Hunger Games: When the Odds Are Not in Your Favor

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The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is focused on spending time with family and friends—over the dinner table, racing through the mall for the best deals, or, as recent numbers reveal, at the box office. This year was Thanksgiving’s biggest weekend to date, with Liongate’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, taking the top prize. The film brought in $110.2 million from Wednesday to Saturday. (forbes.com)

Catching Fire picks up where the Hunger Games left off.  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have emerged victorious from the Hunger Games, marking the first time two individuals have left the game arena with their lives. They begin their tour of the Capitol and the 12 districts of Panem, a country formed in the ruins of what was once North America.

As the tour continues, resistance begins to form among the Districts against the controlling Capitol, and Katniss emerges as a symbol of defiance against the current system.

Before Katniss volunteered to compete in the Hunger Games, she struggled to provide for her mother and sister in District 12. She spent her days hunting and gathering, and haggling for items the family needs. But despite her best efforts, there were nights when she and her family would go to bed unable to ignore the hollow ache of hunger. There is a clear divide between the wealthy Capitol and the struggling poor in the outlying districts.

To add to their plight, the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games each year, requiring a male and female from each district, age 12-18, to participate in a fight to the death on national television. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” is echoed again and again—it’s the ultimate statement of irony. Seemingly, the selection and rules are fair; everyone has a chance for their name to be drawn, and each district is represented. But the game itself is grossly unjust.

America is certainly no Panem, but there is a different type of “hunger games” taking place in this country. More than 50 million Americans—one in every six people in this nation— are food insecure, struggling to put meals on the table. Many are working jobs at minimum wage. They take odd jobs for extra cash. But there’s still not enough money to cover basic needs.. Tough decisions have to be made, such as paying for electricity one month or paying for food. Governmental assistance and charities help cover some of the gaps. But as families and individuals start to get back on their feet, the aid is often taken away prematurely, and the struggles return.

Poverty is a vicious cycle. Too often food insecure families are doing everything right, but despite their best efforts they cannot break free. (See A Place at the Table for some poignant examples).  It’s a concept that goes directly against the fabled American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can support yourself, your family, and have everything you want.

Supposedly, the odds are in everyone’s favor to achieve the American Dream. It’s about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in tough times, working diligently to achieve your goals. Put in enough work, and your dreams can be reached.  Things won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to earn it.

It’s these ideals that cause many Americans to associate poverty with laziness. But what if, despite your best efforts, the odds simply aren’t in your favor to achieve success? What if the rules are fair, but the game itself isn’t?

I had a chance to explore some of these questions when I played a game of Monopoly as part of an exercise with some co-workers. The rules were the same as the classic game, but one small change made all the difference in the odds of winning.

Playing a game you cannot win

Shamethia Webb, the Waco Regional Director for the Texas Hunger Initiative, brought out the Monopoly board after reading about the game experiment in a journal article from Multicultural Education.

“Originally, the activity was imagined as a cultural competence lesson, a way to help teachers think and talk about race and privilege,” Webb said.  “It was also meant to interrogate one’s understanding of meritocracy and the long held belief that anyone can triumph over poverty by merely “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Webb thought the activity would be good for her staff as they work toward “creating solutions to hunger and poverty.”

The rules were the same as in the original Monopoly game, with each player receiving the same amount of money. But the players began the game at different, staggered times. Webb served as the banker and observer.

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I started first, along with another player. I had my choice of playing pieces, and on each turn, I was able to purchase properties. After a few rounds, I was able to put houses on many of those properties. But as the two of us played back and forth, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the others on the sidelines watching, unable to take part.

After about 20 minutes, the third player jumped into the game. She bought a few properties, but her opportunities were more limited because a majority of the spaces had been purchased. She often had to stop and pay one of us rent—fun for us, because it brought us closer to winning, but not so fun for her. She soon lost the bulk of her paper money, and it was clear she was becoming frustrated.

Another 15 minutes in and the final player began. By this time, practically every spot was taken. Most had houses, and a few had hotels on them. The player lacked motivation and soon lost most of her money. She eventually landed in the jail space, but at least she didn’t have to pay rent, incurring debt from the bank.

I didn’t win the game, but my co-worker who also started in the first round did. The group that begins the game first always produces the winner, according to the article. The other groups never really have a chance.

“It’s interesting to witness how helpless some of the players feel, how hopeless,” Webb observed. “They are less motivated than their peers who began the game before they did and who were able to accumulate an enviable amount of capital and money.”

Relating games to reality

In our capitalist culture, success is measured in terms of how much stuff we accumulate over a lifetime, and how our position in society rises. It’s why the capitalist model of the Monopoly game works so well to illustrate, not so much how poverty works, but how poverty feels.

“I think the game reminds us how difficult it can be for an individual or a family to overcome cumulative disadvantages like financial poverty,” Webb reflected. “We can play the game and perhaps understand why some people would opt to ‘go to jail’ or quit the game altogether rather than continue to compete in a game they know they will lose.”

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The reality is, while the American dream in theory is equal, disadvantages can keep individuals and families from rising up out of poverty and achieving success, even if they work hard.  And while assistance helps, it isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer to poverty.

“I hope the game highlights the fact that social equity requires more than just access to capital or an invitation to a starting line,” Webb suggested. “It requires a restructuring, an undoing.”

It will take time to eradicate hunger and poverty in our nation. But seeking to understand the complex challenges of poverty is the first step.

Can anyone be a winner in our society’s version of the game of life? Maybe it’s time to take a step back and evaluate the game, so that everyone has a chance to win. May we all work toward making the odds in everyone’s favor.

Post and photos by:  Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

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