From books and films to TV shows and video games, the last-man-standing trope is massively popular. Is it a reflection of our dog-eat-dog free-market ideology?

You are dropped on to a remote island with only your wits. You are going to have to scavenge weapons, ammunition, first-aid kits and the like, while 99 other people do the same. And then, at some point, the shooting will start, because this is a contest of elimination. As the old Highlander movies had it, there can be only one. The last person left alive wins the game. Welcome to the battle royale.

Such is the basic idea behind the staggeringly popular Battle Royale version of the world-beating video game Fortnite, which has 40m players logging in every month, and grossed $223m in March of this year alone. Its success has inspired a slew of other battle-royale games, including a mode in the forthcoming instalment of the juggernaut Call of Duty franchise. A fight to the death among many contestants, until one victor emerges, is also the setup of the Hunger Games trilogy of books and films (from 2008), in which 24 young people from the poverty-stricken Districts are selected every year as tributes, to participate in an obsessively televised fight to the death, for the enjoyment of the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol.

In Suzanne Collinss fictional universe, the Hunger Games contests are the broadcast TV equivalent of Strictly and the World Cup rolled into one. Her world can be read as an only slightly exaggerated allegory of modern reality TV, in which the contestants of Big Brother or Love Island are forced to endure various forms of psychic violence, inflicted upon them by sadistic producers, until one emerges as the winner. But what might the increasingly popular cultural trope of the battle royale itself, in film and fiction as well as games, say about the times we live in?

The ur-text of this trope in recent cultural history is the 2000 Japanese cult-classic film Battle Royale, based on the novel by Koushun Takami, in which a group of schoolchildren is gassed and taken to an island, where their irritated teacher explains that they are now fitted with explosive collars to ensure compliance, and have to fight each other to the death within three days until only one survives. The films title was then borrowed for a last man standing game style by Brendan Greene, the designer of the first of the new wave of such shooters, PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds. What makes it so satisfying? Its hard to win, Greene says. More than anything else, the battle royale game-mode pits you against other players, and everyone starts on the same footing, with nothing. Every game plays out differently, so you never know what to expect.

The technology to enable anyone to safely experience such an id-satisfying orgy of imposing ones will is new, but the idea of a battle royal one fit for a king is much older. It used to be a term in cockfighting, for an all-against-all melee of combative poultry. It was also the naval term for a sea battle in which ships lined up strictly against their opposite numbers, each honourably finding its appropriate adversary: as Lord Nelson explained in a letter of 1804, a battle royal involved line-of-battle-ship matched with line-of-battle-ship frigate against frigate, &c. &c. For humans on dry land, meanwhile, a battle royal could also be a brawl a collective pugilistic contest in which newcomers could take their chances.

Much more problematic, however, was the 19th-century American use of battle royal to mean enforced fighting (often to the death) between slaves, for the entertainment of white people, as is sickeningly depicted in Quentin Tarantinos 2012 film Django Unchained. A version of this happens, too, to the hero of Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man (1952). Upon graduating from high school, the narrator expects to read an essay to the assembled white businessmen and other town luminaries, but is first obliged to take part in a battle royal: blindfolded, he must fight nine of his schoolmates in a makeshift boxing ring, while the white men laugh and take bets. Everyone fought hysterically, the narrator explains. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else. Similarly, in both the film Battle Royale and the Hunger Games trilogy, the combatants are forced into their situation, with the subsequent contest in the latter fought for the perverse entertainment of others.

There can only be one winner Battle Royale (2000). Photograph: Allstar/TARTAN VIDEO

Compared with such dark mirrorings of historical evil, battle-royale video games might seem like superficial virtual escapism. Yet can they not also be read as a reflection of our political times? The ideology of the age, after all, is that we are all self-reliant individuals, condemned to compete for resources against everyone else. The entrepreneurial person under precarity capitalism is essentially forced to engage in a battle royale against their fellow citizens, in a pitiless game that the 1% can watch with amusement from a safe, insulated distance. Ian Bogost, a game designer, media professor and author of Play Anything, agrees: There is no question in my mind that the eat-or-be-eaten, winner-take-all mentality of contemporary life is of a piece with the battle-royale genre, he says.

The number of players in a battle-royale game is usually fixed at 100, which is of the same order as Dunbars Number: the figure (around 150) that, according to the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, represents the number of social relationships we are able to maintain. So maybe the battle-royale format speaks intensely to our inner apes fantasies of dominating our immediate social group. On the other hand, since the contestants are often strangers to one another (as in The Hunger Games), it might be better read as an allegory of dominating a rival social group. Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, assistant professor of social psychology at LSE, points out: Absolute dominance is usually something that is striven for in the intergroup realm the nastiness between chimp colonies as documented by Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham, for example whereas leadership within communities is usually maintained only by not being seen as too dominating.

Maybe its the Dunbar Number in reverse, Bogost suggests. Instead of counting the largest number of stable relationships a person can have, a battle royale assembles something approaching the largest number of people a person can reasonably find visceral delight in having vanquished. Beating a few friends is fun, but fleeting. Beating thousands or millions is incomprehensible, except as statistics, or maybe as psychopathy. But a hundred or so that feels like an accomplishment that extends beyond ordinary life, but that you can still hold in your head all at once.

To allegorise the competitiveness of economic life as a thrilling virtual sport one that players enjoy watching as well as competing in is at least a fleeting aesthetic comfort. An optimist might even suggest it offers a model for more solidarity in real life. Greene says: I believe most want to help others. Even within the Battle Royale film, groups formed to try to survive together, and this is true even within the game world, where players will team up in squad mode so they have help surviving.

In Invisible Man, however, there is no opportunity for the young black men forced to fight one another to team up. The spectators throw coins and dollar bills on the carpet: scrambling to pick the money up, the contestants find that the carpet is electrified. The situation is similarly rigged for the underpaid modern worker in the gig economy, which is set up for the benefit of the tech giants extracting the profits and secreting them in global tax havens, while resisting the unionisation of the people it denies are its workers.

Bloodthirsty contests in the Roman circuses, themselves often battles royale, were meant to distract the populace from political grievance, but today we cant really stomach the gruesomeness of gladiatorial combat as entertainment, Bogost points out. Thats a virtue, maybe, but its also a fault because we sanitise competition and brutality rather than staring down its reality. Thats true of physical violence as much as economic or social competition. If you imagine a battle-royale version of, say, taxi driving which is, arguably, the coliseum game tech companies such as Uber and Lyft are putting on I doubt people would play that. Uber drivers dont literally have to fight until the last one of them is driving, but they are treated as lone combatants forced to compete with one another on star ratings, at peril of losing their livelihoods, if not their lives. People playing games, on the other hand, Bogost says, want the feeling of direct competition and victory, but without the consequences. And you know, thats in part what games are for.

Maybe the consequence-free fantasy violence of the games and films even helps to reinforce the structural ideology they encode. And that has political consequences, since the modern model of the atomised, competitive individual shifts responsibility for social ills away from corporations and governments. The existential competition of all against all is all very well for fighting fowl, for the little people, or for escapist digital entertainment, but heaven forbid the battle royale should ever impinge upon the comfortable security of those in power.

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