Red Light, Green Light
The Korean TV drama Squid Game is Netflix’s most popular show ever, having reached the number one spot in ninety countries. It tells the story of a diverse group of characters, all heavily in debt, who agree to compete in a series of traditional children’s games with untraditional stakes: losers are killed and the final survivor takes the entire jackpot.
Fictional survival games – often variations of gladiatorial combat – appear in classic episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone from the 1960s, and the 1980s movie The Running Man (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and very loosely based on a Stephen King novel; a new, more faithful adaptation is currently in production). But the trickle of such titles onto our screens through the 20th century has grown to a flood since Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale was released in Japan in 2000. The high-water mark before Squid Game was probably The Hunger Games franchise.
To criticise Squid Game for its similarities to other survival game stories is a bit like criticising Notting Hill for being a rom-com. The series carefully balances familiarity and freshness in what it does with the genre’s conventions, including prisoner’s dilemma dramas of allegiance and betrayal; horrific choices between sacrificing and saving a loved one; agonising decisions over whether to leave or recommit to the game; and the use of human bodies as gory markers of every painful decision. For global audiences trained in these conventions, the hazy translations and opaque Korean cultural cues don’t necessarily present a problem – rather the opposite. We can grasp the familiar, abstract precision of the form even if we don’t understand all the details, while the new context adds a fresh, intriguing set of associations.
Most survival game stories keep the cash offstage, trading instead in lives, weapons and vital resources. In Squid Game, the conversion of lives into cash is literally writ large, on a giant scoreboard that keeps count of the diminishing number of players and accumulating prize money. An allegorical reading about class or capital seems redundant when the role of individual debt, financial speculation and violent inequality is as transparent as the giant glass piggy bank that hangs over the players’ dormitory. Which leaves us free to ask slightly different questions about the survival game as a prominent feature of contemporary culture: not what it is about, but what is it for? What are we as its audience being asked to know, to feel, to internalise as an explanatory frame?
In Squid Game, the organisers insist that their games are fair, because they give everyone the same chance to win. In this difference from the real world, survival games would seem to have something in common with earlier fictions that also offered equalising visions of the social order. A number of hugely popular 19th-century American sentimental novels recognised and promoted the humanity of enslaved people through outpourings of shared emotions, aiming to make supposed differences between races irrelevant, and bestow dignity on all. As many critics have argued since its inception, the genre was inherently flawed as a political vehicle. By imagining a subjective plane where people met as equals in their human feeling, these narratives played a role in taking material equality off the table.
As Squid Game makes clear, the survival game thoroughly destroys this ideal of collective equivalence. Players in survival games are equal only in existing at one another’s expense. Rather than bringing them together, their emotional attachments fuel their drive to win or willingness to lose. Instead of connecting them through their common humanity, their shared vulnerability is the reason they can’t help but try to kill one another.
Whatever emotions the players may begin with, they ultimately come to function as part of the binary engine of the game, which sorts winners from losers until there is only one person left alive to take the prize. And, as the final twist in Squid Game drives home, getting taken in by sentiment along the way may be the most painful and foolish mistake a player can make.