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Why The Hunger Games Matters Now More Than Ever – IGN

The Hunger Games is back on the tip of our tongues as the long-awaited prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrives on November 17. It’s a different world than the one where we met Katniss Everdeen, set in the early days of the brutal battle royale fought under the eyes of all of Panem.

But before there was The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, there was The Hunger Games trilogy. The books are equal parts entertainment and indictment: a recognition of the spectacle of violence and an understanding of the ways in which our lives–either willingly or not–have become a constant performance under the cold eye of a camera lens.

But what did the original series say about our society all those years ago, and how has it taken root even more firmly today? The Hunger Games was chillingly prescient for its time, so much so that it’s more relevant now than ever.

So, we’ve got one question: Suzanne Collins, can you see the future?

The first installment of the series introduces us to Katniss, a survivor turned reluctant savior in the tyrannical nation of Panem. Every year, the Capitol chooses a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 to 18 from 12 districts to fight to the death in the nationally broadcast Hunger Games.

Like most reality TV, the point of these televised games is to up the ante every year: In the world of The Hunger Games, that means more danger, more drama, more exciting ways to kill. Violence that grows exponentially to keep the crowds coming. The games in Catching Fire, for instance, make for a bleak All-Star season of sorts as former victors are chosen to participate instead.

Surviving Surveillance

How many times a day do you think you’re on camera? Maybe a few, right? You take a couple of selfies with friends, you’re caught in the background somewhere on a stranger’s camera roll. But between traffic cameras, surveillance cameras in public areas, and the cameras on home assistants like the Amazon Echo or Google Nest, it’s so much more than you might think. Information and analytics provider IHS Markit predicted the existence of over 1 billion surveillance cameras around the world by 2021, while a study from LDV Capital estimated 45 billion cameras total by 2022. Installed in the name of public safety, surveillance cameras–increasingly armed with A.I. and facial recognition technology–act instead as alarming tools of policing in a culture of incarceration. Data privacy hasn’t fared any better, as archaic technology law offers little resistance to government tracking of our online activity.

Every single movement is captured by a brigade of cameras hidden in every possible place they can be.

Privacy is a human right violated over and over again–but it isn’t just a Big Brother-esque government at the helm. Corporations buy and sell our data in a twisted digital marketplace, feeding it to algorithms that predict your behavior as a consumer. Those targeted ads on Instagram? It means Meta has a lot more information about you than you’re probably comfortable with. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism, a system in which your very personal information becomes capital coveted by private corporations. In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she writes:

“Industrial capitalism transformed nature’s raw materials into commodities, and surveillance capitalism lays its claims to the stuff of human nature for a new commodity invention. Now it is human nature that is scraped, torn, and taken for another century’s market project.”

There’s an easy-to-miss line in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes film. Lucy Gray Baird takes shelter from the other tributes, but the crevice she hides in doesn’t broadcast to the watching audience. Buoyant Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman jokes that they’ll make sure to get a camera in there next year. It’s a prophetic look into the future of the Games where every single movement is captured by a brigade of cameras hidden in every possible place they can be. See, the Hunger Games are all about performance. Tributes are provided with stylists and mentors that coach them just as much in public appearance as they do in combat. Hell, win enough sympathy from your fans and they can even send you vital supplies dropped into the arena on drones that track your precise location–reeking eerily of the delivery drones tested by the likes of places like Amazon. The only thing we’re missing from the original Hunger Games trilogy is exactly who is buying ad space during its broadcast.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the first Hunger Games film.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the first Hunger Games film.

Smile for the Camera

In the digital age, private citizens now enact our own social self-policing. Those 45 billion cameras? Many sit in our very hands, small dopamine dispensers that act as lifelines to the outside world. Scroll on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram Reels, Twitter and a troubling trend emerges. Not front-facing commentary or storytimes or day-in-the-lifes. It’s viral videos that focus on and judge the behavior of strangers in the background of a video or play pranks on unsuspecting people. These demand performance from the unwitting. People become pieces in a practice of personal ego, used for likes or follows that translate into individual cultural capital. A TikToker takes a video, zooms in on someone going about their lives in the background and suddenly that person becomes a figure we feel comfortable publicly scrutinizing.

A sick sort of dehumanization of people online has arisen in the last couple of years, with some creators even going so far as calling others “NPCs,” which refers to a non-playable character in a video game. An NPC is devoid of life or individuality, existing as mindless decoration in the world of a playable protagonist. It’s a callous insult, one that’s particularly worrying in the fire it’s caught among adolescents making their first forays onto the internet.

Systems of power rely on that sort of propagandistic language to establish an Other. After all, the Hunger Games wouldn’t have lasted 75 years if the citizens of the Capitol acknowledged the humanity of its participants. Katniss and Peeta’s Capitol escort, Effie Trinket, shows us just how effective President Snow and his ilk have been at sanitizing what the Hunger Games represent. When first introduced to Effie, she’s naively eager to play dress up with her two young combatants. They’re not child sacrifices in her eyes; they’re tributes who have the honor of participating in a decades-long tradition. This is one other thing the series nails: If a government so conscious of its messaging is also violently suppressive of its dissenters, some of its citizens may not even realize they’ve been manipulated.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes shows us a Panem on the precipice of this state as a young Coriolanus Snow acts as mentor to Lucy Gray during the 10th Hunger Games. Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul tells Snow and his peers that the games are dying because people aren’t watching. And instead of letting them disappear, Snow gives his own suggestion: Make them real entertainment. Let go of the gladiatorial concept and add in a sensational stage play full of drama, intrigue, betrayal and tragedy.

We see a society primed to enter a new age of dehumanization and surveillance. There’s an understanding that hypervisibility can be its own form of degradation. Everyone in the arena becomes an actor, everyone becomes a character on a screen. The tributes are forced to become public figures for judgment simply because they exist.

Are we really any different?

Cold-Blooded Competition

In 2021, Netflix released the surprise smash hit Squid Game. In it, impoverished people accept an invitation to a deadly series of children’s games to compete for a life-changing amount of money. It’s a critique on capitalism, of course, and a stark analogy to the ways that the rich use the poor for their own entertainment or gain. And how did Netflix respond to its popularity? By recreating these very games, sans murder, with people competing for a giant cash prize. Squid Game: The Challenge takes the very basis of the original show and spits in its face.

The thing is, Squid Game: The Challenge doesn’t do anything reality competition shows haven’t already been doing for years. Big Brother, The Circle, Survivor, American Idol and so many more promise money in exchange for clawing your way to the top. Even physical sports like football see athletes break their bodies as millions watch. Sure, they aren’t killing each other, but much of the conceit is the same. Craft narratives out of the lives of very real people and then throw them into an arena under the vicious eyes of those watching from home. It’s humiliation in the public square with a few extra steps. The Hunger Games satirized this very format and it seems that we’ve not quite learned our lesson.

The digital sphere is a useful tool in the organization of protest, but even amid massive movements for justice the public demands a figurehead.

The digital sphere has proven to be a useful tool in the organization of protest, but even amid massive movements for justice the public demands a figurehead. Katniss becomes this icon of rebellion for the people of Panem. Dubbed the Mockingjay, she’s made the reluctant face of insurgency efforts. The cold and calculating leader of the District rebels, President Coin, utilizes the power of Katniss’ heroism and visibility to recruit other districts to their fight and turn Capitol citizens against President Snow. In a haunting scene, a camera crew captures Katniss’ devastation as she walks the ruins of a bombed hospital. She’s distraught and yet still directed to address the camera. As she relays that there will be no survivors amid the blazing destruction, she declares that this is who the Capitol leaders have always been and it’s now time to fight back.

“I have a message for President Snow,” Katniss says, “You can torture us, and bomb us, and burn our districts to the ground. But do you see that? Fire is catching. And if we burn, you burn with us.”

The speech, in its rage, is powerful and rallying. But one can’t help thinking of the citizen journalists in war zones, risking their lives to share the atrocities committed against them and others as they’re made the faces of horrific conflicts. The tragedy is that it isn’t enough to show the bombed hospital Katniss encounters. Instead, the camera feeds on her anguished message to convince those watching that these people are deserving of human rights.

The Hunger Games trilogy sees its leads through the end of occupation by the ruling class. Katniss and Peeta and all of Panem are at peace with a future in which no other child will be forced into brutal bloodsport. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reminds us that it took another 65 years for these games to end – 65 years of needless death that Katniss’ hard-fought peace will still never erase.

The prequel gives us insight into how the games grew into the glamorous monster Katniss is thrust into, and the series as a whole reminds us that we ourselves are often helpless players in a game created by those with power, money and influence. Surveillance enforces the rules of that game. If a screen renders us inhuman to others, is it not then horrifying that we’re on camera all the time?

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Leah Sirama
Leah Sirama
Leah Sirama, a lifelong enthusiast of Artificial Intelligence, has been exploring technology and the digital realm since childhood. Known for his creative thinking, he's dedicated to improving AI experiences for all, making him a respected figure in the field. His passion, curiosity, and creativity drive advancements in the AI world.
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