With Netflix’s release of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Korean drama Squid Game on September 17, 2021, attention is turning toward the stark anti-capitalist messages behind the dramatic survival game show. The show immediately gained popularity in multiple countries, and is currently Netflix’s most popular series. However, the obvious criticisms of capitalist society are making viewers look beyond the show itself to see its messages playing out.
Squid Game's first two episodes begin by introducing main character Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), a man who is suffering the effects of extreme poverty fueled by a gambling addiction. A selection of other deeply indebted characters are also introduced, each one desperate to escape their crippling financial problems. When the occasion arises, they cannot resist the sudden opportunity to play an ominously vague game for a chance to win a grand cash prize. But the 456 players quickly realize that this is not a collection of fun children’s games, but rather a fight of life and death.
The show explores themes of anti-capitalism, desperation to escape poverty, and power imbalances. Each player in the game is so buried in debt that they feel they have nothing to lose. They are willing to do anything, even bet their own lives, just for the slight chance of winning the 45.6 billion-dollar prize. Even after the players initially vote to leave the horrific game of mass murder, almost every one of them wants to return after living in the real world once again. It is telling of the faults of capitalist society if people wish to partake in a game where they will face death rather than the harsh reality of living in poverty.
The vote itself to leave the game is demonstrative of the illusions put in place by leaders of capitalist countries. The illusion of free will is presented in Squid Game by including a third clause in the contract each player signed stating that if the majority wishes to leave the game, they will be released. However, for those with crippling debt and increasing financial strains, is it really a choice? It’s an impossible decision, one that people facing legal repercussions and family debt cannot make. This illusion makes the game seem fair and democratic, when in reality there is no way any of the players could choose to leave. The potential death that awaits all but one of the players appears more desirable to them than simply waiting to be killed by poverty.
This pattern reflects the cycle of debt we so often see today in capitalist countries. While the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the cycle continues until it is impossible for those in poverty to sustain a livable lifestyle. The show makes this evident by depicting the polarized lifestyles of the rich and the poor. At the end of the series, the Host claims that the excessively rich and the excessively poor are the same, since neither of the two are enjoying life. However, this comparison obviously does not encompass all of the difficulties poor people face that the rich will never experience. Starvation, unemployment, and homelessness are only a few hardships that the poor go through, whereas the rich may only suffer from boredom of excess and their gluttonous lifestyles. The two are not the same, despite attempts at comparison.
In fact, the rich are the only ones benefiting from the deathly games the desperate players are enduring. While hundreds of people play to their deaths, the disgustingly rich merely watch, enjoying the “entertainment” of such desperate people grasping at the slim chance of escaping with the money. It’s almost a nod to how we, as viewers, are watching the same show they are, and how even though we are only watching a fictional drama, we are still taking pleasure in watching a show based on real-life struggles. Why is it that we are so fascinated by this horrific game show, and why is it that we, as viewers, feel vindicated when these poor people are portrayed as heroes?
There is also a stark conflict between an every-man-for-himself and a teamwork-alliance strategy among the players. Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae Soo) is an example of the internal struggle between the two. Despite having joined Gi-hun’s team, when it comes down to it, he refuses to help his teammates in the games and uses any advantage for himself, even if it would mean the deaths of his friends. The rich watch on as they directly profit off of these betrayals and back-stabbings, having pitted the poor against each other.
The game is an honest portrayal of the very essence of capitalism—a system that, by definition, is controlled by private owners rather than the state. Korea as a whole has more left-leaning economic and political tendencies than Western countries, since the North has been historically a communist regime, and public opinion in the South is more socialist-leaning. However, the political and economic policies of the South Korean government are heavily influenced by American capitalism, which may have prompted the clear-cut criticisms of it presented in Squid Game. This new Korean drama is quickly becoming the most popular show on Netflix, and its messages are spreading far outside Korea’s borders. Almost every capitalist country can feel the effects of this message. It encourages all of us to question our roles in our own versions of this "game."