I should begin by acknowledging that at the time of this writing I have only seen the first episode of Squid Game, S1E1, “Red Light, Green Light.” I suppose there may be some question as to whether you believe me. That’s up to you, but I couldn’t fathom playing the kind of game that would lead me to deceive you, or see the point in such a thing. I am late to the party and don’t much care for binging—better to sit and think a bit on what I’m watching and perhaps share those thoughts with you.
There is indeed a bit to think about in Squid Game, though I imagine many rush through it. Are they like the first to be shot dead in “Red Light, Green Light”—too much in a hurry and taking things too lightly? Am I now criticizing you? I apologize.
Before the games begin, we follow our hero/protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is of course down on his luck and deeply in debt, owing a bit less to the loan sharks who rough him up than to the banks (though we might well think about how the latter are no less vicious—just more abstract and indirect in their threats of violence). Gi-hun has a daughter he of course wants to treat for her birthday, and a certain indefatigable energy about him which makes him almost impossible not to root for.
But he is also rather dumb in his decision making, or just out of step with a sober headed analysis of his situation. As he says, money makes him feel giddy, and there is a lack of future planning evident, as when he tips the girl at the OTB counter or when he gives fish to a stray cat. It’s benevolence, sure, but like he expects such benevolence from the world in a way that is hopelessly naive.
All of that of course risks a moralism about debt that I do not mean to endorse. It would be easy to blame Gi-hun for his lot in life, but wrong. One’s lot is always also a matter of chance and there would be a darkness to suggesting that this good hearted man would be better off being colder.
We’re already at the level of a kind of general critique of the socioecominic reality we find ourselves in, where it becomes hard to find the line between being trusting and being a schmuck. Debt is seductive, with the offer of seemingly free money that only a future version of oneself has to worry about paying back, and the (post)modern world will let you spiral out far beyond your ability to pay, as though your suffering will itself be a form of recompense if you don’t have the cash.
Debt can have real world consequences, as its abstractness becomes concrete when it comes due—perhaps the bad man might even take your organs if you fail to pay—but its moral weight is questionable. Putting aside Nietzschean notions of the genealogy of morals and aiming towards some proper aspiration to goodness, one might imagine a world where we all helped one another out rather than acting the part of dogs eating each other.
Even if scarcity is a reality, the morality of debt hangs on an individualism or tribalism in its content which we could contrast with the cooperation of a proper community. From each according to their means, to each according to their needs—that’s a pipe dream, of course, a fantasy from the perspective of the world we live in, perhaps too optimistic about the supposed better angels of our nature with little basis.
What we see instead, virtually everywhere, is a harshness one might pin to human nature if not for indications that it perhaps has more to do with the development of agriculture than any innate humam tendency. There is no Human Nature, or if there is it is clearly multi-faceted enough to contain both the principles of selfishness and those of empathy and solidarity. It’s a question of what is fostered and what discouraged, or stifled out.
Regardless, from the point of view of a capitalist economy anyone who expects a prevailing spirit of cooperation is a complete naif, though it is nonetheless evident in Squid Game when Gi-hun is grabbed from behind to stop his motion at the end of “Red Light, Green Light”—an impulse to help right there in the human spirit next to its darkness.
As Gi-hun joins 455 others in the game, all of whom are deeply in debt, we should ask ourselves about the purpose of making people owe so much that they will never be able to pay. Is it for the amusement of some villains behind the scenes? If life itself is a game, are the rules fair, and does it operate with our consent?
It seems clear that Squid Game is interested in drawing an analogy between the games at the center of its premise and the broader realities of life in the 21st century, so with this in mind let’s take a look at what we learn about the structure of these games in “Red Light, Green Light.”
Gi-hun signs a consent form before the game begins, which is presumably signed by all of the other players as well. Of course, when they agree they do not yet know that the stakes will be a matter of life and death. Does this undermine their consent?
Clause 1: A player is not allowed to voluntarily quit the games.
Clause 2: A player who refuses to play will be eliminated.
Clause 3: The games may be terminated upon a majority vote.
It’s easy enough to draw an analogy from (1) to how we are thrown into life itself, though the very idea that the players are agreeing to this clause threatens the analogy to some degree. And of course, suicide may be an option as far as quitting goes. Thus, I would suggest that the analogue to think about with regard to Clause 1 (and indeed all of these clauses) is not so much life but the more specific conditions of late capitalism. One cannot quit, or opt out of its structures—they have become global. There is no outside—only a façade of the outside—and fundamentally no voluntary exit (though we still might ask, with the Surrealists of the early 20th century: Is suicide a solution? Most of them said no.)
This is carried forward by Clause 2, especially now that we know that being eliminated means being killed. You can’t quit, there’s no way out, and if you refuse to play you die. Sounds like capitalism, or “the real world” as a defender of the system might say, with the implication that you’d better just accept it and do your best.
And then of course there is Clause 3, which is perhaps the most interesting to think about in light of the carnage that forms the last act of “Red Light, Green Light”—a majority vote could end all of this. But when is there time to vote? As the bullets fly and you’re killed for the smallest movement? How does one even call a vote?
Perhaps there will be a chance before the next game, with the depressing result that a majority will wish to continue in hopes of winning prize money. But regardless of what occurs in Squid Game, we can take the point that all of the economic structures that cause human suffering could be stopped or altered in the real world. They aren’t forces of nature so much as forces formed through aggregated human activity. We could do something about it, in principle, but of course we won’t.
Those who run the games all wear masks. Their personal information will not be disclosed, in contrast to the way that of various contestants is broadcast to the group as a whole. Debt is a public shame and not just a matter of ill effects on a private material level. But what of these figures in masks, and the fact that everything is being filmed?
The head figure, who calls himself the Front Man when he talks on a telephone (in English, which seems noteworthy), wears a distinctive black mask, which is subject to a facial scan at one point. He takes it off, pours himself a drink, reclines and watches the carnage unfold on his screen.
At first this struck me as the most unrealistic aspect of Squid Game, or at least it’s the one where I find myself most wondering what the series will be trying to say in terms of a real life analogue. If the idea is that there is some powerful cabal interested in harnessing our suffering for their amusement, I’ll be prone to think this an oversimplification of a complex reality.
There are rich and powerful forces who stand behind our indebtedness, to be sure. There are those who exploit the vulernable and thereby benefit. But it doesn’t land for me to suggest they want to watch us suffer for fun. I tend to think their attitude is more one of a callous disregard.
At the same time, I have to admit that I myself felt a thrill when the guns let loose and the contestants scrambled—a rush of adrenaline and excitement—which makes me wonder if the Front Man perhaps represents us. As we sit watching Squid Game, we root for Gi-hun and others, of course, but weren’t we having the most fun when the screaming started? And the panic…and wasn’t it all too tempting to sit in judgment of those who couldn’t help but move, or the man who pleaded for his life in the face of certain death? Did you start internally chastising him for not understanding the rules? Did you find yourself thinking he deserved to die?
The most interesting thing would be if Squid Game were to follow out the thought that those in masks are us, but show them to be just as implicated in the game as the 456 contestants. Perhaps they are not powerful elites pulling the strings, but a different kind of marionette being manipulated in a different fashion. Perhaps there is no puppeteer. That would be realism.
The social critique has to go further than the thought that the rules of the game are not fair, as though fairer rules would solve the problem. No, the problem is the game itself, the existence of the game itself as a competition, the very idea that one must play. Slavoj Žižek has suggested that a proper move of resistance to the forces of (post)modern capitalism may lie in Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” but if you read the whole story it just approaches the quandry Squid Game puts forward in a different way. If Bartleby finds freedom, it’s the freedom of a corpse.
One has no choice but to play, as is made clear at the end of “Red Light, Green Light” when those who have failed to cross the line are summarily killed. But this is where freedom would lie, in not playing the game. Can we see such a possibility, either within Squid Game or outside of it?
Is there an outside? Or just the appearance of one that is actually a part of the game?