Don’t Hate the Squid Player, Hate the Squid Game

They never let poor Squidward, join in any Hunger GamesHoratio Thelonius Ignacious Crustaceous Sebastian

Cephalopods are everywhere these days. Well, not literally everywhere; I was able to drive to work this morning without encountering any random 8 or 10 limbed mollusks on the back roads I frequent. Hopefully that will hold true this evening.

They certainly are in the news at the moment. For the past several weeks, almost all forms of media have been discussing squid-related activities: Squid Racing, Squid Cooking, Squid Ballroom Dancing, and of course, Squid Games. To be honest, I’m not sure what the attraction of watching squids playing solitaire is all about; besides, I thought cards were the provenance of sharks.

Speaking of, on October 12 the Miami Herald reported on a group of shipwreck explorers who saw a “mysterious sea creature” while investigating what appeared to be a shipwreck they had spotted on sonar at a depth of 2800 feet. After sending down a remote operated vehicle (ROV) to get a closer look, they saw a creature that left the “entire crew frozen in absolute shock.” Can you guess what it was? That’s right: Aquaman. It took a year to confirm the identity, but the animal was the “giant form” of a purpleback flying squid. Who knew that you could spend a career studying the oceanic depths and not know of the existence of squids? Just wait until they see a Narwhal.

This formerly unidentified submerged object is not the only instance of squids in the news, though. Unless you happen to be a Luddite, in which case you will not be reading this post, or actually have a life that doesn’t revolve around social media, you have likely heard of the hit Netflix show “Squid Game.” According to the Wall Street Journal, this series out of South Korea is Netflix’s “most popular show ever.” The Business Insider states that “the Korean drama about strangers competing in deadly children’s games became Netflix’s most-watched show globally.” 

To say it is a ratings hit is as great an understatement as saying that Biden’s recent poll numbers are “slightly” down.

It would be easy to get this show confused with that popular tween dystopian romance series Twilight, The Maze Runner, Divergent, the Hunger Games. Please don’t. To begin with, all the actors are adults playing adults, not adults playing teenagers. Secondly, the main characters are struggling against an oppressive economic system controlled by a ruthless oligarchy that derives pleasure from the sufferings of the impoverished contestants forced into the competition in order to provide for their loved ones, as opposed to an oppressive economic and political system controlled by a ruthless oligarchy that derives pleasure from the sufferings of the impoverished contestants forced into the competition in order to provide for their loved ones. Ok, that wasn’t the best example. Well, they speak Korean in this one. And the lead character’s name is not Cuttlefish Everdeen (but perhaps it should have been).

At this point I need to make a disclosure: I have not taken 15 minutes to save 15 percent by switching to GEICO. Whew, I am so glad to have gotten that off my chest. Also, I have not watched nor do I have any plans to watch Squid Game. So why am I writing about it? I am glad you asked.

While I am not interested in the Squid Game as a story, I am interested in it as a reflection of changing cultural attitudes towards the value of human life and violence. More specifically, why is the most popular show on Netflix, and the most watched show in the world, one that promotes an utilitarian view of human worth and dignity, and revels in über violence? Even more, what does that say about us as a society or a human race?

Let’s start with the utilitarian view of human life. According to the trailers and from the reviews I have watched, the “winner” of the Squid Game is the one who out-lasts their fellow competitors, and they receive a two-fold prize: 1. A large amount of money, and 2. Their life. Interestingly, they already possessed their lives prior to entering the games, but only the successful competitor is allowed to keep it. Therefore, the main incentive of the game is not the money itself, it is living long enough to receive the money and (implied) use it. To do this, every player but one has to die. When the people of the games view each other as obstacles to winning (defined as not dying) then the value of a human life is reduced to an opportunity cost. Ultimately, those lives become expendable. Not potentially expendable, like the red shirt crew aboard the Starship Enterprise, but necessarily so, like the red shirt crew who beam to an unknown planet with Captain Kirk. 

What makes this more pernicious is the “winner’s” sympathetic backstory, which elicits the emotional investment of the viewer. Slowly, we too begin to view the others as less-than-human and may even start wanting them to die. Thus the value of human life is reduced to near zero.

Enter the graphic violence. Parents are being warned not to let young children watch the show due to the “extreme” violence. Are there really any caregivers out there with rambunctious toddlers who are debating between Squid Game or Cocomelon? If so, then please heed these words from Michael Jordan:

There is a conscience-numbing effect the graphic on-screen deaths can have on viewers; it has been proven to alter brain chemistry. Studies have shown that “exposure to media violence can desensitize people to violence in the real world and that, for some people, watching violence in the media becomes enjoyable and does not result in the anxious arousal that would be expected from seeing such imagery.” It is not a stretch to consider realistic media violence (movies, television, video games, etc.) a gateway to minimizing real life violence. Who knows, after a regular diet of shows like Squid Game, you might even find yourself working for CNN and referring to a burning building as a “mostly peaceful protest.”

What is worse, violence is viewed in the show is presented as a net positive – well, for the winner that is. While most of the characters who get slaughtered are the human equivalent of NPCs, there are some characters that the audience, through the power of storytelling, wants to die a violent death. That is desensitization in real time, and it doesn’t stop after the scene is finished. This response becomes ingrained in our neural pathways, with the emotional triggers logged and ready for future use. Thus when we see violent acts in real life, our previous emotional responses are accessed, and we might either justify them or dismiss them outright as no big deal. We will only come to be outraged when those acts are taken against a person or idea which we hold in high regard.

Thus I am led back to my previous question: what does it say about us as a nation, or humanity in general, that the number one show in the world is a violent dystopian drama that portrays humans as obstacles and depersonalizes death in the pursuit of victory. To be sure, spending a year in forced isolation due to government mandated lockdowns is certainly a contributing factor to the show’s success, however I believe it reflects the overall view society has on moral issues of life and death, and the increasingly utilitarian view we have of others’ worth as human beings. If they have some perceived benefit to us, then they have value; if they do not benefit us, or stop benefiting us, then they lose their value as a human and are as worthless as yesterday’s garbage, fit only to be bagged up and tossed out with the other refuse.

Thus the Squid Game, rather than merely providing several hours of mindless distraction, serves as another shot of Novocaine into the culture’s understanding of the value of human life and the pain of human suffering. Is it working? Look around the United States. What do you see? Increased levels of acceptable/ righteous violence, as well as mass denial of every individuals’ innate human dignity by elevating differences and suppressing our common experience. In the words of Pink Floyd, “This is not how I am. I have become comfortably numb.”

So bear all this in mind if you plan to watch this show, or any show like it. Remember, don’t hate the squid players, hate the Squid Game.