"You have a bag of sand, a long knife and a cudgel."
"What's a cudgel?" said the 6-year-old.
"Like a stick," said her big brother, who is 15 years old. He and three of his sisters were sitting in a circle in the living room, their faces grave and intent. Outside, the sun shone on a sparkling September afternoon, but the children wanted to be indoors, where they could concentrate.
"Why do I need a stick?"
"You could hit someone with it."
"You could burn it! You could use it to make a fire to stay warm!" said one of her sisters.
"Well, it might be hot in the arena. She wouldn't want a fire then."
"Maybe she could stick it in the ground to make a sun dial," suggested another sister.
"What's a sun dial?" asked the 6-year-old.
"Oh, never mind," said the boy, who was, apparently, the Gamemaker. "You have a bag of sand, a long knife and a big stick."
"What do I have?"
I didn't stay around to see what she had, though I knew there would be tridents and maces and machetes and axes and probably Tylenol and loaves of bread, too.
Four of the children have lately been absorbed in an entertainment they call the Hunger Games Game. It's inspired, of course, by Suzanne Collins' phenomenally best-selling trilogy of young adult novels (and the subsequent movie) about teenagers who fight to the death in televised gladiatorial arenas in a dystopian post-American tyranny. Only the older two have read the books, but this doesn't impede the younger ones, who, like most of us, seem to absorb the wider culture by osmosis.
As played in our house, the Hunger Games Game involves no violent actions, thank God; only words, and frankly not even belligerent ones. For each session, the Gamemaker meticulously assigns weapons and supplies to his sisters. The girls sit quietly as he does this, occasionally interrupting with questions ("How do you use a scimitar?") but otherwise soberly absorbing their various predicaments.
Then the Gamemaker explains the nature of that day's arena (e.g., "A river of hot lava goes through the middle of a glacier") and begins to set up the conflict ("You run towards the rocks"). Once that is done, and it always takes a while, the girls are allowed to get their hands on the narrative.
"I ran towards the rocks, and built myself a fort," one girl said. "I made a hole in the ground where I could bury my medicine so that no one could find it."
"Wait, you can't dig a hole. The ground is frozen."
"No, I scooped out the ice and dirt with my shield."
Does this sound to you like suitable entertainment for a 6-year-old and her siblings? It didn't to me, either, and for a time, like President Snow, villain of the "Hunger Games" books, I tried to suppress the fun on the grounds of grimness and age-inappropriateness. My husband had his own reasons for wanting to outlaw the Hunger Games Game. To him, it looks unbelievably dreary and boring: "They just sit there, droning on, and nothing happens."
Yet we've realized that something is happening, something more than who's been swallowed by a giant squid (OK, I made that up; I don't think there's been a squid in the games yet).
Four children who might be off on their separate pursuits, atomized in the way that siblings of widely different ages can be, are instead spending time with each other. The arena may be harsh, and even boring, but at least they're all in it together.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.