Squid Game is Netflix’s recent viral hit where debt-ridden contestants are given the chance to secure all the money they could ever desire. But first, they must win a series of children’s games. Seems simple, until you find out that you’ll get a bullet in the head for losing.

What would you do?

Play Takes a Darker Turn

Since Squid Game’s release, it has taken the world by storm, making it Netflix’s biggest series launch to date. Viral TikToks and memes have enhanced the show’s success — including the famous ‘dalgona candy‘ that businesses around the world have begun to market.

South Korea has long been a cultural export for popular films and drama series. But Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game’s writer and director, is responsible for creating a global sensation that is unprecedented in its success. The show, which amalgamates dystopian futurism with everyday piercing realism, takes the innocence out of children’s games by raising the stakes to test the extent to which players will go towards winning 45.6 billion (about £28 million).

Spoiler: Death becomes a feeble deterrent as 456 participants choose to play regardless. Sadly, this says a lot about the vicious grip capitalism has us in.

Squid Game brings us back to a time when the days of our youth were happily spent outdoors. Red Light, Green Light or Tug of War are some of the games that feature in the series. However, its dark twist, where those who lose invariably meet a gruesome death, is certainly reminiscent of natural selection theory. Charles Darwin’s seminal idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ is a familiar characteristic of capitalist societies. But survival need not depend on physical strength alone. 

In Squid Game, playing Tug of War is just as much about brains as it is about brawn. Oh Il-Nam, the eldest player, who is often mistaken as the weakest link, comes up with a hard-winning strategy. He says: ‘Tug of War is more than just raw strength’. And he’s proven right. Just when the team are on the verge of losing, one of the other players, Cho Sang-woo, comes up with a last-minute tactic that makes the opposition fall to their deaths. Sang-woo’s sobering words when he implores his teammates to do what he says cannot be ignored: ‘move up or you’ll die’.

That Sang-woo progressively demonstrates his cunning and quick-thinking abilities is no accident. For one thing, it reinforces the view that those with the brainpower get ahead in life. This is why we are also reminded of Sang-woo’s academic background at Seoul National University. ‘He’s the skilled corporal’, says Seong Gi-hun, the show’s main protagonist.

Academic Credentials Count

Nowadays, we live in a time when prestige matters. Going to a top-ranking school seems to matter more than receiving a decent education — which one can arguably get from any institution, even if it’s not Ivy League. I’m not suggesting that those who are intelligent are somehow undeserving of the reputable schools they attend. But Squid Game’s constant reminders of Sang-woo’s fine educational background imply that there is a basic connection between intelligence and superiority.

It’s no secret that Capitalism has forced us to prioritise credentials. Is it any wonder then that so many parents are willing to commit fraud just to send their kids to the best schools? Schools that happily accept large donations.

Squid Game also aptly communicates the jungle-like environment we all live in. For games that are a matter of life and death, everything comes down to being ruthless. Again, Sang-woo demonstrates his superiority when he tricks Abdul Ali, a player beloved for his kindness. A sharp moral judgement makes Ali reluctant to play along, but in the end, we see his ruthless sacrifice. Similarly, this ruthless cunning is evident in the interaction between Gi-hun and Il-nam, when the former exploits the latter’s dementia to win the game. If any of this feels a touch familiar, it’s perhaps because we are shown a mirror of how morality goes out the window when push comes to shove. Capitalism doesn’t play fair.

The Face of Capitalism?

Hwang Dong-hyuk has been open about the fact that the show is an allegory about present-day capitalism. Unsurprisingly, North Koreans haven’t been shy to reprimand their southern neighbours, saying that the survival drama: ‘exposes the reality of South Korean capitalist culture’.

Squid Game is not, by any means, the first successful global hit that explores the world of social inequality. Like its 2019 Oscar-winning predecessor Parasite, it similarly examines the lengths people will go to for financial security. The fact that we find such content entertaining says quite a bit about our societal tendency to root for the underdogs in this dog-eat-dog world of capitalism’s creation. Of course, there is another element to the show’s mass popularity: violence. One Korean critic has speculated that ‘the combination of violent entertainment’ is why the series has amassed so much success.

Curiously, following the show’s nine-episode run, people have started replicating certain elements of Squid Game. Restaurants and cafes, for instance, are profiting by allowing their customers to take a shot at the Dalgona Candy game. There have even been events hosted where people can play the actual games (albeit with a few important rule changes).

The message of Squid Game is simple but effective. We’re all in a high-stakes environment where no one gets an award just for participating. Capitalism, at its core, only truly rewards those who are able to get ahead — no matter the cost. This paints a bleak picture of the world we live in.

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