mention that certain districts have set up brutal training camps to make their kids the best at the Hunger Games (reminiscent of the Spartan agoge), I doubt that those districts wouldn't make the obvious logical leap from training their kids for a gladiatorial contest, to going the extra mile and preparing them for another rebellion.  As the Romans learnt so many millennia ago, a person trained for death sport can easily become your worst nightmare if their leash is allowed to slip.  To be fair, later movies in this series might be heading in this direction after all.  Speaking of which....

...The ending of the film, while somewhat predictable, also sort of landed with a thud.  I understand that this is only the first flick in a trilogy, but I was shocked by how the movie didn't even attempt to tease the next installment in the least.  As someone who has never read the books, I have absolutely no clue about where the next film will take us.  Why should I be excited?  What should I anticipate?  With the exception of the disquieted grimace of Donald Sutherland's President Snow, clearly signalling some sort of showdown with Jennifer Lawrence's expertly played Katniss Everdeen, I am totally in the dark.

All things considered, The Hunger Games was a solid film, but one I don't need to see more than once. To be honest, while most of the above flaws are mere quibbles, the biggest turn-off for me was the teen angst that permeates the entire film.  Like tales such as Harry Potter and Twilight,  I could not get past the use of violence and competition as a transparent metaphor for the travails of being a teenager.  Let me be clear: this is not actually a flaw in the film as, clearly, this is meant to be the beating heart of the movie, and the reason why it has struck such a chord with young adults everywhere. So, in this regard The Hunger Games is, again, quite a success.  But seeing that I am no longer a teenager (at least according to my driver's license), it misses the mark with me (I find Walter F. Moudy's The Survivor to be superior - but more on that when I post Science Fiction & Gaming 2: Moudy Meets Call of Duty).  Still, as a death sport movie, it was light years better than the execrable Gamer, a movie that I believed was conceived and executed as a giant middle finger to video gamers everywhere.

As I mentioned above, this idea of death sport has always fascinated me, largely because of my passion for video games.  Let's be honest: most video games are death sport, in one form or another.  Sure, our character might be a soldier fighting (yet another) Russian invasion, or a brave sword-wielding warrior, or even Super Meat Boy himself, but the stakes are always the same: victory or death!  Like The Hunger Games, perhaps this is why teenagers can be some of the most passionate gamers around?

Regardless, it does make you wonder why now that a large portion of the industrial world lives in relative safety and comfort, that a sizable portion of us insist on placing ourselves in imaginary, if increasingly visceral, danger?  Why do games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 prove so popular at a time when forced conscription is at an all time low in the west?  Why do deadly titles like Dark Souls, a game the proudly sports the URL preparetodie.com, attract so many fans?  What is it about death and violence that makes it such a natural fit for video games?  Is there some need in the human psyche that requires danger?  Or is the inability to actually try our hands at using the many, many clever implements of destruction currently available in the world acting as an itch we just can't scratch?

I will say that I find it very interesting that when it comes to combat, most gamers seem to prefer live multiplayer - that is, going head to head with other players around the world in a virtual Colosseum of their own making.  Now, some will tell you that this is because modern single player gaming AI is atrocious - and it is.  But seeing how a whole new genre of sporting contest is evolving right in front of us - e-sports - I think there is more to it than that.  It is a coincidence that most (all?) e-sports involve combat, be it the personal gun-fighting found in Call of Duty, or the general on high approach of Starcraft II?

Gaming as death sport is definitely the preferred approach, something that is starting to become increasingly obvious when titles such as Sony's Bullet Run bravely discard the pretense of mock warfare and openly embrace the gladiatorial aspect for all it is worth.  The (sad?) truth is: people still get a thrill out watching others fight and die for televised glory.  Like The Hunger Games, people are finding themselves in their own personal struggle for survival, sometimes on a nightly basis.  However, unlike the poor kids in The Hunger Games, these people actually enjoy it...and I am one of them.

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