I have the privilege this semester of teaching a senior seminar in “video games and playful media.” While the course is designed to introduce students to the major theories used to analyze video games and addresses the major debates surrounding the medium, I will also be pushing my students to consider the ramifications of our increasingly “playful” media landscape.
I have found that film and television examples can be useful discussion starters and often encourage students to think critically about some of the more abstract concepts explained in class. While the graphic violence and brutal survival challenges has garnered significant attention, arguably the most intriguing aspect of Squid Game is its dark satire on income inequality, neoliberal politics, gamification, and the influence of the West on South Korean culture. I also find Squid Game a useful tool in teaching the myth of meritocracy.
Western culture has a long tradition of perpetuating the myth that those who are successful in society have earned it through hard work, inherent intelligence, or through their excellent ideas and ability. Conversely, a lack of success is often attributed to laziness or being undriven. But as critical scholars point out, there are so many other contributing factors which lead to a person’s success in a capitalist society. One of the key factors is whether you are granted a structural head start by being born at the top of the social hierarchy. Although it would be reductive to say that Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg became the richest people in the world simply due to their race, sexuality, and gender, they were all born into families of means in a society that privileges white men.
Meritocratic ideology is so persistent and immune to criticism in Western culture. This is not only due to it permeating across various subcultures, including tech, sports, business, fitness, gaming, etc, but its very design is meant to erase context. The capitalistic landscape has historically been portrayed as an equal playing field in which anyone has a chance to succeed. It is certainly much more comforting for successful people to think themselves talented, gifted, or better than others rather than realizing they were simply luckier.
Squid Game is intriguing as a case study because the game is meant to correct the injustices of the real world, but, in many ways, actually replicates those inequalities and structural barriers. For example, the Front Man claims to be giving players “one last chance to fight fair and win” by using simple children's games. However, there are several moments of corruption in the game. For example, the Front Man was well aware that some of his guards were selling organs of the deceased on the black market but only intervened when the guards disrupted the flow of the game. However, they were already altering the game by passing hints to one of the contestants. Also, you would think that contestants conspiring to kill each other in between games would be counter to the spirit of a true meritocracy. If you truly wanted the game to be different from the real world, violence would be the first thing you would remove. However, it is not just outside forces which disrupt the game. The Front Man, himself, interferes with the outcome of the game. Let’s take the glass bridge sequence as an example. The fact that one of the contestants was able to detect which pieces of glass would break seems completely within the rules of the game. Rather than accepting the fact that the contestant used his ingenuity to overcome the challenge, the Front Man turns off the lights, altering the parameters of the game.
The squid game is a perfect allegory for the meritocracy myth. It promises that it rewards creativity, talent, resoluteness, and teamwork but instead rewards corruption, hyper-individualism, violence, and disloyalty. The squid game obviously falls short to correct the injustices of the world. However, its creators' real mistake is focusing on the wrong culprit. The problem with a capitalistic society is not that the game is rigged. Rather, it's the allegiance to the idea that economic success, emotional stability, and physical health should be framed as a “game” in which only the few can “win.”