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What’s the name of the game?

Hunger Games vs Ender's Game vs Game of Thrones

Artwork by Brendan James O'Shea Artwork by Brendan James O'Shea

What has made these three seemingly unconnected, universally-known novels turned epic movie/TV franchises so successful and addictive? Is it due to society’s fascination with gamification? Is it because of our obsession with escapism—our desire to be transported into dystopian worlds and fantasy realms?

Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Let’s consider for a moment the concept of counterfactual history— “what if”, alternative versions of the past toyed with by historians to better understand what actually transpired. Could counterfactual history be the elusive ingredient that gives blockbuster series their appeal? While it’s common for writers to take inspiration from the past, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and Game of Thrones (GoT) have all used history in unorthodox ways. Their settings may well be different: The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future, Ender’s Game is technologically optimistic sci-fi and GoT establishes itself as medieval fantasy. But they are similar in one respect: they use alternative history to construct compelling, fictional worlds grounded in reality.

In Susanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, fans have long speculated that the lead protagonist Katniss is actually a modernised version of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc, a 15th century peasant girl, is remembered for being burnt at the stake after encouraging the French to fight off the English forces during the Hundred Years’ War. Like Joan of Arc, Katniss is associated with fire—in fact called the ‘Girl on Fire’ and is depicted as a martyr figure for her people. The Hunger Games is set 73 years since the rebellion against the Capitol; Joan of Arc was executed 73 years after the French peasant uprising, the Jacquerie. Collins seems to ask questions like “What if Joan of Arc lived in the future?” and “Would Joan kill if she was fighting for her life?”

Collins also draws from Greek mythology, especially the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In that story, King Aegeus of Athens has to pay a gory tribute each year to King Minos of Crete: seven men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monstrosity. Collins also turned to Ancient Rome and its affluent, slave-owning imperialism . Here, she found inspiration for the shallow, tribute-hungry wealth of the Capitol, and, in Roman gladiatorial games, for the Hunger Games themselves.

Like Collins, George R. R. Martin’s GoT also embraces counterfactual history, this time with a firm focus on the late medieval period. There are real medieval elements, like accurate depictions of arms and armour, and a sense of the brutal violence that was common in people’s everyday lives. In fact, GoT is allegedly based on the War of the Roses, England’s bloody, 15th century civil war, fought between the Houses of York (Stark) and Lancaster (Lannister).

Nevertheless, Martin does not purport to write a historical novel. GoT’s magical world asks astute, ‘what if’ questions through the lens of key characters who parallel real-life figures. Examples include: what if Richard III was really innocent of killing the princes in the Tower (like Tyrion is innocent of attempting to kill Bran and later killing Joffrey)? What would have become of Edward IV’s siblings if he had died (like Robert Stark) in 1461? What if Elizabeth of York had married her uncle, Richard III (like Sansa married Tyrion) instead of Henry VII? And what if Henry VII, as the conqueror across the Narrow Sea and founder of the Tudors, had nuclear weapons, just like Daenerys has fire power and dragons?

Perhaps less obviously, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, also toys with alternative history. Scott has said he conceives of Ender as a ‘moral opposite’ to Hitler, Stalin and Amin. Like these dictators, Ender is, in the public’s eyes, a hated mass murderer who directed his troops to wipe out humankind’s enemy, the alien race known as the Formics. And yet, unlike them, Ender is no calculating villain: he believed he was merely playing a computer game, not commanding a real-world genocide. Card plays on the critical idea of whether it is possible for Ender to be innocent of murder, given his pure intentions, and questions public perceptions of power by showing Ender’s reputation is based on a false representation of the reality.

Through another lens, Ender’s Game can be interpreted as an alternative history allegory for of America. Like mankind in Ender’s universe, America is a superpower—and one which always sees itself under attack: take the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Vietnam War, and 9/11. In retaliation, America tends to reduce its enemies into oblivion still believing in its own innocence, victimhood and pure, defensive intentions.

Ultimately, the real appeal of Collins, Martin and Card’s works lies in their unconventional use of alternative history—their ability to take the “what if” questions from history and reimagine this in elaborate fantasy worlds. The critical question that remains, then, is why we are so captivated by alternative history.

One reason is that alternative history is provocative: it can confront us with bygone injustices and challenge us to reconsider our construction of the past. At the same time, alternative history is often fundamentally presentist, exploring the past to critique the present.

But, underlying this, counterfactual history holds a simpler attraction: curiosity—the allure of the unknowable—drives us to speculate about what might have been. When it comes to pivotal historical moments, we cannot help considering ‘points of divergence’. History is not rational, and neither is the way we think about it: our speculation is a form of play, a sandbox in which we create different realities and worlds.

Alternative history has surged massively in popularity, with complicated or seemingly impossible premises seeping into mainstream entertainment and pop culture. Ultimately, the play on counterfactual history cleverly utilised in Hunger Games, Ender’s Game and GoT is what has made these franchises so remarkably appealing to readers. Counterfactual history allows us to toy with our deepest, most burning ‘what if’ questions and critically explore complex, present-day issues through that play. That being the case, it is n o t surprising that society cannot seem to quench its thirst for s u c h entertaining and thought- provoking material. Clearly, playing with counterfactual history is one of the games that society will continue to have a insatiable appetite for in time to come.