Would you compete in deadly childhood games for the opportunity to win $38 million? That’s the question asked in Netflix’s latest viral TV Show, “Squid Game.”
The characters of “Squid Game” each have their own reasons to risk their lives for the cash: Saebyeok, a defector from North Korea, needs the money to find safe housing for her brother and rescue her mother from the North. Ali, a foreign worker from Pakistan and father of one, works for a shady employer that refuses to pay his workers. Our main character, Gihun, has been avoiding the fury of loan sharks after getting fired from his job of more than a decade.
After a deadly twist on the childhood game “Red Light, Green Light” ends with over 200 players murdered, the remaining players vote to either end the game, abandoning the possibility of winning a life changing amount of money, or stay, and risk their lives for a chance of financial freedom. Most choose to stay, and embark on a journey of betrayal, death, and chaos in their pursuit for roughly $38 million.
To say that the lesson of “Squid Game” is simply, “don’t trust your friends” would be doing the show a great disservice. Because the most compelling part of the show is its lessons about capitalism, and how the crooked system forces working class citizens to risk their lives for money.
The obvious argument would be that the players are given multiple chances to end the game. But the clause that allows the players to leave is simply an illusion of choice—when your outside life consists of living in fear, wondering when your next meal is and seeing no way out of those circumstances, part of you is already dead. You also have to consider that the players were most likely manipulated into agreeing to the game; Gihun is forced to sign away his physical rights after being cornered and threatened by a group of men he owed money to. You can only assume that these same techniques were used to recruit the other players. When you’re in between that rock and hard place, is there really a choice to make?
The concept of choice under capitalism is explored with Gihun’s elderly mother early on in the show. After being sent to the hospital, she’s told that if she doesn’t get surgery for her feet, they may get amputated. It seems like a simple decision, right? Get the surgery, or never be able to walk on your feet again. However, as Gihun’s mother illustrates, on top of not being able to afford the surgery, being bedridden also means being unable to work. It means not having a place to go back to when she gets back from the hospital. Gihun’s mother ‘chooses’ not to get the surgery, but was she really given a choice when the surgery meant the end of what little livelihood she had?
And truly, how much worse is this game from their daily lives? In his daily life, Gihun is paranoid constantly of the loan sharks that physically harm him for the money he owes. Ali doesn’t even have money to get home after the first game ends. Saebyeok and her brother live in an orphanage. If anything, the fact that these players would rather compete in a game that deprives you of food and sleep (along with the looming chance of being violently murdered), than retreat to their lives in a capitalist society honestly says a lot about how horrible this system is.
“Squid Game” also explores how capitalism creates cruel conditions that abandon solidarity. The players have a life changing amount of money hanging over their heads (quite literally, with the money being held in a clear piggy bank at the top of the room), and the guards constantly inform them that with every player eliminated, the money increases. With this in mind, the players resort to hurting each other outside of the game just for a chance to increase their jackpot. Some would call this an example of greed, but what I took from this violence was that when your only chance at a decent quality of life is dependent on your next check, your desperation to stay alive can make you do some terrible things. Even studies will tell you that poverty is the mother of crime.
And while the poor kill each other, the rich watch for entertainment. In episode nine, the rich “V.I.Ps” quite literally look down on the players as they fight to the death. They use the players for money by betting on their chances to survive. To them, poor people are their actors, their musicians, their movie stars, people they can use for entertainment and dispose of once they’ve made their cash.
In addition to the metaphors already mentioned, Squid Game also explores discrimnation. Multiple times throughout the games, players exclude women from their teams because they view them as weaker. Ali’s character also deals with judgment because he’s a foreigner. He’s treated nicely by his friend Sangwoo until he starts to beat him at a game of marbles; Sangwoo lashes out, as if angry at the fact that someone he passively viewed as lesser managed to outsmart him at a game he’s been playing for years.
You would think that a large-scale horror game like Squid Game could be easily exposed—400+ participants, occurring in multiple countries for several years? How could this occur under society’s nose? But the reason why the game seemingly never gets exposed is another example of classism. When Gihun tries to report the game to police, they don’t listen, already convinced by his appearance that he’s just a cheap hobo. You have to assume that others could have reported the game as well. But to the police, being poor automatically means a lack of credibility.
With modern day South Korea as its backdrop, “Squid Game” feels real. In one scene, you can hear a newscaster speak of the rising amount of debt among households. In a pandemic affected era where financial struggles are at an all time high, how many of us could say that we wouldn’t be tempted by the illusion of easy money? The game could even be used as a metaphor for jobs — the workers risk their lives and go through inhumane conditions for money while the rich benefit, watching from above and earning money off of the bloodshed of their employees.
Many shows have gone viral on Netflix over the years, but a distinctively anti-capitalist show like “Squid Game” becoming one of the platform’s most watched has encouraging implications for the future. Pushing the hype aside, I encourage all Netflix enjoyers to add “Squid Game” to your watch list. The show has and will continue to spark necessary criticisms regarding our current system, making it an essential viewing in a generation where more and more youth are denouncing capitalism.