Sam Holstein

“Squid Game” Is an Entertaining Show that Fails Hard at Criticising Capitalism

“Squid Game” Is an Entertaining Show that Fails Hard at Criticizing Capitalism

a piece of cinema entertainment, Squid Game is a fantastic show. It had me gasping and gripping my chair with terror before the first episode was even over. The film work is brilliant, the set design is wild, the soundtrack is eerie, and the actors do a brilliant job in their roles. If Squid Game were meant to be entertaining alone, I would have no problem recommending it to friends and family.

But Squid Game is not meant to be entertaining alone. It’s a cultural sensation for drawing attention to the failures of modern capitalism. It’s a political commentary.

And on that count, Squid Game is… not great.

Let me begin by saying I’m not exactly a fan of the way things are right now, either. Health care is insanely expensive and inaccessible in many places, including the US. Our safety nets for people at the bottom of society are sorely lacking. I think Universal Basic Income and national healthcare programs could be a fantastic solution for these problems in the US.

Given all that, I expected to vibe with this show before even watching it. I was ready for a piping-hot criticism of how our economy works right now. But I was hugely disappointed.

Let’s Start at the Beginning

The premise of Squid Game is that a bunch of people with a lot of debt are systemically approached to participate in a game. A mysterious man in a suit plays a children’s game with them and awards them 100,000 SKW as a cash prize. That’s roughly $84 USD, though it’s clear $84USD goes a lot farther in South Korea than it does here. If they lose the game, they get slapped in the face. Most of them volunteer happily to be slapped in the face a few dozen times in order to win $84.

It’s important to the plot that these people are destitute. They have massive amounts of debt to all kinds of organizations. Some of them are hunted by criminals. Others can’t afford rent next month and their entire family faces homelessness. The main character was “forced to sign away his physical rights,” the implication being that the credit agency now had the authority to beat him up like a loan shark.

The allegory being that under capitalism, we are often coerced into signing abusive agreements. I mean, we are, but I wouldn’t equate the ridiculously high fees on my cell phone plan with a legal license to assault me and break my nose. But I digress.

Anyway. I would volunteer to be slapped in the face a few times for $84, too, even given how little that is in Ohio.

The mysterious suited man gives them a card. They all agree to meet at a mysterious location. When they do, they get in a van, are sedated against their will, and are unconsciously transported to a game arena. There, in this game arena, they are told they are playing red light green light with a giant robot girl. They are told anyone who is caught will be eliminated.

Here’s the twist. The players quickly discover this means being shot.

The rest of the episode was a life-and-death game of red-light-green-light. Two hundred out of five hundred people die. Making a plot like this work depends on having a great film team, and Squid Game did. I was gripping my chair the entire time.

But what’s the criticism of capitalism, exactly? That money problems drive people to do desperate things? That people need to ask for contractual information before agreeing to mysterious games?

Anyway, the clearly sane thing to do is leave. And if a majority of people vote not to keep playing, they can all end the game. They joined as individuals, but they can only leave together. If they do keep playing, they are eligible to take part of the winnings from a $38 million USD cash prize. Easily enough to solve any contender’s money problems.

Here is a criticism of modern capitalist society I think Squid Game gets correct. The consent of the players is collective, not individual. Many systems in society, like investment plans, civil rights, and healthcare benefits, only work if the majority of us get together and act to make something happen. Our very governments are democratic, meaning majority rules.

On the other hand, though, there are a lot of aspects of modern society which aren’t collective. We can quit our jobs whenever we like, for instance. So the criticism of capitalism falls apart on that count.

But I digress. The majority of players make the very sensible decision to call the games off and go home.

They Go Home… Then Choose to Come Back

So they all go home, lucky to even be alive. They feel a renewed sense of value for their brief time on this earth. Maybe a few of them even go to the police to investigate this whole “corporate hunger games” thing.

Except they don’t. One character does, but the rest of them go back to their money problems. Gangs come after them for money, banks come after them for their money, and their parents can’t get lifesaving medical operations. It’s made clear to the viewer how hard their lives are.

“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?”
— Vox ATL, “‘Squid Game’ Is a Lesson on the Dangers of Capitalism”

I found this scene profoundly unsympathetic. This is actually a very easy decision. Get the sugery for your foot. Deal with the lost wages and medical debt later.

I’m familiar with the quandary. Loved ones in my life have faced similar decisions. I know people who haven’t gotten vaccinated because they couldn’t afford to take the time off work. I know other people who are putting off important dental work for similar reasons. But there’s a big difference between delayed dental work and losing your feet.

The takeaway I’m supposed to have here is “It’s just as bad under capitalism as it is in a death tournament.”

“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.”
— Vox ATL, “‘Squid Game’ Is a Lesson on the Dangers of Capitalism”

But, like, it’s not. Loan sharks, having to walk across town, and living in orphanages all sucks, but they’re all better than participating in a death tournament.

This is where I normally stop and try to empathize with people. “Hey, I think life is worth living even if I’m poor and struggling, but maybe others don’t. It’s not my place to say.” But if you told your therapist you were signing up for a death tournament because you’re tired of being poor and struggling (and if your therapist believed you), your therapist would tell you you’re catastrophizing, then they would involuntarily commit you because you have become a danger to yourself and others.

I could talk about this much more, but this review is already getting long, so let’s continue.

Let the Games Begin (Again)

In the end, 181 out of 205 people choose to rejoin. This is where characters start saying, verbatim, “It’s as bad out there as it is in here.” Cue my eye roll.

As if the point were not already made clearly, we are taken through a subplot involving a player who manages to get insider information from two of the pink staff members. He learns what the games are ahead of time.

The conspiracy is discovered and the conspirators are killed brutally. Then the frontman says, paraphrased, “Out there in the world, you have been taken advantage of and oppressed. Here, you are not. You all have an equal opportunity to win the games based on your own luck and skill.”

Except the games are specifically formulated to reward evil behavior. I could spend three thousand words picking apart each game and what they mean, but the point is ultimately this:

“Characters who are playing to survive don’t have the choice to be good. The games are designed in a way that those who take advantage and go behind the backs of others are rewarded, and those who do not are punished. Characters like Ali, who represent virtue and kindness, are killed off to convey that simply being generous and hardworking is not enough to succeed in a system that requires stomping on others to get to the top.”
— Her Campus, ““Squid Game:” A Comprehensive Critique of Capitalism”

I get the metaphorical point here. There’s some truth floating around here. My high school varsity golf coach cut me from the team twelve years ago because a team member who coveted my spot on the team accused me of cheating. In golf, an accusation of cheating ruins your career. I was innocent, and the coach knew it, but the accuser’s parents donated to the school team and mine didn’t, so guess who lost their chance to play division one college golf.

But again, that’s not the same as dying in a death tournament.

How to Win an Argument

The first step to developing a seriously persuasive political argument for the benefit of a large audience is to not straw man the opponent.

A straw man argument is the silliest, weakest version of someone’s argument. Contrast this to the steel man, the strongest and most robust version of an argument.

A steel man argument criticising modern society might be something along the lines of “The current economic incentives that shape people’s lives at a gloval level produce an outcome where statistically tiny portions of the population have access to the vast majority of its wealth, while the majority live in significantly worse conditions and often struggle to pay for necessities.” Steel man arguments are always sophisticated and thoughtful. They focus on facts and outcomes.

Straw men are not. “Capitalism is bad!!” Is a straw man. Squid Game is a straw man.

The force of the allegory rests on the assertion that being poor under capitalism is equivalent to participating in a death tournament. While I would never tell someone to pull themselves up by my bootstraps, I would say it’s better than a cruel and senseless death during a child’s game.

Let’s talk more about the child’s game aspect. The metaphor being that living under capitalism is as senseless as playing a life or death game of hopscotch. But that does a massive disservice to how complex the problem of poverty is. Millions of people have devoted their lives to fixing poverty and have not succeeded yet. It is hardly an arbitrary child’s game.

That being said… we’ve made stupendous progresss! For most of human history, global extreme poverty rates were upward of 90%. Now it’s less than 9%. And what do we have to thank for that? Capitalism. (And democracy).

I want to press this point a little further. Her Campus said this:

“In case I haven’t made it clear enough, the structure of the games themselves represents the starkest criticism of capitalism: the idea that people must earn the basic right to live.”

The notion that someone must earn the basic right to live is not unique to capitalism. Every single economic system ever devised, from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to conquering empires, rested on the assumption that people who can work must work. Because for most of human history, if people did not work, they died.

Squid Games is realistic in this way: In nature, if people do not do whatever it takes to survive, they will die.

We are blessed to be born in the first time in human history where we have enough food, shelter, and medical supplies that we could plausibly feed and care for everyone in the world. We are the possibly the first generation wealthy enough to be able to rule food, shelter, and medical supplies a human right, and I think we should.

But that wasn’t an accident. That’s not the natural way of things. It’s distinctly unnatural, actually, and it’s a direct result of capitalism.

The Antagonists Are One-Dimensional

As the show progresses, we are introduced to the men who bankroll the games. Unlike the primary cast, who speak only Korean, the men behind the games speak primarily Chinese and English. They are depicted wearing expensive suits and jeweled masks.

Worse, it is revealed their motivation for the games is entertainment. They sit on a stage attended to by nubile young men and women painted like animals. Other nubile young men in tailored suits serve them liquor while they watch the show. The design choices are highly reminiscent of the Hunger Games set designs.

A shot of the VIP entertainment room from the rear — literally and figuratively

These elements make for a hugely entertaining show. They do not, however, make for a prescient criticism of capitalism.

When The Hunger Games used this design aesthetic in 2012, nobody pointed fingers and said “Wow, what a criticism of capitalism!” Instead, we understood it to be a dramatized depiction of a dystopian society.

Squid Games isn’t using these design elements to depict a dystopian society. They’re using these elements to depict the exact society we live in. And I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen billionaires do stuff like this.

Billionaires do lots of wacky stuff, most of it unethical. No doubt about it. They do lines of cocaine and bet on Formula 1 races and sleep with hookers. They take joyrides to the moon while the economy buckles under the weight of a pandemic. They probably even have weird theme parties like this one every so often. But they don’t gather up hundreds of people and enroll them in death matches for entertainment. Billionaires might have their noses up their asses, but they are not generally murderous stains on humanity.

Much like how the portrayal of characters who would rather die than be poor makes their political argument fall flat, the portrayal of billionaires who murder hundreds for entertainment makes it fall even flatter.

What’s worse about these antagonists is how utterly one-dimensional.

The billionaires organized it all, and as Oh Il-nam explains at the end of the last episode, they did it all because they were bored of living. They were so bored of living, in fact, that no amount of recreational space flights could bring joy back into their lives. Only hosting death games could make them feel alive.

As for the rest of the game’s staff… their motivations are not discussed at all. The frontman for the games is given a name, and we learn he cares somewhat about his brother, and that he’s a former winner of the games, but that’s it. The entire time I watched, I wondered what was in it for the people in the pink suits, the lackeys of the billionaires, but their motivations are never even explored.¹ It would be a big job, convincing several dozen people to participate in constructing and maintaining a giant death tournament, but the show writers expect “They were paid a lot of money” to be in itself a satisfying answer.

Because that is the whole point of the show, after all. People will do all kinds of crazy shit for huge amounts of money — until they have huge amounts of money, at which point they pay others to do crazy shit.

“Squid Game” Ultimately Fails Because of Unrealistic Characters

Ultimately, Squid Game fails as a piece of political commentary because its characters are unrealistic at every turn. It’s not possible for me to imagine real people who would act the way these players act — except for people who make stupendously foolish choices, which takes the bite out of the political message. I cannot imagine billionaires, frontmen, or staff who would act the way these characters act, ever.

In real life, the bad guys are people too. And most of the time, the bad guys think they’re the good guys. Serial killers and school shooters think they’re righting societal wrongs. Donald Trump thinks he’s reclaiming America from wokeism. Hell, even Adolf Hitler thought he was saving Germany.

But these bad guys have no humanity. They don’t think they’re doing a good thing. They don’t even reflect on the fact that they’re doing a bad thing. They seemingly lack the capability for self-reflection — except for Oh Il-nam, who momentarily acknowledges it by saying we were bored of living and justifies it by saying you volunteered. Oh Il-nam conveniently ends the conversation by dying, having finally “had fun” while “playing the game.”

Leaving aside, of course, that the initial 200 people who died did not understand what they were volunteering for, and that the remaining 181 people who played were given no other chances to withdraw consent. What happened to continuous enthusiastic consent?

Look inside yourself. Would you participate in a death tournament, work for a death tournament, or otherwise support a death tournament directly, just because someone paid you enough? I certainly wouldn’t. If someone even approached me about such a thing, I’d open a police investigation. Maybe I’m unusual.

“Squid Game”s Reception Makes Me Uneasy

Judging by Squid Game’s reception, I am unusual. One would suppose Squid Game is enjoying a positive reception as a scathing critique of capitalism precisely because it is so relatable. That would mean many viewers relate in some way. Presumably to the players.

It deeply unsettles me that so many people may find this show relatable.

Are that many people really unaware of how miserable it was to be a human until the very last 200 years? Are they really unaware extreme poverty was the human default until very recently? Do they really not know that infant mortality was upwards of fifty percent?

Measures of human progress indicate we are living in the most well-fed, healthiest, safest, happiest time in human history. Globally, our generation is better off than any generation of humans ever have been. Yet most people mistakenly believe the world is worse off now than it was in the past. This is an abject failure of educational systems around the world.

Do that many people really find being poor in a capitalist country so unpleasant they’d rather die in a death tournament trying to win $38 million USD? Are they really that unhappy with food stamps, Medicaid, and cash support programs? Or are they just unable to figure out how to apply for these things?

I’ve been on these programs, you know. So have many of my friends. I know what it’s like to be poor, at least in Ohio. It’s not fun. But it beats dying.

In Conclusion

There are a few isolated points at which Squid Game makes me say “You know, it is concerning we live in a world with this problem.” But the way they unabashedly set the Squid Games in the real world, and imply that poverty is equivalent to participating in a death tournament, is too much for me.

The world has a lot of problems. We don’t have a hope of solving any of these problems if we don’t at least start with a sober-minded assessment of what the problems are. Catastrophizing will get us nowhere. Neither will scapegoating billionaires as heartless evildoers.

In fact, we will likely need the help of these supposedly evil billionaires to solve some of the most vexing global problems. It’s a good thing a fair amount of them are making a good-faith effort to give money to philanthropy, even if we have a thousand and one complaints about how they do it.