Levi caught a flash of movement ahead to his right, followed by hushed voices, and immediately crouched behind a tree. Alerted, the team knelt in dense brush. He peered slowly around the trunk to gauge the timing of a possible attack. Three girls were setting up camp using a giant fallen tree for shelter from the light rain. They strung tarp on a rope to create a larger overhang. Levi turned, held up three fingers and pointed towards the girls. They all understood the command to go into offensive mode. Suddenly a shout rang from the top of a nearby tree; a girl on lookout had outed their position! “Go!” Levi shouted. His alliance leapt to attack, half the group running to the far side of the girls. The lookout from the tree shimmied down to join her alliance, now standing back to back, crouched, ready for combat.
Then, Levi heard rustling from behind. He swiveled quickly as fifteen tributes emerged eerily from the trees with smiles on their faces. The career pack had found them all.
This scenario may seem familiar if you have read The Hunger Games trilogy. In 2011, a group of friends decided to take the action described in the books and make it into a real game of fun and survival. The woods are real. The freezing rain is real. The adrenaline is real. Every one of the tributes feels the pressure as they use strength, agility, strategy and teamwork to win. The group started one summer with nine tributes (six founders and three siblings) and by 2015, 32 tributes, male and female, between the ages of 10 and 18, from as far away as Canada and Iowa, were playing.
The Big Dream
It all began when 14-year-old April Leahy had a dream in which her closest friends at Beacon Academy were caught up in the hunger games described in the Suzanne Collins novels. “We were all doing a mock version…when I woke up, I realized it might be a fun thing to do,” she says. Because of the ever-present camera in the book, one of the original members decided not to participate in the games, but capture the action on film to share again when the friends graduated from school.
The timing was perfect. “One of the main reasons we did it was that the games would be a celebration of the first Hunger Games movie (set for release early the next year, in 2012),” says original team member Tiffany Zarriello. “It was highly anticipated among the six of us. I was personally tracking its production progress on the Entertainment Weekly website, like the dedicated fangirl I am.”
The premise of the books involves children being forced to kill one another for the entertainment of the ruling government. “But we keep it lighthearted,” April says. “We realize that the books are much darker, but we do it just for the thrill of competition. Obviously, nobody gets killed in this version of the games,” she assures. “From what I can remember,” adds Tiffany, “no one has been severely injured, although during the very first games, someone did get stuck in a tree!”
(Katya MacFarland and Josh Johnson)
The Playing Field
Drawing from the first book, the group set the action in a forest. Fortunately April lived next to a wooded area. “The games began in my driveway with all of us in a line facing a patch of woods with the cornucopia (a stash of supplies and weapons) inside a rickety wooden trailer,” she says. Now the group uses a 50-acre protected stand of old growth forest north of Maple Grove. “The weather has alternated between rainy and sunny,” Tiffany says.
Weather brings its own difficulties. The first year the group played, there was a light rain. They put a plastic bag over the camera which caused the audio to be almost unusable. Other years, players experienced unbearable mosquitos, large patches of stinging nettle and an angry nest of wasps. Each obstacle made the games seem more real and survival instincts kicked in.
The mock weapons used during the games are supplied by players. “People make their own with PVC pipe, foam and duct tape,” April explains. “They work well and don’t hurt anyone. There are mostly swords, but people have made foam axes and spears, too. A couple years we had a crossbow with foam darts... and the first year, there was a wooden bow with suction cup arrows.” The cornucopia contains other makeshift items as well; life-vests act as weapon-proof armor, foam kickboards transform to shields.
Survival supplies also become a strategic part of the action. Unmarked backpacks, fought for at the cornucopia, might contain rope, tarp, water, food, duct tape (to repair weapons) and poison. “It is perfectly legal for players to poison other players’ water bottles. The poison is represented by salt. There is also an antidote (grape juice)...selectively placed in a few bags,” Tiffany says. If the antidote is administered within five minutes, elimination can be avoided. “This sneaky trick works best if you poison a tribute in your own alliance since alliances usually share water,” Tiffany adds.
If they hadn’t picked up the tip from the book, tributes soon learn that the victors of the games usually begin with strong alliances. “Alliances are best made discreetly though, so that others won’t have the opportunity to plot against you and your alliance,” Tiffany says. Original player Sage Haynes chimes in: “I like to create an inner alliance, too, because when everyone has been eliminated and it’s just your group left, you’ll want to have one or two people who have your back when everyone turns on each other.”
April originally devised rules outlining how to eliminate another player. Tributes aim for a strike to the torso for an instant elimination. A hit to an arm or leg adds a “wound,” which, when accumulated to five, equals elimination. If anyone intentionally causes harm they are instantly eliminated.
After many smaller battles it comes down to the final battle. “The game typically lasts a few hours,” April says. “It depends on how cautious the players are being. They don’t want to hide out too long; heat, mosquitoes and rain can make it kind of uncomfortable to sit things out. Usually there’s a climax toward the end where a lot of people get out, followed by a final fight between the last two standing.”
Sage’s older sister, Piper, shares a rendition of these final moments: “Last year, the final battle was really creepy. Everybody ended up congregating in one area of the woods because a couple of people were screaming as they were being attacked. Everybody started running toward the screaming; players converged from all points around the woods, coming out into the main area. All we could hear was the sound of each other’s labored breathing and branches breaking as everyone rushed toward the screams. It was just really creepy.” After the last battle, the tribute that survives is crowned the victor—a big deal among this group of friends.
(Tiffany Zarriello, Lily Leahy and Levi Peterson)
The games are meant to be fun, and lasting memories remain. Before the games begin, individual tribute interviews are filmed, as in the book. After the games, the group leaves the woods to gather for a big dinner and campfire where new Hunger Games stories are shaped. They also watch the previous year’s video. The only remaining step is to begin the process of editing and creating music for that year’s action.
Volunteers recording the action try to be as silent as possible and tributes are instructed to ignore them. As players are eliminated, district by district, they are encouraged to use their phones to film subsequent battles. This makes for lots of angles and varied footage toward the end. The Haynes sisters (with the on-again, off-again help of other interested players) spend time editing the video footage and creating an original soundtrack. “Hours and hours of time go into producing the finished product,” Piper says. “My sister and I watch the entirety of each camera’s raw footage to find clips that will advance the main story. We also pull out clips for a trailer and blooper reel.” She explains that with footage available from different parts of the woods, retaining continuity is especially challenging. “The last battle is the most fun to edit,” she continues, “you have several camera angles, and you get to focus in on skirmishes within the main battle and switch angles for dramatic effect.”
This group of friends started with a focus on their love of reading and film while having fun together in nature. As each one has now grown and moved to different colleges, the event is a much anticipated reunion—with the addition of 30 other dramatically competitive friends, of course.
(Ellie Peterson and Matthew Jones reenact the suspenseful berry scene from the end of the first book.)