Are the Games Believable?

Recently, author Nancy Kress—of whom I’m a big fan, btw—blogged that THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy disturbed her. She praised many things about the books: good writing, excitement, and an appealing heroine. And, the violence didn't particularly disturb her. What got Kress was the "psychological implausibility" of the premise:

We're expected to believe that torturing their children keeps parents passive, rather than as enraged as a she-bear with cubs.

I don't believe it. Parents would not passively send twelve-year-olds, year after year, to torture. An entire population would not watch these televised Games without a resistance movement arising sooner than 75 years.

Does she have a point? Wouldn’t parents do everything to protect their kids? We’d certainly like to think we’d go all “Mama Grizzly” when anyone came after our cubs.

So, why didn’t the parents become enraged she-bears in THE HUNGER GAMES?

Let's start with the back story. The Capital has thrust the games on the populace as a measure of control. The games are supposed to demoralize the people, who are already living at subsistence levels (at least in most of the districts). And, an earlier uprising resulted in the obliteration of District 13. So, under the fear of reprisals—which may also include becoming voiceless slaves in the Capital—parents grudgingly stand by while their child is selected for the Games. Certainly, some parents must fight back or hide their children, but hungry and scared people will do things we well-fed citizens of democracy may shudder at—just to keep the rest of their family alive.

What about our world? Kress writes that “not even Rome had child gladiators.” Maybe not. But here and now, thousands upon thousands of children are trafficked for:
Today’s child gladiators are wielding AK-47s (or whatever is the gun of choice). Very often the kids are abducted; in other cases, though, the children are sold by their families. (Yes, I know these are the horrible exceptions to the proverbial rule. And I do think most parents in the world are decent parents, but, let’s face it, we humans are capable of doing some crappy things to our kids.)

So, I'm willing to suspend disbelief and buy the premise of the Games. And so are many, many other adult readers.

However, does it really matter if THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy is psychologically believable from our perspective? Is the experience of the Games really about what might happen in the future? Or is the story more about being a teenager now? Maybe the story resonates—and is thus psychologically believable—because it’s about the feeling trapped in a system outside your own control (like school) and being forced to compete with your peers.

What do you all think? Is the premise of Suzanne Collins’ fantastic trilogy plausible—psychologically or otherwise? Do the Games need to be believable for both adults and teens? Discuss.


Amie Borst said...

you pose a really interesting argument - one i'd never really thought about. i'd like to think, if i were Katniss' mother, I would have started the uprising. there's no way this she-bear would let her kids go off to slaughter....even if it meant i sacrificed myself.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

the way the backstory is presented and the games explained, I didn't think it implausible. It's the way things are in that society.

And, I've said this before, it's a BOOK! It's probably not going to happen that zombies will surround a little village in the woods either, but MAN that was an entertaining read.

Authoress said...

I read Ms. Kress's original blog post and disagreed with it. Our society already hands children over to the government on a daily basis without blinking an eye -- public schools. Now, that's not the same as putting them in an arena to kill each other.

(Or is it?)

But most Americans don't know the real history behind public education. Namely, that parents fought compulsory schooling. That the last hold-out in Massachusetts watched as their children were marched to school AT GUN POINT.

Yeah. It's the truth.

Minors can get abortions without parental consent. Where is the parental outrage?

Children are subjected to bullying, verbally abusive teachers, all sorts of things that can cause deep psychological wounds. (Not saying it's all bad out there. But there's a lot of bad and it hurts kids.) Where's the parental outcry? Who is swooping in to rescue these children?

And yes. I used to teach in a public school.

Historically, there were the Spartans, who raised their men and women FROM CHILDHOOD to be warriors. (That one came to mind without much effort; who hasn't heard of the Spartans?)

So I believe, with all due respect, that Ms. Kress is missing an important truth. Namely, that parents in our generation have already released their kids to a lot of evils without batting an eyelash. It also seems that she lacks a fundamental understanding of what REAL OPPRESSION can do to people. As in, completely break their wills to fight back.

It happens. It's real. And I believe HUNGER GAMES reflects it.

Amie McCracken said...

I completely agree with Authoress.

You have to also realize that the Capitol has other tactics. They forbid communication between districts, which is fundamental for an uprising. They have control over where people go, what people eat, even what people wear. I think it is completely believable. People break under that pressure, even mama bears.

Theresa Milstein said...

I don't think it's implausible. Your examples show how desperate parents can get under extreme poverty and oppressive political regimes. Often, people fight back in small ways, and Collins provides plenty of examples of that (The Hob, hunting, trying to avoid tesserae, Katniss not wanting to marry so she doesn't bring a child into the world).

Look what happened during the Holocaust. There was very little outright resistance.

Justina! said...

I agree with what folks are saying here, and the overall blog post. I was a little surprised that no one really seemed to contradict the statement on the original blog.

Anyone who has been to a third world nation and seen what people are willing to go through to survive would not doubt the viability of the Hunger Games. Anyone who has lived in an especially rough inner city neighborhood and seen people look the other way when someone is being mugged would not doubt the possibility of a Hunger Games type situation. People are selfish, and most care about their survival above all others. There's even a comment about how extraordinary Katniss is because she volunteers to take her sister's place, something unheard of in a place where people are constantly fighting for survival.

After all, lots of people understand the horrors of the diamond trade, but how many people actually boycott the big companies who allow the atrocities to happen? When it's about personal comfort versus the good of a stranger, personal comfort usually wins. If Prim had never been a tribute then the trilogy never would have happened. It was only when the current system affected Katniss personally that she took any sort of stand.

Ask anyone coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan if they think the Hunger Games could be real. They'll probably have a very different perspective.

Tabitha said...

I grew up in some pretty serious poverty. Like, if we didn't have food stamps, we wouldn't have eaten (and even then it didn't always cover it). The Salvation Army actually came to our rescue once, too.

My point? When you have next to nothing, you appreciate the things that you *do* have, and you take really good care of them because you likely won't get anything else. My mother loved me so much that she would have sacrificed herself for me in an instant if I was ever in danger. I would have done the same for her (even when I was just in grade school). If I had been taken away by the government to participate in the Games, there is NO WAY my mother would have sat by and let it happen. However, she wouldn't have plotted in secret to start a rebellion, either. No. She would have held on to me (screaming, crying, lashing out, and making a public scene) and she eventually would have been taken away and probably killed.

My point is that, in the history of the Hunger Games, there is *no way* that this didn't happen to some family at some point. Perhaps early on, when the Games were still new. But the parents putting up the fuss were likely put to death, and that would have quelled any future scenes.

HOWEVER, that would give future parents reason to plot in secret and start an uprising. So, I think Ms. Kress has a valid point.

As for what it means to be truly oppressed, yes, many succumb to this and don't stand up for themselves or their children. But I don't think it's fair to say that *everyone* will succumb. I had a very oppressive family member in my life, but it had the opposite effect. The harder he tried to put me under his thumb, the more I fought. I didn't care what I had to live without in the process. After all, I was already used to living without much of anything. A little less wasn't goin to kill me, and I knew it.

p.s. Yes, there was very little resistance in the Holocaust. But the Jews were being hunted, so they were scattered all over the world. It's extremely difficult to form an uprising when everyone is all over the place. In Katniss's world, everyone is kept together in the districts. Plenty of opportunity to meet in secret and plot an uprising.

Anonymous said...

The Hunger Games is totally plausible. All you have to do is look at what happened in the former Soviet Union. The government had complete control over their citizens. If you openly voiced your opinion, you got a one-way ticket to Siberia. We have friends in the former Soviet republic of Georiga and they'll tell you horror stories of how some members of their family were never seen again.

I don't believe for a second that they loved their family members any less than we do.

There are also children in third world countries who are taught to be soldiers, from a very young age. Just because we can't imagine something like that happening here, doesn't mean it isn't happening somewhere else in the world. It might not be with 'hovercrafts' or exploding 'pods', but children being used as shields or weapons does happen.

Unfortunately, fear is a very powerful emotion.

storyqueen said...

On NPR the a few weeks ago there was a story about children kidnapped and forced to become soldiers in Africa. It was heartwrenching....and true.

Humans are capable of great acts of good. Unfortunately, they are capable of the opposite as well.

Najela said...

I think it's plausible. I read an article somewhere that mentioned something about the logic of the Hunger Games and it made sense, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the book. It makes me wonder what could happen to a society that would make them go along with this horrible "game"? Frankly, I think if there weren't certain laws in place,we'd be at that place. In fact, I think the laws are there because we as a society know it could get to something maybe even worse than the Hunger Games.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

Fighting for your children is very noble and good, but when you're stripped of all human rights, you may give in to your oppressor. Surely there were cases where African American slaves fought against their oppressors for the sake of their children, but there were all sorts who couldn't because it would mean certain death or severe punishment. Slaveholders, like the Capitol, used children as weapons against adults to keep them in line. I feel like the citizens of Panem just learned to live with this custom, and were thankful when their child was not chosen in the reaping.

The psychology of it all rings pretty true to me.

Anonymous said...

This is a really sweet discussion.

I think what Authoress was getting at above is the affect of normalization on a culture. When something becomes so common as to be expected, it becomes a "cultural norm," and those are hard things to avoid. Public schools have been around for a solid century en force, and now schooling is compulsory until a certain age. It's a norm. The sixteenth amendment allowing the government to tax income wasn't enacted until 1913, but now nearly everyone accepts it. It's become a norm.

Things that we used to fight over slowly, but surely, become acceptable. And it can take a mere generation. As communication technology improves, that gap between shock and acceptance shortens because it takes less and less time for people to adapt. Norms change.

When Katniss volunteers for the games, they've been happening for 74 years. Given the tight control the capitol has on communication, I can totally believe that the Hunger Games have become a norm that people just don't fight against--at least not openly. Seventy-four years is a long enough time for newer generations to be completely unaware of what "freedom" felt like. This is why Katniss and Gale were so lucky--they got freedom outside the fence, and that made them different.

Najela said...

It's probably a state of learned helplessness. I'm not sure it was ever discussed what happened to people who refused to participate in the Hunger Games. That would be really cool for the author to explore.

Tabitha said...

Yes, norms are very powerful. The desire to be like everyone else is in most people from early on.

But not everyone.

If it was in everyone, that is, if *no one* thought outside the box, then we wouldn't have innovations in science, technology, medicine, etc.

All it takes is the right person to see something he doesn't like, and then think outside the box for ways to change it. And, for someone to be willing to risk starvation and death, he would have had to be affected by that situation on a deeply personal level. Such as, his child taken away and forced to kill or be killed.

So, yes, norms are very powerful. But it's still not fair to say that *everyone* will succumb to them.

Tere Kirkland said...

I wrote another post at the original blog that has more to do with THG specifically, but IMO, there's no need to pick at the world's background and history.

I don't think sci-fi has to be believable, the premise, anyway. Traditionally, Science Fiction has been a vehicle for morality questions in which an implausible situation is set up, and the human characters react to it.

Most sci-fi is written to illustrate an issue; do androids dream of electric sheep? Just because we can recreate dinosaurs out of DNA from mosquitoes in amber, does that mean we SHOULD?

It's a moot point to anyone who has been raised on Heinlein, Asimov and Herbert. I don't see why the premise, the most unimportant part of the story in the question of ethics and morality, needs to be picked apart. That just takes the fun out of it.

ibeeeg said...

Great post! Much to think about, and I tend to agree with your points.

Yes, we are she-bears when it comes to our children, BUT that is because we can be. I think the point that the people in Hunger Games are oppressed is greatly significant. And the oppression is not just in the form of poverty, it is also in the form that they do not have any other resource to help them fight. For instance, in our world, we could go to a lawyer, find another person with a way in, find a person with more knowledge, etc. When, as a people, you do not have too many options,and the options you do have are not that great, well, it is hard to be a she-bear.
When a group of people stand against a wrong makes it easier, but when you are in the fight by yourself, much tougher. While I would do my best to protect my children, and would hope I would try for an escape the truth of the matter is that I don't think I would sacrifice myself when I have other children to tend to. That sounds harsh, but if you have others depending on you, and if you were to die, what then would become of them and where is the good? I am so thankful that I am not faced with this kind of decision.

I think Authoress brings up some great points to keep in mind. Public schools, minors-abortions, bullying, verbal abuse in the school systems. We don't think much of these type of things to the point that there is change. That is the trouble with society, little by little things are taken away and parental rights are less and yet we don't do much. Another point would be vaccines and how about that my children now MUST have eye exams and dental exams. While the exams are not much of themselves, the point is that my right to decide if this is neceessary for my child or finacial status has been taken away.

Again, great post, and I am one of the adult readers who can believe in the premise.

Patti said...

Fiction is all about suspending disbelief, but I don't think how the parents react in the hunger games is really suspending it. All I could think of when I read this post is the movie Sophie's choice, when the guards take one of her children. It happened back then wihtout much uprising because she still had another child to look after.

Just my thoughts.

Aubrey said...

Fabulous post! I agree. I think it is plausible. Those that had fight left in them were either beaten, killed or in 13. The parents were obviously not pleased their kids were subjected to this, but what choice did they have? If they fought back they would be crushed.

Your points are fantastic. I think the most important thing is that it resonates with us today in the now.

Jemi Fraser said...

When people are hungry and afraid for their entire lives, all kinds of impossible & improbable things become reality. It's sadly quite a realistic scenario.

Okie said...

Part of what appealed to me in Hunger Games (in addition to the writing itself, the character development, etc) was the creepy reality of the story.

As we look at our current society as it exists right now, I'll agree that if the government was to round up kids for a fight to the death, there would be outrage.

However, as you point out, there are similar situations in the world today...and while these situations often receive protest and outrage (sometimes even formal force against them such as in the case of sex trafficking, etc), they still happen and the population at large is helpless to actually stop it.

Looking at the Games, I suspect that in the backstory of the Capitol's first Games there was outrage and fear...but it was likely subdued quickly by the forcibly strong hand of the government. In the end, the sacrifice of 2 children from each community was made in order to save the lives of hundreds and thousands of others living in the country. While the hatred and contempt for the institution still exists, it is held in check by fear of the power and the desire to maintain a level of peace and decorum for the greater good.

You point out situations where we literally sacrifice our young ones by sending them off to war (granted, they're older than the kids in the books) or other horrific experiences. In these cases the 'kids' are sacrificed to fulfill the whims and rules of others.

I look at other situations where the parents are actually sending their own children off as lambs to the slaughter. I'm thinking of parents who (nearly from birth) are pushing their kids to be fashion models, sports stars, music stars or something else. The freedom of the kids is taken away as they are pushed into a lifestyle. They grow up in such a rigorous situation that it seems normal.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think it's great for kids to be passionate about something and to get involved in sports/music/modeling/acting/etc if that's what they want.

But I see a sort of parallel in the fact that there is a sacrifice of freedoms and, to an extent, their entire life (a child who from birth is destined to be the next big singing star loses many freedoms of choice in terms of developing their own desires or even just "being a kid").

Sure, there are some elements that are unbelievable based on our own current context and perspective. But that's the way it is with anything set in a fantastic world. When Orwell wrote 1984, a lot of similar conversations happened...and yet in current society a lot of people are comparing modern government oversight and involvement to some of his Big Brother ideas. We're not yet to the same extreme Orwell suggested, but there are plenty of glimpses of truth.

So, we may never (hopefully) reach the extremes presented in Hunger Games but I see many of the nuances as being not only possible but sadly inevitable in some cases.

Tabitha said...

I'm going to take a leaf out of Okie's book and say that it's not my intention to be flammatory. I'm sorry if I came on a bit strong, but aspects of this concept are very personal to me. I lived in poverty (which isn't necessarily oppressive) and also had to deal with a borderline abusive, oppressive family member. If I had succumbed to the pattern (or norm) of my family, then I wouldn't be where I am today. And I am *much* better off. So, really, I'm living proof that you can't apply one rule to every single individual in a group. Again, I'm sorry if I came on too strong, but that concept kind of insulted me...

I also wanted to throw something else out there. I haven't read Mockingjay yet, so maybe Collins has already done this. In fact, it kind looks to be going in that direction. But I would find it completely believable if Katniss finds a secret rebellion that was already underway. Say, in the supposedly destroyed District 13.

I would also find it believable that all the adults Katniss encounters are the kind to succumb to oppression, since they're still in their districts. But I would totally buy it if the rebellious sort had already escaped their districts and made their way to the existing rebellion.

But I guess I will have to read Mockingjay to find out (which I totally will, because I've thoroughly enjoyed these books). :)

Nichole Giles said...

I think they're believable. These parents Collins has portrayed have been beaten down, starved, strung out until they're very much like cattle.

As you say, this is the case in some real-life societies. Deep, underworld, non-televised societies, but human beings are capable of doing some really awful things.

I haven't read MockingJay yet because I was stupid and preordered from Amazon and IT'S NOT HERE YET!!!(Ahem, sorry for shouting) but from what I've read in the first two books: obviously this isn't the first attempt at rebellion, the capital has more control in most districts than we originally thought, and also, I gather that this rebellion has been a long time in the planning.

So, yes, it's been a waiting game. But obviously, the parents aren't being completely passive.

In other words, I believed it.

Angie said...

Wow. Lots of great discussion today.

Thanks Tabitha for sharing your experience. I don't think for a moment everyone would react the same way--either buckle under or fight back. And there are all shades of rebellion in between.

Authoress said...

theflightytemptress-- YES! That's exactly it, and you said it better than I did. When something becomes a cultural norm, people stop fighting it, stop thinking about it.

Not ALL people. Parents ARE homeschooling in larger numbers. Families DO choose to not vaccinate their children. But think about how the majority of society gasps at these outside-box folks. How unfathomable it is to the masses that someone might say NO to a public school or mandated vaccine.

Saying "no" feels wrong because the norms are so strong. Even though those norms weren't in place a century or, in some cases, a mere generation ago.

People fought social security, too, when it was first instituted. They didn't WANT it. And now? Many view it as an entitlement.

'Tis the way society works, I suppose. Sad but true!

Tabitha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tabitha said...

I agree that most people are inherently resistant to change, even if that change will make their lives better. And then, once that change has taken root, they're resistant to changing it to something else (even if they balked at the original change). Most people stick with what they know because it's familiar, and the unknown is often scary.

Respectfully, though, I think enforced schooling and social security are a far cry from letting your be kids taken away to commit murder. And then, if they manage to get through the ordeal alive, they will be deeply emotionally scarred.

This may sound idealistic, or whatever, but I think people deserve a bit more credit that that...

Authoress said...

But Tabitha, in the end, we ARE talking about a work of fiction here. ;)

Tabitha said...

Yes. And no. Enforced schooling, social security, child soldiers, bullying, sex slaves, and oppression are all real. Isn't it a writer's job to create the most realistic and believable characters, setting, situations, etc as possible?

The question posed here was whether or not Ms. Kress had a point as to whether or not the situation in Hunger Games was realistic. I was merely answering that question.

I enjoy these books. A lot. And I can suspend disbelief enough to just sit back and enjoy the ride. As clearly most other people here have done. Which is great, because that's mostly what fiction is for. Since I'm a writer, though, I prefer to take my reading one step further and look at a work for what it is, find its strength and weaknesses, and learn from it. Even if that means finding faults in a story that I loved.

Authoress said...

I would venture to say that the Games are probably as realistic as the North Vietnamese women who, during the conflict, would attach explosives to their tiny children, allow them to toddle into the midst of American soldiers, and then watch them be blown to bits so they could take out a few enemies. True stories, utterly horrific to imagine.

I think Hunger Games is way more realistic than any of us care to imagine.

Tabitha said...

That's different. Those North Vietnamese women believed in their cause. Belief is a very powerful thing. The people living in the districts don't believe that sending their children to become killers will make their world a better place. Instead, they're being forced to give them for the express purpose of being oppressed. That's abuse, not belief. And one can only take so much abuse...just ask the woman who finally snaps and kills the abusive husband who's been beating her up for years.

"I think Hunger Games is way more realistic than any of us care to imagine."
I disagree, for many reasons. But that's okay. We can agree to disagree. :)

ibeeeg said...

Tabitha - You bring up some really good points just as Authoress does. For me, the bottom line is that I don't think any of us truly knows what we would do if placed in that situation. We can have ideals, and hopes, but we can't really know because we are not in that position regardless of our current or past socio-economic status. Still though, I am enjoying this comment thread with the different thoughts on this one. It is great to have the freedom to speak our minds regardless of opinion...the freedom to not be in that position so we do not have to choose, decide.

Authoress said...

You're right; belief IS a powerful thing. Americans BELIEVE it is in their children's best interest to spend their days in a government-run school. Americans BELIEVE their children will be in dire danger if they are not vaccinated according to government recommendations (and, in many cases, mandated law).

And then there are the small but growing groups of parents who have realized there are other choices, though they may have spent lifetimes believing otherwise.

In Hunger Games, the populace BELIEVES the Capitol has the power to make them abide by the laws of the Games. Broken spirits lead to false beliefs. And yes, it only takes a few to "snap" and start a revolution.

Propaganda is a powerful tool, and we are naive to believe that it is not alive and well in our country today!

Tabitha said...

ibeeg - we are indeed lucky to have that kind of freedom. I love that I can present an opinion, and someone else can present an opposite opinion. It's what makes the world so interesting. :)

Authoress - again, you're speaking in generalities. A populace is a group of individuals, not a collective mind. Different people react differently to propaganda. Some believe it, yes, and some see it for what it is. But this is not about propaganda. This is about people.

What about a man who worked himself to the bone to feed, clothe, and shelter his family, only to lose his wife and one of his children to disease? And then what if his last remaining child is taken away to be put in the Games? He'd have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain by rebelling. If he has enough fight in him, he might just do that. Rebellions are not started by a group of people who suddenly decide to have like-minded ideas. They're started by the ideas or actions of an *individual*, which gets other people thinking, and it grows from there.

Ms. Kress's point is that, in 75 years, it's not believable that no one would have attempted to resist the atrocities of the Panem government. I, too, find it too difficult to believe that something like the man I mentioned above never happened (in 75 years, in an entire population).

However, if there *is* a secret rebellion that we simply haven't seen yet, and the government is keeping it using their propaganda to keep it hush-hush, then I find that completely believable.

Rebecca Gomez said...

I can believe that the boot of the Capital has gotten such a strong foothold that it keeps most resistance from revealing itself, at least above the surface. Think about the odds. What would the odds be that your child would be chosen? Even though most of the parents in Collins' world are, like most of us, "decent" parents, they might be willing to play the odds in order to give their family a chance to survive. For me, Collins made this completely believable.