The TV series Squid Game illustrates the illusion of choice we’re given in a capitalist society. Players are gathered to compete for an ultimate cash prize, in such massive amounts of debt that they can’t afford to turn down the offer — even if it means killing those closest to them.
To quote an essay entitled “Pets Are for Rich Kids” in the book Girls of a Certain Age: “people are going to tell you that you can always make a good choice, but those are the kinds of people who have choices.”
In episode 2, the players witnessed the massacre left in the wake of the game “Red Light, Green Light.” After watching their fellow players die, they called a vote to end the games— majority rules. The majority of players voted to return to their homes, so everyone was sent back from the game.
The series then follows the players into their heavily-indebted lives, with law enforcement and loan sharks hot on their trails. Seong Gi-hun will die in the next month if he can’t secure the money he owes to the loan sharks. Cho Sang-woo is severely indebted, having put his mother’s home and store up for collateral. Kang Sae-byeok is desperate to make the money needed to bring her mother across the North Korean border and get her younger brother out of a children’s home.
The Capitalist Illusion of Choice
Voting is simply the illusion of choice. These characters are so in debt, so disenfranchised, that they don’t have the privilege of not participating. They’ll end up dead or imprisoned, otherwise. They are not voting on if they want to die, but how they’re going to die. Their chances in both the real world and in the games are slim.
The games take disenfranchised groups and give them two options, both of which might very well kill them. When the players cast their votes, they’re told that all of the consequences that come with that vote are of their own making, the voter’s choice. In reality, the players were just given two bad choices. Choices that those who hoard capital will never have to make.
Luck of the Draw
The show continues with the farce of equality — the one established with the voting system— in episode 3. In this episode’s game, some players must carve out more complex shapes in the dalgona candy than others. It’s completely luck of the draw. players randomly chose from four shapes, ranging from triangle to umbrella, without knowing the task.
When one player failed to complete his task, he questioned the fairness of the system. How is it fair that some people get easier shapes than others?
He was abruptly killed.
This moment is called back to in episode 5, when the black-masked figure finds out that one of the players has been exchanging favors for information about upcoming tasks. He is outraged at this finding, killing everyone participating in the scheme. Though he says the games are about equality, they are quite often luck of the draw, favoring those who get on good teams or choose the easiest shape. Oftentimes, the tasks favor strong, able-bodied men. Ali Abdul is from Pakistan and isn’t familiar with most Korean games, which works as a major disadvantage, as well.
In a capitalist society, our experiences cannot be equal. When the necessities for life— food, shelter, adequate healthcare — are monetized, they become competitive. We start seeing these fundamentals as things we earn, rather than what they are: essential. We justify people starving, freezing, dying under the guise that a good life is something not everyone deserves. Our minimum wage workers can’t provide for their basic needs on their salaries. How do you earn a good life? What kind of job makes you deserving of one?
An easy life is the luck of the draw.
Life as Capital
We equate life with capital. From as early as episode 2, we see this ideology in the players. After the first mass killing during “Red Light, Green Light,” which cost hundreds of lives, all of the players are begging to quit. But by the time a vote was called — only minutes later — they had a different disposition.
As the players watched the piggy bank fill up, money added for each life taken, opinion began to shift. The visual of the wealth they could accumulate outweighed the hundreds of dead bodies in an open field, some of the players still covered in the blood of the fallen. The players start to associate the loss of life with accruing wealth as people continued to die. Life became capital. When someone lost, they gained.
Capitalism assigns life monetary value— some lives more than others. The elderly man, Oh Il-nam, was frail and dying of brain cancer. Women were considered low-value players. Value was most often placed on brute strength, which was obvious when it came to picking teams. Though Oh Il-nam and Kang Sae-byeok’s value was continually proven, especially as they moved up through the levels of the game, they were still reduced to an old man and a woman, regardless of skill, experience, or knowledge.
Ageism and sexism are the obvious products of a capitalist system. As the number of players grew slimmer, we were forced to root for certain characters to win, forsaking our humanity.
Earning a Good Life
In the marble scene between Seong Gi-hun and Oh Il-nam, viewers generally root for Seong Gi-hun to win. Oh Il-nam had grown senile, oftentimes unaware of his surroundings. We inadvertently assign value to their lives by believing one party should win. Viewers know that only one person can make it out alive with all of the winnings, which forces us to weigh the character’s attributes, struggles, and livelihoods against each other. The audience must decide who is more deserving, who has earned a good life.
We do this in so many subconscious ways, like hating the “bad guys.” Jang Deok-su and Han Mi-nyeo receive the brunt of that hate. We don’t root for their success because we don’t approve of their actions within the games, but we also don’t consider that wanting them to lose means wanting them to die. This is not to excuse their behavior, but to explain its roots. They value capital because their lives depend on it, just like everyone else. We don’t get as much of their backstories, and therefore, don’t have an understanding of them. They get to be the face of evil, while the real perpetrators are hiding behind masks.
Capitalism forces us to assign value to each other’s lives and give more validity to the struggles of the people we sympathize with. The people we consider “bad” still deserve a basic standard of living.
At the end of the series, Oh Il-nam compares betting on the Squid Game players to betting on horses. While this is a jarring reminder of the wealthy’s removal from reality, it’s also a reminder that we, the viewers, were rooting for certain characters to win — unable to exist outside of the system.
The Horses and The Betters
At the end of the series, Oh-Ilnam is revealed as the creator the first Squid Game. He likens the plights of the rich to the poor, equating boredom to financial ruin. It’s ever the capitalist tactic to put the rich and the poor on the same level.
But ever so graciously, the capitalists offer a chance at wealth — wealth that comes with trauma and hardship — and call it equal opportunity.