The Best TV Shows and Movies About Games of Death (And Why So Many of Them Are About Capitalism)

Squid Game guard in focus with dying contestants in the background

Death Games: a trope that transcends genres and cultures. Whether it’s horror, dystopia, comedy, drama, or a mix of all, humans have been drawn to the idea of ​​gambling for thousands of years. But this trope has received special attention in the last twenty years. Why? Post-9/11 anxiety about threats around every corner? Disillusionment with the dog-eat-dog rhetoric of capitalism? Some combination of them?

Whatever the reason, here are some of the best Death Games movies and shows:

real battle

The class photo before the Battle Royale, showing all the characters that would die in the movie.
Via Toei Company/Anchor Bay Entertainment

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this story is the fact that all the participants know each other; each and every one of these characters have been classmates for years, so when they choose to murder each other, they’re not just strangers hurting each other, but friends desperately trying to survive and falling victim to their former friends. I admit, the capitalist overtones are minimal, focusing more on the dynamics of old traditionalism versus young modernism/individualism. But it is still a tragic story of what happens when tyrannical traditionalism collides with rebellious youth.

The Hunger Games

Katniss and Peeta in the hunger games
Via Lionsgate

So many young adults in the 2010s had a The Hunger Games phase (I should know, I was one of them). And for good reason. A seemingly simple story about a girl in a fight to the death was complete with classism, colonialism, consumerism, ruralism vs. urbanism, ‘nice privilege’, ability/disability, race and a thousand other themes that turned a simple premise into one. one of the most ironic critiques of capitalism in the 2010s.

What do you prefer

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking entries on this list, the movie What do you prefer it’s a demonstration of how competing with each other for the favor of the rich ultimately only benefits the rich who rig the game from the start. Unlike many porn torture horror movies of the 2000s, What do you prefer focuses on the human aspect of the violence committed. These characters aren’t just meat for slaughter, but a disabled woman trying to pay for her procedure, a young woman trying to take care of her sick brother, a gamer trying to get over her debt and start over. . It’s a story that’s as relevant now as it was when it first came out in the wake of Occupy Wall Street in 2012.

Ready or Not

Grace laughing covered in blood in Ready or Not
Via Searchlight Pictures

A deadly game of hide and seek where a poor bride is chased by her rich in-laws. What’s interesting about this one are the intermingled themes of toxic families and the privilege that wealth buys. There is also an implication in the movie that everyone in the family marries poor people specifically because they know they won’t be able to hide the death of richer and more important people. Even love cannot necessarily be outweighed by the problems of wealth and inequality of power.

Running Man

richard dawsonarnold schwarzenegger
Via Tri-Star Pictures

This was one of the first to include television in the equation. Where some of these stories have these happenings in secret, in the secluded homes of the rich, Running Man looked at the brutality of game show culture and the entertainment industry that treats humans as props. It forces us to examine what we are willing to tolerate being done in the name of entertainment, as well as what we are willing to do for our own survival.

squid game

Squid Game guard in focus with dying contestants in the background
Via Netflix

We all knew this was coming. squid game on Netflix took the internet by storm and for good reason. The intersection of brightly colored monkeys and children’s games only served to highlight the horror of being forced to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the rich.


the Jumanji films

Via Sony Pictures

The first is the one with the most explicit “man hunting man” metaphor, with the big game hunter following Alan throughout the film; the fact that the game only ends after Alan confronts this hunter (who is played by his father’s actor for additional manipulation) seals it. But I want to highlight Jumanji: The Next Level. After Spencer suffers a mental breakdown, she seeks to return to the world of Jumanji to escape the real world. Only he ends up as a mousy thief character instead of his usual Smolder Bravestone. This shows how escapist entertainment doesn’t help us fix our problems, it only helps us deny their existence, and only through self-realization can we bring about lasting change.

the SAW films

Amanda with the bear trap reversed in Saw (2004)
Via Lionsgate

“I want to play a game.” That phrase spawned a 9-movie franchise, as well as many imitators in the 2000s, and arguably started the torture porn genre that defined horror at the time. An exercise in sadistic irony, the traps of the Jigsaw assassin and his apprentices seem designed to teach moral lessons in the most painful ways possible. However, games can vary wildly in the quality of the lesson they are trying to teach. Even those who are not manipulated can feel particularly unfair; Burn a liar’s wife alive instead of punishing the liar? I will say that installments 2 and 6 are probably the closest to getting it right; the second is a brutal dismantling of police corruption and brutality and the sixth is a condemnation of health insurance companies that make decisions for both doctors and patients.

So why do we keep coming back to this trope?

Some of these death games are a fun twist on children’s games, with higher stakes for the characters. What if a board game/video game was really trying to kill you? What if hide and seek was a game of life and death?

But many are also ruthless indictments of capitalist structures; Structures that keep workers competing with each other, rather than grouping together. That prioritizes the status quo over individuals.

“Oh, your co-worker is quietly quitting, that creates more work for everyone else.” No, your co-worker is doing their job and setting firm limits.

“Oh, the unions take money from the workers.” They also advocate for workers and fund strikes that lead to real change in the workplace. Almost all of the happy endings on this list come about when people work together against rich game creators or owners.

So this Labor Day, think about what is really worth fighting and dying for.

Additional Death Game media from other Mary Sue writers:

  • danganronpa
  • Magical Girl Raising Project
  • Tomodachi game
  • Portal
  • bodies bodies bodies
  • kaiji
  • Kamen RiderRyuki
  • the damned
  • The Belko experiment
  • death race 2000
  • smash tv
  • CUBE!

(image: Netflix)

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