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, entertainment 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. (If the contestant is honestly given a chance to survive by whoever is in charge, then this trope doesn't apply.)
- 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 Hunter × 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 rein 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 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.
- Pretty much the whole plot of Deadman Wonderland. The tyrannical government forces the inmates to fight to the death in the brutal Carnival Corpse games, which is the backbone of their economy, both as entertainment for citizens (it's implied most of them believe the games are staged) and organ dealing, done to losers. And that's just the front; the prison is one giant biogenetics laboratory for testing out Blood Magic superpowers with convict test subjects, with higher penalties and false rewards. Also, some of the prisoners have been falsely convicted because of their latent high aptitude with Blood Magic.
- The notorious British comic Action features a game called Spinball, rollerball meets ice hockey with giant pinball pins as targets. All teams were condemned men.
- The Ultimate X-Men storyline "The Most Dangerous Game" was centred around the Genoshan gameshow "Hunt for Justice", in which a mutant supposedly convicted of murder (in this case Ultimate Longshot) is hunted by mutant-hating mercenaries like Arcade. Realising this "conviction" is a sham, the X-Men head there to rescue him. They're completely wrong; he's a murderer and not even a particularly sympathetic one, having killed a mutant sympathiser for "stealing" his girlfriend.
- The 2009 remake of Death Race. Drivers are promised freedom if they can win five events but the people running Death Race have no intention of letting anyone get to that point.
- 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 comic...it'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.
- Russel Crowe's character Maximus in Gladiator.
- Cube Zero implies that all the people inside the Cube are condemned criminals who have signed an agreement to be used as lab rats in the Cube. Their crimes are whatever the evil government deems them to be, however. The Cube technicians are themselves also guinea pigs.
- In Coneheads, Beldar was sentenced to fight a monster for the crime of treason in a gladiator-like arena upon returning to Remulak, along with four other criminals. While the others were killed quickly, Beldar manages to use his skill in golf that he learned on Earth to slay the beast, granting a pardon and privileged status in the process.
- A variant appears in the original 1975 Rollerball. The lethal gladiatorial titular game is designed to undermine the concept of individuality. This backfires when rollerball champion Jonathan E becomes a superstar, an iconic figure representing individual empowerment to the masses. The megacorporate types running this crapsack society then entrap Jonathan E in a match in which he alone has to face an opposing team of veteran killers.
- In The Condemned, 10 condemned criminals from prisons around the world are pitted against another in a Deadly Game on an island.
- 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.
- From the Gor series:
- In Outlaw of Gor, Tarl is tricked into breaking the law and condemned to "the Games of Tharna," where prisoners are forced to compete in races (a group towing a large block of stone), one on one combat with horns attached to their restraining yokes, and as the ultimate punishment a man-vs-beast fight, which just so happens to be against Tarl's lost tarn, which he quickly frees and escapes on.
- In Assassins of Gor, Tarl is once again condemned to gladiator games, this time as a part of a group of alleged prisoners, all of whom are allegedly blindfolded so they have to swipe about with their swords more or less randomly. In actuality only Tarl is a prisoner and is to be genuinely blindfolded; the other "prisoners" are all part of the King's guards and have gimmicked blindfolds they can see through.
- The Hunger Games are held as a punishment for a rebellion against the Capitol more than seventy years in the past, so could be considered a particularly unfair example of this trope, especially since those forced to compete weren't even born when the rebellion took place.
- The Wandering has the games that take place in The Dome on Neshi's homeworld, where a criminal is pitted against a highly-armed robot. The criminal that Neshi watches at a point in the story survives the match by having the robot run right into the force field (most of the time, criminals wouldn't be able to do such, as the robot would prove to be more lethal), but in the chaos that ensues with the robot's destruction dies at the hands of Neshi, surviving long enough to pass on some information regarding Neshi's dream from the beginning of the story.
- The Outer Limits (1995) 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.
- In Spartacus: Blood and Sand:
- In the pilot Spartacus and other Thracians are condemned to fight in the Arena after they are judged to be traitors. Since Gladiators are very skilled fighters, and the prisoners were not, none were expected to survive and this is seen as an entertaining form of execution.
- Ironically Spartacus serves as the Gladiator for an execution later in the season when Solonios is wrongfully convicted for murdering the Magistrate. Spartacus promises him revenge on Batiatus though, so he goes out in style.
- Halfway through Vengeance one of the captured rebels is tortured to death as entertainment for a party. The guests take part in a form of lottery to decide who gets a turn at carving him up.
- A variation in an episode of Sliders, where it's the trial that's a highly popular game show, in which guilt or innocence are decided based on the vote of the audience (both live and TV). "Lawyerly" tricks (including objections) are disallowed, and attorneys who try them may get punished as a result. Apparently, the system is so effective that most people are afraid of picking up someone's dropped wallet for fear of being charged with theft and ending up on the show.
- 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.
- 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 Covenant rank of Arbiter is reserved for decorated Elites who have nonetheless been "disgraced", and now must atone by going on suicide mission. In Halo 2, a disgraced Covenant commander is given the title as punishment for allowing the Halo ring to be destroyed in the previous game. However, being a protagonist, the Arbiter not only survives his missions, but goes on to become a hero of his people.
- StarCraft II 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. And at least some of criminals 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. Some 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 BMXs 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.
- This is what Death Watch was in MadWorld until the tournament the game takes place in, which forced civilians to become killers or die of a bioengineered plague. Though like the Real Life gladiators, some folks willingly entered the life for the fame and glory, like the protagonist.
- In Dead Rising 2: Case West, Chuck Green and Frank West discover that Phenotrans orchestrated the Fortune City, and the earlier Las Vegas outbreaks because they were running low on the queens needed to make "syntetic" Zombrex, their anti-zombification medicine. Queens that they harvested from anonymous runaways, missing persons, and convicted felons.
- 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.)
- 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; Xanatos was a Star Org Mole; 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.
- While the Castle Heterodyne prisoners in Girl Genius are all put there by the Baron in the hopes that they'll be killed while working on the sentient deathtrap he did not intend their fates to be public entertainment. When seedy types started making a public spectacle of betting on which prisoners would survive and crowding around the exit at the end of every day turning it into entertainment the Baron eventually rounded them up and locked them in the castle with the other prisoners and stopped letting anyone out, just delivering food and only allowing those who had survived and gathered enough points to disable the bombs strapped to their necks, thereby completing their sentences, out of the castle.
- Rusty and Co.: At the start of level 8, Robespierre is charged with numerous counts of Aggressive Trespassery and first-degree Grievous Bodily Harmage. His attorney, however, suggest that instead of his sentence he could participate in the Games... which happens to be a Gnomish Baseball tournament. Robespierre, however, delights in violence and is quite happy with the proposition.
- 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.
- The gladiator games in Ancient Rome. The gladiators were mostly slaves or enslaved prisoners of war who have been put through rigorous training. Very few were actual willing contestants or Romans, though the gladiators were really good at fighting if they lived long enough, given that they were training all year even when not actually fighting.
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.
- The 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.
- There were even a few examples of gladiators who reached super-stardom, much like modern-day athletes, and gained wealth and fame fighting men and beasts for (their and other people's) fun and profit. For those reasons, even if they won back their freedom, some still chose to remain gladiators. For example, a famous gladiator named Flamma is known to have turned down retirement - an incredible four times until he was eventually killed in his 34th gladiatorial combat.
- The infamous Califonia State Prison - Corcoran was featured on 60 Minutes and in the L.A. Times for this. A California prison experiment in the 1990's involved putting opposing gang leaders in the same cells, in the hopes that they could learn to co-exist. When this (predictably) resulted in a lot of fighting, most prisons stopped the practice. Corcoran's guards allegedly started betting and shooting those who ran or lost.