By Cristina Hartmann Lawyer by day, writer by night
This is a fascinating topic, yet one that may be too complicated to answer fully. The Hunger Games series' use of violence isn't one-dimensional. There are multiple layers to how violence affects politics, individual behavior and social psychology. In fact, the complicated threads of violence and culpability are what makes this book series so poignant and popular.
Violence isn't clearly good or bad in the series. The Capitol uses violence as a tool of oppression. The revolutionaries use violence as an avenue to freedom. Individuals use violence as murder and self-defense. To paint violence and killing as purely bad would be simplistic.
Violence and culpability are complicated moral issues, in fiction and reality. That struck me the most about the series is the use of violence as crowd-control and its psychological impact on individuals. Here's a few lessons that I imparted:
Violence as Population Control
This is probably the most obvious lesson of the Hunger Games. The Capitol uses Hunger Games are a tool to crush any sparks of resistance amongst the districts. Yet, violence proves to be a poor form of population control, as Catching Fire and Mockingjay illustrates.
The Hunger Games' conception came about after the Capitol rushed the rebellion 74 years before the first book. The Games are a punishment -- an explicit reminder of Capitol's power over the districts. The power to coerce people into abandoning their children to a near-certain death is a heavy power indeed. 
Yet, this "power" is not truly in the Capitol's hands. The districts are the ones who grant this power to the Capitol. Katniss' berries stunt emphasizes this subtle point. Katniss shows the Capitol and the districts that the Capitol depends on the districts to play the power game. Without the districts' cooperation (allowing the reaping), the Capitol has no leverage. This is the classic script of revolutions -- American, French, et cetera.
Violence can be effective population control, but it never lasts. This form of oppression depends on the population's willingness to be subjugated.
Violence as Psychological Control
The Hunger Games aren't just a means to control the districts, they also remind individuals of their baser natures. Therefore, the Games make the victors equally culpable for the oppression. Tributes fight for survival, and the Capitol rewards such ruthlessness with wealth and celebrity. Even though the Capitol is the one staging the Games, the tributes do the actual killing. Culpability is a powerful political tool. Panem needs to control the Victors because they are some of the most influential people in Panem. (Ironically, their power is the Capitol's own doing.)
Peeta turns this psychological control on its head in the first Games. Instead of fighting for his own survival, he fights for Katniss' survival. This action destroys the psychological control that the Capitol holds over its victors. Peeta doesn't kill for base purposes; he kills for a far loftier reason -- love. This was a masterful stroke of subversion.
Once again, the refusal of the tributes to play the game cracks the Capitol's hold on the districts. Like the saying goes -- it takes two to tango.
Desensitization to Violence
Collins plays this card masterfully. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Hunger Games series is how stylized and banal violence becomes. Tributes are decorated and polished into perfection. Every killing is pored over and analyzed as if it was a football play instead of a child's death. The over-exposure morphs violence and death into something casual and meaningless.
We can see signs of this happening today. We hear about millions of people dying in natural disasters, famines and war. The overflow of data, images and information about violence and death overwhelms the human psyche. We simply deal with it by desensitization.
Overexposure to televised violence may desensitize people to
the very real horrors of violence and death.
Violence is Psychologically Damaging, Regardless of Culpabiltiy
After the first book, we see Katniss and Peeta struggle with the after-effects of their actions during the first Games. Katniss withdraws within herself and suffers from nightmares. Peeta externalizes his pain by painting violent imageries, while also having nightmares.
Regardless of the arguable moral defensibility of self-defense, Peeta and Katniss cannot scape violence's side effects. Other obvious examples of the damaging effects of violence are Haymitch and the morphlings. Violence, regardless of culpability, destroys people. Unfortunately, Collins doesn't fully explore this theme for non-competitors, such as Gale, Prim and others.
Nobody gets off scot-free in war, regardless of culpability.
These are hardly the only lessons we can draw from the Hunger Games series but this is a start.
- Collins bases the idea of the games on ancient Greek and Roman times. The Greeks used to throw children into a labyrinth and the Romans used to delight in the spectacle of gladiators killing each other in the arena.Both of these examples were less-obvious population control techniques. It's interesting to note how explicit this reference is. See this video for more.
 - Collins openly acknowledges that this is one of the lessons that she wanted the series to impart. See this video for more.
More questions on The Hunger Games:
- What does The Hunger Games series teach us about strategy?
- What does The Hunger Games series say about reality television?
- Who were the key characters involved in the Rebellion? Was the rebels' strategy a solid one?