As the full terror of SARS-CoV-2 dawned on the world, it came as no surprise that people were scrambling for analogies to make sense of the pandemic’s consequences. Some picked the obvious comparison to zombie outbreaks; others went with viral apocalypses, like Stephen King’s The Strand. My own thoughts have turned to a different horror cult classic: Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. I had fled the virus’s early spread in Hong Kong — in a manner painfully like my departure three months before, compelled by the police’s invasion of the city’s universities — only to be incarcerated in the farcical quarantine of Metro Manila, which was slowly driving its citizens to the brink. Under those circumstances, I could think of no better comparison than that of a class of students forced into a game designed to kill all but one of them. Weren’t we all, at that point, unwilling players in our own game of death?
Content Warning: This article has spoilers for the series, as well as mentions of sexual assault and rape.
Some people might object to comparing a pandemic to something as trivial as games, but there are good reasons to treat games as Serious Business.
Games are quite possibly the foremost cultural medium of our time, having outpaced the film and music industries, and they play a significant part in shaping the ways we behave and think, largely by reinforcing myths of meritocracy. Meritocracy purports that the world is better off with hierarchical societies, because these put power in the hands of those best suited to wielding it; and with their focus on individual merit as a basis for people’s mis/fortunes, they obscure the systems behind such judgments — that is to say the blame is always on the players, never on the game.
Governments across the world have used these myths to conscript the disenfranchised into defending the system that keeps them down: rule-breakers are cast as threats to the honest struggles of people working within the system. As recent events have shown, however, those myths are coming undone. More people have come to realize that these rules, by design, would strip them of work, sustenance, mobility, and everything else on which their lives depend. But even awakened to this realization, they find that if compliance means a slow death by neglect, disobedience means a swift, violent, punitive one. Which brings me to Battle Royale.
A quick recap of the premise: a class of junior high students in alternate-universe Japan are abducted to participate in the state’s annual Program. They are to be released onto an otherwise uninhabited island, where they must fight each other using no more than basic field gear and one (1) randomly assigned weapon, until only one competitor is left alive. To ensure the kids are sufficiently motivated, each one is outfitted with a collar that can be detonated remotely for any violation of the rules — and they are shown the mutilated corpse of their homeroom teacher as a reminder of what happens to those who protest those rules. They are thus faced with a dilemma: do they play and hope to win, despite how unlikely it is? or do they break the rules, though to do so courts nearly certain death?
The students contend not only with the authorities, whose policies expose them to lethal risks, but with fellow students (i.e. players), who are pressured into abiding by the game rules. Many are disinclined to participate, including protagonist Shuya Nanahara. However, as mysterious transfer student Shogo Kawada counsels him, the fact that other students might be on board — and the fact that Shuya has no way of knowing whether they are or are not — makes it impossible to simply opt for cooperation. This is the kind of situation facing all the students, assuming they’re even level-headed enough to give it that much thought. (Many of them really aren’t.) Ultimately, this is the crux of the story, and the conundrum relevant to our times: how do you respond, ethically, to a game that’s almost sure to kill you if you play by the rules, and even more likely to kill you if you don’t?
Coincidentally, I had a friend teaching Battle Royale to a freshmen Lit class this year, so I decided to pick her brain about it (both for some perspective, and because it’s always fun to hear how newcomers respond to Battle Royale). While their semester was cut short due to lockdown, the students got far enough for some common responses to emerge. Some even completed their papers! While many were initially shocked by the violence, what really took hold of their minds was the gross amorality of the program. Many entered into it with The Hunger Games as a point of comparison, but Takami’s work runs roughshod over the limits any conscientious YA publisher would enforce. There are no easy distinctions of hero, villain, or antihero. No black and white. This elicited some emotional connections with the students, but many of them — still fresh out of high school and its emphasis on looking for “the moral of the story” — lacked the vocabulary to articulate these resonances and the frustrations they raised.
To illustrate, my friend focuses on Takako Chigusa. In the overall scheme of the novel, Takako is hardly extraordinary; in her sole starring chapter, she’s presented as an athlete who uses her status to flout school rules, and whose main concern in the program is avoiding conflict until she can find her friends. However, she’s unable to escape Kazushi Niida who attempts to rape her and then, failing that, tries to murder her. She kills him in the ensuing fight, but is left too weak to protect herself against Mitsuko Souma, who takes her life. The horror is not that Kazushi, the spitting image of “men are trash”, is slain; it’s that Takako is forced to abandon her virtues (i.e. her nonviolent, live-and-let-live brand of tolerance) to save herself. To complicate things further, her killer, Mitsuko Souma, is herself a victim of sexual exploitation; one who uses all the cunning and ruthlessness honed in Japan’s infamous “compensated dating” (i.e. enjo kōsai) scene to carve through the competition. Quoth my friend: “In the discourse of #MeToo… How do I even get into it?”
The game insidiously works its influence not only on the characters, but on the readers as well.
Takami’s varied and nuanced cast makes it easy to “choose your fighter”, as the memes put it — but would you be so eager if it meant they had to kill other students to do so? In this way, the novel draws even its readers into its game of death. But what alternative is there? Supporting no one at all? The reader shares in the characters’ predicament, which is that their ethics must encompass an attitude toward a game they cannot escape.
“Lusory attitude” is the term that ludologists and game theorists use to describe the mindset that people bring to the game. The typical lusory attitude is to play by the rules, try earnestly to win, and be more or less a good sport about it. But when people are unwilling players, they begin to play transgressively. Some play to just get it over with; some, to frustrate other players; others play to lose. While some philosophers, like Jack Halberstam, have posited that intentional failure is a kind of resistance to the mainstream, it’s hard to see how that constitutes a viable response under these circumstances. When the class couple Kazuhiko and Sakura choose jump to their death together, or when best friends Yumiko and Yukiko incite sedition against the rules, they preserve their virtues, but die just the same, saving no one and changing nothing.
Only Shuya triumphs over the program, and to do so he’s forced to master its rules even as he rejects its objectives. But what does the game care of intentions, you might ask, if you’re playing it just the same? Shuya’s caught in the dilemma captured by Matt Bors’s internet famous comic: to “improve society somewhat” he must “participate in society.” Battle Royale, however, makes abundantly clear that this isn’t a compromise the way most people think of it. Playing by the rules is always the harder choice for Shuya; he’s forced to master the game while loathing every second of it.
Here I return to those ideas of core ethics and lusory attitudes. Because while Shuya ostensibly plays by the program’s rules, he adds one of his own that doesn’t rest so easily within it: protecting Noriko Nakagawa. While forming alliances isn’t against the program rules, Shuya gains no in-game advantage from helping his dead friend’s crush. She is, as ludologists would say, an Obstacle Willingly Undertaken—because without her, Shuya realizes, he can’t win in the sense that matters to him. And it should be noted here that the same extends to Shogo, who uses his far greater mastery of the Program to save both Shuya and Noriko, though it costs him his life. That’s the thing about lusory attitudes: even when you seem to be playing the same game, you can in some sense play a different one. It’s like the case of that one World of Warcraft player who got to max level without killing a single in-game creature: even by the standard rules, it’s an accomplishment, but it’s one won on different terms—and by the light, is it difficult. But it’s also necessary, because symbolic losses can only take you so far.
This raises questions about what it means to play transgressively, but still play well in the games we’re dragged into IRL. For instance: as dictatorial regimes encroach upon freedom of speech, what does it mean to rage against the machine without being consumed by it?
Pithy remarks and dank memes are all well and good—but what do they accomplish? Only recently have people begun to catch up to the strategies of online trolls, first by denying them the engagement they seek; later, by flooding their channels with the noise of K-pop. But don’t go patting yourself on the back just yet — these tactics of resistance are long overdue. Subverting the grip of prevailing discourse will require more than just intelligent use of the platforms the authorities have long dominated; it will require taking the fight to new frontiers. The protests of Hong Kong demonstrated how to Be Water in the streets. We will have to learn to Be Water in the virtual world as well.
But to end with “play transgressively, play well” would be far too pithy for the visceral mess of Battle Royale. And in any case, my enduring love for the book has little to do with what it teaches about tactics of resistance. I first read Battle Royale in high school, after hearing some friends talk about the movie. Back then, as a teen dreaming of some someday revolution, it was all too easy to focus on the evils of a calcified older generation. When I re-read it as a part-time teacher, though, it was somewhat harder to slip into the role of wide-eyed hero. But at least I could try to explain to my own students the injustices of normative society and its ceaseless drive to categorize, hierarchize, and punish. And now, reading it yet again as a would-be scholar of games, I find myself focusing on how to walk that fine line of subversive skill. What’s been constant is the resonance of its chorus stolen from Springsteen: Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
The lines from Springsteen’s hit song play on repeat in Shuya’s mind as he fights to survive, and anyone who looks the song up is greeted with opening images that are almost too accurate to bear: a runaway American dream, a town that rips the bones from your back—it’s a death trap, a suicide rap! Most days I feel like I’ve passed the point of escaping — after all, you’ve gotta get out while [you’re] young, emphasis on the last word — but every time I hear the song, or see its refrain in the pages of Battle Royale, I can’t help but feel an old anger, a lingering dissatisfaction, stir to life within me. And ultimately, this is what Battle Royale is to me: a reminder of the sheer injustice of the games we’re forced to play, with rules meant to kill us if we lose, or break us in our attempts to win. If the prison reveals that society is a carceral; and Disneyland, that the USA is a consumerist fantasy; then perhaps Battle Royale is the collar biting our necks, reminding us that the real Program is the world we live in. People are dying. There’s no sitting out the game. We must find a way to play on our own terms, for a victory that doesn’t kill us.