WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
‘Squid Game’ is a Netflix show where characters are made to play children’s games: if they win, they go home with a huge cash prize. If they lose, they die. The idea of a deadly game with deadly results is not a new one in itself. There have been a few similar shows – for example the Hunger Games, Battle Royale, or the Maze Runner – and these are often set in dystopian realities with oppressive regimes and players forced to play or perform certain tasks. Instead, Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director of ‘Squid Game’, stated explicitly that the show is conceived as a metaphor and critique of capitalism. The story, in fact, does not take place in a dystopian world, but in contemporary South Korea. So what exactly does ‘Squid Game’ tell us about capitalism? Is it a critique of capitalism simply because we are told that the reality is way more violent? Or are the games itself a metaphor of capitalism? If so, how exactly? Let’s have a look at some of the key themes in the show.
Money and Life
Interestingly, the series does not start nor end with the games. There is quite a long introduction that focuses on the protagonist Seong Gi-Hun’s journey at the beginning, as well as how he reacts to his ‘win’ and goes back to his life at the end. Through windows into the lives of the characters, the storytelling looks especially at their relationship with money. This is a core theme that the show explores, and these are questions that we could all ask ourselves: What do we do with money? What is it for? What are we willing to do for it?
Especially at the beginning, we could judge the characters for their greed. But we also gradually come to see that the role of money in their life is different depending on the different backgrounds of the characters. In particular, for those of them from poor and marginalised backgrounds, including a Pakistani immigrant and a North Korean defector, as well as for Seong Gi-Hun himself, the main reason why they need money is to take care of their family members in desperate situations.
From the beginning, the players are presented with a sequence of choices, which lead them to join the games, and then to survive or die. The emphasis on choice is another big theme in the series. In fact, players are not kidnapped and forced to join the games, but are offered a choice, more than once. This is a difference between this and other shows where players are forced to play brutal games, for example the Hunger Games. We are also shown that the players do collectively vote to end the games at one point, and then they choose to come back. So this really reinforces the point about ‘free choice’, which is not just a small clause, but part of an ‘ideology’.
The induction of players reminded me of contemporary marketing strategies, where potential buyers are presented with smaller, cheaper offers that aims at building trust, before being introduced to bigger and riskier ones. Similarly to popular marketing strategies, the institution targets a specific audience, by collecting as much data about them as possible. In this case, the target audience is people who are in desperate need of money, have large debts that they cannot repay, and are prone gambling, are targeted as participants. Data about players’ behavioural choices is collected and analysed.
Potential players, once approached, are given a card, and they need to take the initiative to call in order to join. At each step, they take decisions that feel risky, but without knowing what is going to come after. Then, they are then asked to sign a contract, but without being explicitly informed that they are going to be killed when they lose – just a little detail! These ‘choices’ escalate throughout the episodes. The institution manipulates and forces players to make more and more dramatic decisions. The choices are integrated in the games and, often, determine whether characters they live or die, and they always include a degree of deception.
In the first episode, the series seems to represent poverty as the result of individuals’ own poor decisions, naive recklessness, and greed. However, we are slowly shown that those choices are mere illusions. The institution is controlling the players, deceiving them at each step – with deadly results. Hence, the choices that they are made to make are not really free.
Choice is one of the core elements of the ‘pure ideology’ of the games institution, just like freedom is supposed to be the core value of capitalism. But how free is it, really? This is important in the capitalism metaphor, because in real life, the idea that people are poor simply because of their poor choices, and not because of structures that make sure that some sections of society stay poor while others get richer and richer, is very popular among privileged people, and is used to justify their privilege.
Bodies as Commodities
What is so dramatic about this series is that it shows how people are forced to trade their own bodies when they have nothing else to give – which happens very much in the real world, too. The recruitment test asks players to pay by being slapped if they have no money. And they accept, perhaps out of greed, despair, love, or a mix of them. They accept the humiliation and dehumanization. In the show, bodies become commodified in different ways: organ trafficking, performing in the games reality show and being killed for fun, sexual exploitation. We even see VIPs watch the games while resting on human ‘furniture’. The games are a symbol of the exploitation not only of their bodies and physical life, but also of their emotions. The fun is to see them bleed, suffer, die, lose their dignity and values to kill one another.
Another core value of the ‘pure ideology’ of the games is equality. The Front Man states so himself. The whole organ trafficking storyline has the purpose of making this point: the Front Man states that, while players are discriminated in the outside world, here they compete in the games as equals, and they have the same opportunity to win the prize. This episode, in fact, is titled ‘A Fair World’. However, the inequality and discrimination, in practice, is very obvious. Players are purposely put in situations where some of them are at disadvantage, so that women, elderly, sick or injured people are cornered, put aside, and killed. They purposely create scarsety and allow gangsters to appropriate food, and create the condition for a ‘fight’, or mass murder, where gangs kill those that seem easier targets. The killings are rewarded with an increase in the cash prize. The people behind the game even state explicitly that provoking the fight was a ‘special game’ aiming at reducing some numbers (the ‘weakest’) before Tugs of War.
This conceptualization of equality simply as ‘non-discrimination’, does not take into account barriers to equality that do exist in practice. Not recognising those barriers does not give all players the same chance to win the games. The games where players are supposed to be competing against each other on ‘equal’ grounds show how dangerous and violent this formal conceptualisation of equality can be.
Moreover, another paradox is that the games take place within a highly organised hierarchical system where there is really no equality. Players are at the bottom, then there are the workers, supervisors, the Front Man, the host, and VIPs. Those at the bottom are killed and exploited and their bodies burned so that VIPs can have ‘fun’, since they are bored by their wealth and cannot find pleasure in life.
Competition and Violence
The director Hwang Dong-hyuk himself mentions competition as what makes the deadly games a methaphor of capitalism in the show. Those who pull the strings find ways to push people against each other as much as possible, even to kill their dearest ones. Nonetheless, at the end people survive when they trust and work together. This is what, in the end, leads the hero to win the games. Though depicted as naive, not particularly bright or strong, he puts others first – most of the time. Friendship saves Seong Gi-hun in the first game, in the third even though it is a game where muscle seems to be a key factor. The fourth game is very emotional: despite at this point he chooses to save his own life, it is his still compassion and friendship towards an elderly man that pays off. At the very end, when he has effectively won, he chooses compassion once again.
…. And then what?
In the end, winning the games is not a victory. It feels more like everything is lost. We probably expect to see him starting some kind of resistance to bring down the games in future seasons. This is similar to other shows and movies – The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, even Westworld: at first we are given a winner, and then they rebel and bring down the system. Why not just resist straight away instead of obeying? Here is the thing: as viewers we cannot resist: we want to see the winner, so we are given one. We want to see who is the one individual in 456 who survives and wins, despite everything. That makes him the hero. As viewers, we love competition and games (just like the VIPs)? And then, we want to see the hero become a leader and go through even greater glory by taking down the bad guys.
I am curious to see what the resistance is going to look like in the next season. If this is really meant to be a critique of capitalism, will we see something different from the usual capitalist hero cliche? In this show, we are repeatedly shown that real life is even worse than the games, which is why players choose to stay despite everything. So it would not be enough to stop the games, right?