Dystopian games: how contemporary stories critique capitalism through deadly competition

If our nightmares change, what does that tell us about our waking lives? Dystopian stories, from novels and films to games, have often been considered a pessimistic reflection on the direction society is going in.

Classic dystopias usually offer a vision of a totalitarian state, equipped with an apparatus of repression and propaganda, for instance, 1984 by George Orwell or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Beyond the external threat of authoritarian and violent control, these fictions also offer dystopian visions of how individuals can be corrupted, indoctrinated and transformed.

These stories were responding to 20th-century experiences of state authoritarianism, from fascism to Stalinism and beyond. It is understandable given this history that dystopias have largely expressed our anxieties and fears about the state.

Yet, around the turn of the millennium writers of dystopias increasingly turned their attention to critiquing capitalism. These stories presented fictional worlds where protagonists compete in deadly games.

The game of life?

This sub-genre of dystopia features elimination contests where there can be only one winner. The scenarios might seem extreme or absurd but are apt satires of living within a capitalist system.

The games in these dystopian worlds tend to be excruciatingly cruel, with human life often wagered on their outcome.

Watching protagonists grapple with strategic challenges, endure pain and frustration, work together or undermine each other and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat reminds us of our own struggles. It reminds us how our fate often depends on our performance in life.

Even if we are not in mortal danger, our lives depend upon competition.

In educational institutions, we strive for top marks. In the labour market, we compete for jobs. On social media, we vie for attention and approval. Even in love and friendship, it seems the contemporary world is awash with rivalry.

Of course, this is not human nature or common to all societies, but is a result of a hyper-competitive mindset or culture cultivated under contemporary capitalism. Essentially, these visions of dystopian games offer a critique of the intensification of capitalism, wherein every decision is made with the market in mind first.

Dystopias exaggerate what they satirise to make their point – consider two of the most popular and influential cases: The Hunger Games and Squid Game.

Set in a futuristic authoritarian regime, the Hunger Games are a sadistic propaganda operation whereby the “Capitol” pits teenage “tributes” from subjugated districts against each other in a televised bloodbath. The prize is a life of comparative luxury, although winners are often traumatised by their own victory.

While outlandish, it resonates with young people, perhaps reflecting their experiences on social media or even the growing trend for reality TV as a means of social mobility. It also reflects the wider capitalist system where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor; social mobility is only possible for the chosen few, the exceptional.

Squid Game depicts a fight to the death orchestrated by a shadowy criminal organisation with billionaire backers where contestants compete in deadly versions of children’s games. Four hundred and fifty-six desperate or indebted people in contemporary South Korea are enticed into participating, and only one will survive. This surreal scenario reflects the crisis of personal debt in South Korea and beyond, and the ethics of winner-takes-all in contemporary capitalism.

In each, we follow protagonists who are often faced with terrible moral conundrums as they fight to survive. We sympathise with the Hunger Game’s Katniss Everdeen’s struggle and cheer her on as she forms alliances with weaker players. We root for Squid Game’s Seong Gi-Hun’s team in a lethal version of tug-of-war but become ambivalent when he uses an older contestant’s failing memory against him.

Bloody spectacles

Strikingly, both of these contests are a spectacle for an audience.

The Hunger Games are televised propaganda for a totalitarian regime, while sadistic billionaires watch the Squid Game from a booth. This plays upon the perpetual visibility of modern life on social media. But also makes us complicit as viewers who enjoy watching bloody contests.

Within the drama, the play of artifice and authenticity is another game.

We see Katniss stage a love story to ensure her survival. Seong Gi-Hun eventually realises that his apparent ally in the Squid Game, the older man he used, is actually (spoiler alert) one of the organisers of this tormenting tournament. This game-playing, full of falsehoods and suspicion, within these spectacles, might well reflect our own struggles with constant impression management amid the compulsive visibility of social media.

While these dystopian visions are extremely dark, they are warnings of the direction that society is going or analyses of dynamics that are coming to dominate our world but are not inevitable. Interestingly that Squid Game’s popularity has led to it being adapted into game show where “456 players will compete to win the life-changing reward of $4.56 million (£3.78 million)”.

These dystopian stories do offer hope, however. The capacity of the protagonists to play these games through cooperation rather than competition, care rather than cruelty, provides a utopian counterpoint – one that we might follow in our own lives. Refusing to play the game or playing it differently is not a trivial gesture, our lives and our future depend on it.

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