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Terror Games

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People maiming and killing people for other people’s entertainment is not my idea of fun. I’ve never been high on the theatrics of war or blood sport, but the ultra-violent is everywhere now, on the nightly news, extreme sports, and our 3D big screens with action-toy tie-ins. One wonders how much cruelty we can stomach as we munch our popcorn and eat our twizzlers. Is this modern art meant to imitate life?

In A Clockwork Orange, we had the indiscriminate killing of Alex and his droogs, considered so brutal and susceptible to copycats that its director Stanley Kubrick had it banned in his native Britain. Imagine a producer today turning down box-office because of the possible social consequences. That would only spur them on to more.

But with films today we don’t just kill, we kill with new and improved video-game precision, as if commanding our own personal drone strike. Grunted Rambo knife thrusts, Arnie Uzi sprays, even Helen Mirren machinegun humour, fresh from her Best Actress accolades, are not enough now to shock a desensitized crowd.

I only just saw The Hunger Games at home on free TV, presumably timed to get everyone ready for the newly released third instalment. The gut-wrenching terror is worse, not so much for the gore which eventually comes, but because of the constantly implied violence from the outset. I had a knot in my stomach the whole time and had to tune out before the end. Tarantino bloodletting is emotional fluff by comparison.

If there’s an Academy Award for most original killing, I’m guessing the producers want it. Not that they need it, the sales are through the roof. More than $1.5 billion and counting. Is our culture losing? – Let me count the ways. I have to say I don’t understand why we watch. In this case, there is a better way to stop the madness. A strategy that works.

Harold Bloom noted about another unlikely warrior who struggles with a trusty sidekick to beat impossible odds: “The physical and mental torments suffered by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza had been central to Cervantes’s endless struggle to stay alive and free. … Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader. How can this bashed and mocked knight errant be, as he is, a universal paradigm?” He is if we live in a me-first, win-at-all-costs world.

Indeed, I saw myself in The Hunger Games. Not the brave Katniss who offers herself in “tribute” for her sister and then appears not to engage in the cruelty of killing others in their kill-or-be-killed “game.” Not her fellow combatant Peeta, who offers up the only rebellious thinking: “They don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me” line. He seems to be the only one who understands he will not live, but wants to go out on his own terms. Not the drunken mentor, who has seen the horror too many times. I could be that drunk, like so many others in the face of intolerable pain.

No, sadly I am the bourgeois audience, with all my fluff and frills, looking every bit as ghastly as a puffed-up King Louis or Marie Antoinette. I have it all and yet I do nothing. I’d like to think I’m not bourgeois, but the spectator is the only archetype I can truly identify with in this film. I applaud the choice of female protagonist – we don’t have near enough in our culture – but I can’t identify with her as a killer. I am best as spectator. I have held up a mirror and seen my own apathy.

There is one character missing though in this contrived and manipulating movie, essential to give us hope: the rebel. Katniss is not a rebel. We want to think she is, but she participates in the same killing as all the others. We are tricked into thinking she isn’t violent, when in her first kill she cuts down a branch to let a killer bee’s nest fall on her prey. A passive kill. Death at a distance. It isn’t a knife to the gut or a hatchet to the back – that we couldn’t approve – but the results are the same: a cruel killing and death.

It’s no good to say the killing is in self-defence. It’s not. Kill or be killed in a limited context is permissible to all but the most idealistic, but the “killers” here are prisoner children, some more mature than others with fully formed consciences. Odd that none of them object.

Indeed, the only authentic action is to object, to refuse to play. You will still die, but the game will end and there will be no more entertainment. More importantly, the annual cull will end (and hopefully the sequels!). Any victory means the death of 23 others. A refusal to play by all is the only way to real victory.

Sure, this is easy to say, not so easy to do. One can’t easily stop the machinery of Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain, or the Taliban’s brutal oppression of woman with a word. Though I would prefer the bravery of Sophie Scholl and Malala Yousafzai to the reluctant acquiescence of Katniss. These are the names that should roll off our tongues.

In his groundbreaking book The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod asked “Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egoists without central authority?” – if you will, a mathematical version of a state of nature, as in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. Golding’s book works through this problem to varying degrees of success, although in his day there were no high-tech video-game sales to spur on the carnage. Nor was the violence seen as entertainment.

Axelrod goes on to show how non-zero-sum games instead of kill-or-be-killed zero-sum competition is a better way when contrary individual actions appear as enticing strategies. One such non-zero-sum game, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, was proposed in 1950 at the RAND Corporation to advise the U.S. government on nuclear defense policy, not least how to rewire and maintain the command structure of a computer network after a nuclear strike. Out of their work on systems of interaction came a concrete example of how cooperation can benefit those whose interests are interdependent – in particular, two thieves who are caught and whose punishments are intricately tied to how they cooperate while separated in police custody. The best result is not to betray the other. You win by not gaming.

Insurance and unions are also good examples of a non-zero-sum sharing, which limits the excessive (or minimal) occurrence to a few of its members to ensure that all receive in good times and in bad. Insurance minimizes individual loss and gain by pooling risk and is a forward-thinking idea to promote or secure balance in uncertain times, e.g., hurricane damage, decreased rainfall that reduces crop yield, market turmoil. Unions or groups protect the individual from excessive abuse. There are many examples from health care to unemployment insurance. That is, if the intent isn’t to purposefully pit citizen against citizen. Life is not a competition where the team with the greatest GNP wins.

Culling the flock appears in many dystopian stories, but if we were to examine our own world with the same lens, wouldn’t we see our own dystopia in how badly our poor are treated and how violent we have become? In Time After Time, a variation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the Jack the Ripper character gleefully says while watching a panorama of killing as he clicks through the channels of 1980s-era television, “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now, I’m an amateur.” Sadly, the morlocks are everywhere now.

Most of us are amateurs. We watch. We sit on the sidelines and root for one person to kill another. Of course, it is difficult to expect 24 people condemned to death to cooperate, but why not? That’s how revolutions begin. By taking up a common cause. Perhaps “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is too arcane, but refusing to be terrorized is not.

I read (sorry, I couldn’t watch more) that at the end, Katniss and Peeta try to circumvent the entertainment purpose of the game by conspiring to kill themselves, though by that point the damage is done. Had they cooperated at the beginning with all the others, they could all be victorious and the next generation could reap the rewards of their heroic actions. Not unlike all those who have died for a cause, early rebels and heroes of our own society.

It’s hard not to hear about “building a better place for our grandchildren” in a presidential speech these days, as if we can continually postpone our responsibility, our rebellion. The better place is now. Say no to the junk. Use less. Reduce. Enact a more permanent Buy Nothing Day – an internal General Strike against life as a game. These are the weapons of the rebel – saying no to those who terrorize, whether by fear or economic control.

It’s time we all took up the common cause and stopped being spectators. We do have a choice.

JOHN K. WHITE, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

John K. White, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

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