Squid Game, The Rat Race, and a Rigged Rulebook

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“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” – timeless words that likely resonate as much today as they did when Oscar Wilde first wrote them in 1899. Indeed, in the backdrop of immense scientific discoveries and technological advancement, art in its various forms has continued to provide an unparalleled portal for making sense of our ever-changing lives and the world around us.

That applies to Netflix shows too…some of them, anyway. Squid Game, in case you hadn’t heard, is on course to become Netflix’s most popular show of all time, having shot to number 1 on the platform in countries across the world as varied as Serbia and Saudi Arabia. 

Beneath its frontier of graphic violence, striking visuals, and nostalgic children’s games with nightmarish twists, Squid Game has generated valuable discussion regarding a number of globally uncomfortable truths that it brings to the surface in light of modern socioeconomic trends. 

Reflecting the hyper-competitive nature of South Korean society that has long been a central theme of concern in the country’s social discourse, Squid Game is just the latest in a number of widely-acclaimed Korean dramas* that have drawn heavily on the stresses, anxieties, and inequalities induced by the fragile rollercoaster of success and failure that has come to define modern working and social life. Director Hwang Dong-Hyuk explicitly alluded to this when he described how his aim was to “write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”

While the gamified life vs death theatre of Squid Game has drawn comparisons with films such as the Japanese thriller Battle Royale and the Hunger Games trilogy, what distinguishes Squid Game within this particular genre is the element of choice. All participants in the gruesome fight for the ₩45.6 billion cash prize are given a choice as to whether or not they take part, with the brutality of the outside ‘real world’ serving as a barometer by which to measure their suffering and slim odds of success in the ‘game world’. 

Remarkably, the majority choose to continue in the macabre horror of the game world where the rules are applied equally, rather than return to the real world where the rules are applied unequally and their chances of escaping a crushing cycle of debt, social exclusion, and failure seem near impossible. It’s this element of choice and the concept of ‘equal rules’ that makes the timing of Squid Game’s release particularly poignant in the messy, post-covid, post-lockdown world we currently find ourselves in. 

Escape Routes, Dead Ends, Life Jackets, and Lying Flat – Seeking Alternatives to the One-Way Rat Race

Like hamsters stepping off the wheel and observing our surroundings properly for the very first time, the global pandemic and the lockdowns that followed served as a once-in-a-lifetime shared experience that afforded many a rare opportunity to grapple with long-neglected issues such as our sense of purpose, work-life balance, job satisfaction, role in society, and the general sense of fulfilment (or lack of) we derive from life itself. The conclusions that many arrived at as part of this process can generally be regarded as a damning indictment of policies around the world that have rendered upwards social mobility and the idea of a secure future little more than a vague fantasy for many.

The belief that hard work, talent, and perseverance will be rewarded accordingly is now generally regarded as a myth or an outdated adage from years gone by, especially amongst a younger generation that has borne the brunt of the prevailing central-bank-driven global financial structure while reaping few of its benefits. This is especially true in countries with highly educated and qualified populations such as South Korea, where even graduating from one of the ultra-prestigious SKY universities (like Squid Game’s Sang-woo) is no longer any guarantee of an advanced and stable income. Climbing the ladder to success becomes especially difficult when even the first step is elusive – it was recently found that 35% of global job postings since 2017 for “entry level” positions on LinkedIn required years of relevant prior work experience, with that figure rising to as high as 60% in certain industries. Locked out from the housing market, hamstrung by rising inflation, and faced with dwindling career prospects and job security, it should be of little surprise that many around the world are changing direction entirely or even dropping out of the race altogether.

Arguably the most fascinating and co-ordinated instance of this phenomenon is China’s tangping or ‘lying flat’ movement. Variably described as a lifestyle choice, counterculture, or even a spiritual movement, proponents of tangping outright reject the rat race and its associated materialism, long hours, and machine-like numbness in favour of a worldview which prioritises wellbeing, stress reduction, and enjoyable easy to attain activities (such as quite literally lying flat). Needless to say this (and the threat to national productivity) quickly caught the attention of China’s ruling class who have sought to suppress the movement and its messaging. 

Why Fewer Of Us Are Opting to ‘Continue Playing’

These general sentiments seem to have intensified on a global scale in the post-covid era. Coined by economists as the ‘Great Resignation’, 2021 has seen record numbers of people quitting their jobs in developed countries such as the UK and United States, with 4 million Americans having handed in their resignations in the month of April alone. The reasons are multifaceted – ranging from a desire to pursue jobs or projects that better align with one’s passions, wanting to spend more time with loved ones, and also poor, degrading treatment from employers during the pandemic despite years of loyal and dedicated service. Many are also more disenchanted with working life than ever before, with the ‘sense of purpose’ that has traditionally been associated with work becoming increasingly elusive in an era of automation, bloated bureaucracy, and workplace cultures that have increasingly rendered workers expendable. 

Although not nearly as radical or extreme as the premise of Squid Game, millions are now also pursuing alternative and unconventional methods towards securing their financial future. Interest and participation in stock market and cryptocurrency trading has skyrocketed in recent years, with many inexperienced investors motivated not only by the lure of big returns, but attaining financial independence. Although the risks of trading are well known, for many who choose this path the prevailing sentiment is that it will always be better than the conventional alternative of being entirely dependent on paid work. In the words of Korean journalist Park Juwon, “At times cryptocurrency seems like my only life jacket, and I am joined by many other young South Koreans who believe the same.”

For others, this socioeconomic subculture represents much more than a lifejacket and actually serves as a means through which to take on the system itself. The GameStop/Robinhood scandal which occurred at the beginning of this year was a telling example of this, during which a self-proclaimed ‘Pleb Rebellion’ of reddit users decided to take on Wall Street investors who had bet on the stock of retail company GameStop to fall, essentially finding a way to beat the fat cats at their own game via coordinated people power. Faced with immense pressure from hedge fund investors and Wall Street, the ironically named Robin Hood trading app responded by blocking users from trading GameStop stock entirely – the great game of The Plebs vs Fat Cats was effectively switched off before a result could even be called. Much noise was made about the unfairness of this scandal, very little action was taken.

Circling back to the lure of Squid Game’s setting where the rules are applied equal to all – what conclusions can be drawn about the fairness of our own unwritten ‘rulebooks’? Rulebooks that have facilitated the bailout of banks after the 2007 financial crisis; a crackdown on those choosing to simply ‘lie flat’; Robin Hood’s treachery; and a global pandemic during which small independent businesses and low-paid workers were decimated while transnational corporations raked in record profits? 

‘Building Back Better’ – But Better for Whom?

The popularity of South Korea’s Squid Game has rekindled interest in international shows such as Spain’s Money Heist (2017-present) and Brazil’s 3% (2016-2020). Although similarly produced in countries with chronic issues of underemployment and inequality, their message and focus on the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and ‘one rule for them, another for us’ has resonated globally. 

Going back to ‘life imitating art’, it was in June of this year that millions watched on in disbelief as leaders and representatives of the G7 (countries who at the time were enforcing strict lockdown and social distancing measures on their populace) gathered in Cornwall to socialise, barbecue, and party, all while being served champagne and finger foods by teams of masked waiting staff. Much like the ‘VIP’ characters in Squid Game or the ‘Capitol Residents’ of the Hunger Games, the optics were terrible and offensive, but the so-called elite class seemed well beyond the point of even bothering to keep up appearances. 

It’s fairly certain that as long as world leaders and policymakers focus more on parroting empty slogans such as ‘build back better’ with unsettling synchronicity, while neglecting actual issues which need to be addressed, the trajectory discussed here is likely to continue. In a recent interview, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question on the national recovery by claiming, “I’ve given you the most important metric which is, never mind life expectancy, never mind cancer outcomes, look at wage growth.” It is perhaps this kind of disturbingly myopic, one-dimensional, and numbers-centric view of the world that has led us to where we are now. 

Squid Game reminds us that money is very important in a lot of ways, but it isn’t everything, and pursuing it ruthlessly can drive us to turn on one another and do terrible things in the process. A narrative shift towards the kinds of services, opportunities, and structures a cohesive society needs in order to fulfil our psychological, spiritual, and physical (as well as financial) wellbeing in a rapidly changing world is perhaps long overdue. That way, once the light turns green in our own game of ‘red light-green light’, more of us might be inclined to move forwards. 

*Squid Game is currently available to view on Netflix. Some other Korean dramas which focus on social inequity and competition include The Heirs (2013); I Can Hear Your Voice (2013); Misaeng (2014); My Mister (2018); Ms. Hammurabi (2018); Sky Castle (2019); Hyena (2020). For films, see Snowpiercer (2013); Parasite (2019).

Hassan Fiaz is a Social Sciences Librarian (Economics, Finance & Management including CeFiMS, CISD and IFCELS). Read his blog ‘The Korean Wave: Soft Power, Cultural Ascendancy, and the Growth of Korean Studies’. 

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