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It's time to start running!
Killian, The Running Man

Being found guilty of a crime grave enough to merit imprisonment, a life sentence or death row tends to make people less sympathetic to your situation in life, such as is left. This is why convicts are on a very short list of Acceptable Targets for a whole slew of not nice things; and in fiction, there are plenty of these not nice things. Military conscription, medical experiments, Blood Sports, Deadly Games, Human Sacrifice, the list goes on and on.

The cons aren't shipped off to a sub-human prison, that would be... wasting resources. Instead the government uses them in a "contest" of one of the above in order to get some use or money out of them. Usually they're "kidnapped" and officially were "Released to Elsewhere", but there's plenty of distressingly legal ways to whitewash the whole bloody affair. The government may declare that All Crimes Are Equal, and as un-persons the prisoners can be used for basically whatever. If there are those who want to maintain a semblance of humanity and legality, the cons will be offered to participate in the contest as an "option" to serving their full sentence so they can win their freedom. For some reason, the general public is rarely upset by the possibility of a battle hardened ex-con who is in no way rehabilitated being released onto the street... or they would be, if it were public knowledge and if any actually survived. When this trope is used in conjunction with Blood Sport, the reverse seems to be the case. The most successful cons will develop a fan base clamoring for them.

This story very likely takes the (sympathetic) POV of the cons, because sympathizing with people conducting whatever horrific acts are about to be perpetrated on the cons is usually a bit too alienating for audiences. So aside from giving most of the cons a smidgen of sympathetic characterization, there will be one innocent man who was framed to get him specifically into the night's debauchery. (Alternatively, his crime may be justified—stealing bread for the hungry—or not appear serious to the audience—failure to bow before the noble he didn't see.) Usually this one innocent man and the most likable, noble or least evil con will survive to the end; sometimes this is justified by their character making it possible for them to trust each other. The game is of course rigged to kill all the Condemned Contestants, which makes the protagonist's success a "threat" both because they might get out and expose the charade, and are getting so popular with the audience at home that they'd listen.

Compare Boxed Crook and Win Your Freedom


Anime and Manga

  • Deadman Wonderland is this trope personified.
  • Not sure if this quite counts, but in Hunter X Hunter, as part of the Hunter Exam, a number of convicts are given instructions to waylay the examinees, with them getting a year off their sentence for each hour they take from the examinees' time.
    • In addition, many of the NPCs on Greed Island are actually convicts, including Razor, one of the Game Masters.
    • Since the Hunters themselves are not prosecuted for crimes (up to a certain degree), it seems that they have a sort of free reign over what goes and what doesn't. Anyone not smart or competent enough to acquire their get-out-of-jail-free card prior to breaking the law is hereby given a second chance.
  • Kabuto pulls this in one chapter of Naruto. Basically tells a bunch of random ninja in his prison to kill each other and whoever's alive at the end goes free. He was lying though, as his plan was to quickly find who was strongest and Orochimaru steals the winner's body.
  • In Death Note, L brings in prisoners from death row to scout out things he feels is likely to lead to death. For instance, he introduces "himself" as Lind L. Tailor, who is actually one such convict as a decoy to test the mysterious Kira's ability to kill people and to prove Kira's existence to Interpol.
  • In One Piece, Blackbeard is looking for strong crewmates, so he breaks into maximum security prison Impel Down's deepest areas where the worst criminals are located, and has all of them fight to the death. He picks out the four inmates who survived and leaves with them.


  • The Condemned is made of this trope.
  • The 2009 remake of Death Race.
  • In the Doom movie, which has them test alien DNA on a death row criminal (and said DNA makes evil people into monsters).
  • The villain in RoboCop 2 used for Brain In a Jar cyborging (they hoped to control him through his drug addition).
  • The cinematic version of The Running Man. Here the cons are all political dissidents. Naturally Ben Richards (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his love interest Amber are framed innocents; Richards for refusing to open fire on innocent civilians (which is ironically what he is then framed for doing) and Amber for trying to expose the coverup. It also turns out that no one ever wins — whoever wins the competition is killed secretly and their appearances faked using video editing.
  • Terminator Salvation has Marcus as a willing donor.
  • In Virtuosity, convicts are used to test the new (and inadvertently deadly) VR police training system. The hero is an ex-cop who in a break from the norm is actually guilty of the crime he was imprisoned for, although there were some pretty mitigating circumstances.
  • The movie Gamer, which has the added twist that the battling convicts are being controlled remotely by other human "players." Also, lesser cons can escape their sentence wholesale by surviving one battle, but they must allow themselves to be programmed to wander around the battlefield like idiots.
  • The "game" variation is used in Mike Judge's film Idiocracy.
  • The Tron universe has the Game Grid. Both movies, Tron 2.0, the Betrayal's a nasty way to de-rez for the twisted entertainment of one's fellow Programs. The only time it wasn't lethal was when Flynn was running things.


  • In the Matthew Reilly novel Area 7 the secret government base has a cell block containing prisoners used in secret medical experimentation. Naturally they end up escaping to make things even harder for the protagonists.
  • It is not done by any official authority, but in C.R.Jahn's Underground, junkies and such are kidnapped by the mob, and forced to fight in gladiator battles.
  • In Time Scout, Wagers of Sin, Skeeter ends up in the arena, condemned as a thief.
  • The Year Of The Flood has condemned criminals release into a lethal paintball-style arena tournament, for the entertainment of the wider population, its competitors are not treated sympathetically, being sent back into the competition until they are eliminated.

Live Action Television

  • The Outer Limits episode "Judgment Day", where the criminals are hunted down by the families of those they murdered. The protagonist manages to prove that the show's producer had framed him to get ratings. The episode ends with the producer sentenced to be hunted.

Tabletop Games

  • In the Shadowrun Verse, televised blood sports from Aztlan usually claim to get all their contestants this way, although it's an open secret that some are simply shanghaied onto the programs.

Video Games

  • In the Dreamcast game Headhunter we learn that criminals imprisoned in the undersea-dome (so you could say it's sort of a waterdome) get to fight each other to the death which then gets broadcast live on TV, the winner gets a shorter sentence and the loser gets to generously donate their organs. Maybe they just didn't like Wade but some criminals got much better weapons than others.
  • The entire Speedball series of games is built on this premise.
  • Rockstar's Manhunt, though the protagonist didn't really choose that option. Rockstar makes an oblique reference to another, similar game called "Liberty City Survivor" on GTA Radio.
  • In Halo, the disgraced Covenant commander, is given the title of The Arbiter as punishment for allowing the Halo ring to be destroyed. The Arbiter, like his predecessors who held the dubious title, is sent to suicide missions, although, being a protagonist, he actually survives them.
  • Starcraft 2 has Terran Marines and Reapers, who are convicts given pardons for their military service.
    • In fact, something like 90% of Terran infantry are convicts that have been brainwashed into obedience, because the extremely high mortality rate prevents many recruits. One assumes the people in the armored vehicles are more willing to see action.
      • To be fair, some of the criminals brainwashed are some of the worst scum in the galaxy. One female soldier remarks that she would lure men back to her house with the promise of sex, then lock them in her basement and torture them for days before skinning them alive. And these are the Marines. The reapers mentioned above are the criminals that are so violent that they can resist the process, and are sent to a remote ice-planet for an even more intense (and lethal) brainwashing curriculum. That said, the 'criminal scum' in the Marines include such scum as non-violent political dissidents and protesters, and, at least during the Confederacy, kidnapped Fringe Worlders.
  • The X-Box game Toxic Grind takes place in future where x-treme sports are outlawed and anyone caught is put on a game show where they must ride BM Xs through deadly obstacles. If that wasn't bad enough, the "contestants" are pumped with a toxin that can only be counteracted through adrenaline. The hero of the story isn't even a criminal, it's an unlucky BMX rider who got plucked from the past just because the sadistic host of the show was running out of contestants.
  • A significant number of people in Unreal Tournament are criminals trying to earn their freedom. It's outright stated that Liandri prefers using convicts in the matches because they already have combat experience and are willing to go to any length in order to win which makes the match even more interesting to the spectators.
    • In fact, the first game mentions that any time a high-profile criminal is captured, they're given a choice: execution or Tournament?
  • In Killer Instinct, Cinder is a convict who is transformed into a flame-being by Ultratech and is promised freedom if he destroys Glacius.
  • Obscure Xbox Blood Sport game Deathrow has the Convicts - a team of prisoners entered into the Blitz League to earn sentence reductions for good performance... thought they have to be serving multiple life sentences to be eligible.
  • This seems to be the backstory behind Exit Path, though it's never explained what you did to get put in the arena.


  • The D-class personnel at the SCP Foundation. Tested, experimented on, used as cannon fodder in as many ways as there are in the book (and making up a few new ones as it goes along), and (ex)terminated after a month. That is, until they run out of crooks and start bringing in fresh Red Shirts from the average populace.

Web Comics

  • Last Res0rt. Just to give it a twist, there's volunteers—i.e., people on the show WILLINGLY!
    • Well, the volunteers have their own justifications: Jason wants to kill one of the other cons, Daisy; Adharia is looking to prove herself as a warrior; and Jigsaw thought she'd killed her sire and wanted to help Daisy earn her freedom.
  • In Teh Gladiators, the eponymous heroes agree to fight in the WoW Arena as an alternative to imprisonment, execution, or worse. Of course, the game is rigged (in their favor), but they don't know it.
  • In Impure Blood, some of the gladiators—at least, an announcer warns that those who default on bets will be in next week's bout. (Not all. Roan was Made a Slave.)

Real Life

  • The gladiator games in Ancient Rome. Unlike in fiction, the Gladiators were POWs, slaves, or criminals. Very few were actual willing contestants or Romans, though the Gladiators were probably really good at fighting if they lived long enough, given that they were training all year even when not actually fighting. Fiction got that part right.
    • There were also a few examples of gladiators who reached super-stardom, much like modern day footballers, and gained wealth and fame fighting men and beasts for (other people's) fun and profit. Definitely not the norm, but not unheard of either. Which is why, incredibly enough, there are examples of men actually choosing this career.
    • This is also why showmanship could be just as important as the killing. The more popular you were, the better chance you had to be spared when you were eventually defeated by someone. Emperors like Caligula actually lost popularity when they refused to spare the people's favorites. It's also worth remembering that the training of a gladiator was expensive and it didn't make sense to send them out to be slaughtered first time out if you could help it. Of course, the same did not apply to the criminals condemned to the arena, who were expected to die and very much fall within this trope.