The concept of a death game is simple: a group of people compete for their lives, and there is (generally) only one survivor — everyone else dies. This grim concept has given rise to a seemingly viral genre of popular media: movies, TV shows and video games all grapple with this topic, with varying degrees of drama, gore and psychological horror.
For example, The Hunger Games — originally a book which later received a movie adaptation — was a highly popular trilogy in the young adult dystopian genre. In video games, the death game often manifests itself in the battle royale genre, with games like Fortnite and Apex Legends being among the most popular at the moment. However, there are also story-based video games, like the popular but comparatively niche Danganronpa, which has spawned countless fan creations of original high school killing games — some of which are genuinely worthy of production. Death games have also reached the world of television: reality TV shows like Survivor pit contestants against each other in competitive — though non-lethal — contests, and the ever-popular, much bloodier Squid Game has been making waves internationally, with fan discourse dominating social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok.
Given the popularity of all of these movies, games and shows, people really seem to enjoy the idea of watching other people die. So, why exactly do we find these death games so entertaining? Why do we recognize their disturbing implications, yet find ourselves unable to tear our eyes away from the violence on the screen?
Looking back at history can give us an answer. Humans have always had an odd obsession with watching others fight for their amusement — Roman gladiators are a perfect example of this. Two armed combatants would fight to the death for the entertainment of thousands of eager spectators. This practice phased out with the passage of time, but people still craved violent displays, so they turned to blood sports involving animals like bullfighting and dogfighting. Nowadays, bullfighting is considered ethically questionable, dogfighting is illegal in most major countries and we certainly aren’t looking to revive gladiator fights anytime soon. Yet, instead, we have contact sports like wrestling, boxing, fencing and martial arts that provide the same entertainment value without all the bloodshed. Since people enjoy watching physical — and sometimes lethal — displays of power, death game media can provide a wondrous form of entertainment for us.
However, the concept of a death game need not be restricted to the world of fictional entertainment. In fact, the real world can be viewed through the perspective of a death game scenario. Our cut-throat society does not require us to survive deadly physical contests, but it is instead dominated by a series of zero-sum games, where one person wins and the other loses. A timely example of this is the anxiety-inducing college admissions process which we all endured to obtain a prestigious letter of admission from Cornell University; although the stakes certainly aren’t life or death, they are potentially life-changing — one person’s college dreams are fulfilled, while another’s are brutally crushed. Real-life examples like these aren’t nearly as macabre as the bloody scenarios we encounter in fictional media, but they certainly aren’t any less ruthless; death games in fiction provide an extension, albeit an extreme one, of these societal struggles.
But if death games are in fact an extension of a brutal dog-eat-dog society, why would anyone want to watch them? Isn’t the point of popular media to escape from the troubles of the real world? I believe the answer to this question lies in humanity’s competitive nature. People really don’t like to lose, so when they are placed in a contest where only one person can be victorious, they do their utmost to win. Spectators show their competitive spirit as well by investing all of their efforts into rooting for participants — they may even bet on who they believe will win. Because of this all-around competitive spirit, there is nothing more disappointing than a contest without a winner. Similarly, when a contest ends prematurely, the participants’ efforts are essentially wasted, and the audience doesn’t get closure.
I believe we ultimately watch death games because we need to see the final outcome. We may be disgusted by their scenarios, but once we’re lured in, we become invested in the characters and hope for their survival. Sometimes, we may even be able to relate to them: the competitors in The Hunger Games are teenagers seeking to make their family and friends proud; the characters in Danganronpa, though they often exhibit unrealistic anime tropes, are just high school students who want to return to their normal lives; the contestants in Squid Game are impoverished debtors who want to turn their lives around for themselves and for their families. Because we become hopelessly attached to them, even if our favorite characters die horrifically and we become devastated because of it (totally not speaking from personal experience or anything), we keep watching anyway. Because every game, no matter how brutal, needs to have a winner — even a game of life and death.
Dylan McIntyre is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]