Like many millions of people around the world, I watched the hit Squid Game Netflix series. At a base level, it is a gripping thriller. At a deeper level, it is an exploration of human nature and culture. I offer some reflections here while trying to avoid any spoilers.
Material gains. Magnified dissatisfaction.
Squid Game resonates with Korean viewers because it speaks to the inequality that has become pervasive there. South Korea, which was once as poor as India in my childhood, is now the 11th wealthiest economy in the world by per capita income, surging ten-fold since 1970. This kind of meteoric rise creates its own dysfunctional dynamics.
While South Korea is exceptional in terms of economic growth, we live in an age of exponential change and social mobility the world over. Success is linked to growth and measured by the material gains you chart over the course of your life such as wealth, career, and popularity — all the way down to your social media following. Furthermore, it is not just the progress you make but also about how you stack up against the gains made by others. And it never seems quite enough. Even in the rarified millionaire class, a millionaire is relatively poor compared to the thousands of individuals whose wealth scales into the billions, tens of billions, and hundreds of billions. If modern life is a race to the top, we are as doomed for failure as the participants in Squid Game. We are set up to lose.
Inequality is a Race to the Bottom
Even as we strive to get ahead, doing so is often a race to the bottom. As inequality has increased, with many South Koreans deeply in debt, unemployment is at 22 percent, nearly half of the elderly live in poverty. An average apartment in Seoul now averages upwards of a half-million dollars. Squid Game speaks to the sense of desperation of those trapped in debt and poverty. For those unable to make it, life can be a dog-eat-dog existence. This is a pattern present across the wider world. In the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, the author who lived in a Mumbai slum for a year found that the people in the slum preyed on each other in a struggle to survive. The Squid Game sets this vicious cycle in motion by creating a fiercely competitive dynamic. People form and break alliances. This very human element of friendship and betrayal may be the most compelling aspect of the fantasy series. In life, many of our deepest disappointments are betrayals by others. This attribute of Squid Game is particularly haunting. Almost every character in the show lets others down.
Freud observed: “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.”
The Game is a Collective Choice
In modern life and Squid Game, once you opt-in, you can’t easily opt-out. In real life, you take on the responsibility of family and bills. As in the Squid Game, the game we play in life is a collective game that we get locked into. To truly shift things, requires a shared decision and cooperation to change the game. There are some societies that have chosen not to play the likes of the Squid Game. These show up as the happiest places on Earth — the Nordic countries, New Zealand, and Canada (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/happiest-countries-in-the-world). These societies have prioritized giving all people a strong start through good education, created a broad safety net for all, and prioritized holistic wellbeing that values relationships, vacations, and nature. The choice most nations have made, however, is not one that prioritizes individual rather than collective happiness. In far too many places, we’re trapped together in the tentacles of competition, playing against each other.
In children’s games, the ultimate purpose of a game is having fun. In the Squid Game, the game is not fun and there are dire consequences for losing. This is done by creating winner takes all pay-offs that force competition. If we see through this plot, scarcity is a manufactured reality. In real life, as in Squid Game, there is truly enough for everyone if shared. There is no need to pit ourselves against one another. We can choose to play a different game than the likes of the Squid Game.
Changing the Game
Martin Luther King offered us an alternate paradigm of success that framed winning as “letting no person be defeated.” This “we’re in it together” perspective and “we can win together” paradigm is an altogether different game.
Squid Game offers the Korean concept of Gganbu which means close friends who have each other’s backs. This is not how things play out in the series and the consequences of cutthroat competition are clear. Martin Luther King called out this dynamic as well. He said, We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools. Squid Game is a parable for how we often find ourselves playing a fool’s game. But unlike the characters in the TV show, the game is not over for us. We can still choose to play a different way.