What board game would you play if your life depended on it - literally? That’s the question I started asking myself while watching Netflix’s new series Squid Game. It’s a show that raises plenty of interesting questions about society, morality and competition - while also providing an extreme look at what compels us to keep playing.
On the face of it, Squid Game appears to follow closely in the footsteps of other films, series and games that owe 2000 book-turned-movie Battle Royale (and by extension lesser successors such as Hunger Games and Fortnite) a debt. A large group of strangers is thrown into a desperate battle for survival framed as a macabre game show, needing to use a combination of their wits, physical prowess and sheer endurance to make it through each increasingly deadly round. The prize? Your life - and a hell of a lot of cash.
Squid Game is more than your average run-of-the-mill dystopian death decathlon, however. Without spoiling anything, the series adeptly delves into the personal motivations behind each contender for putting their life on the line for money, something that’s made even more gripping as the result of the deadly risk-reward games being voluntary (on paper, anyway) rather than enforced by a tyrannical regime or a devious Jigsaw-style villain. In fact, the players can even choose to vote to stop the horrific proceedings at any time, if the majority agrees to forfeit the prize. You can probably guess how that goes.
Squid Game is a gripping satire on how it feels to play games.
Squid Game is stuffed full of commentary on modern society, wealth inequality and human morality - topics that people far more knowledgeable than me on those subjects are better placed to discuss. But I also found it a gripping satire on how it feels to play games, whether they’re traditional playground favourites or board games.
Each round of the fictional tournament is a children’s game from South Korea - something that its competitors are typically familiar with from the playgrounds of their youth. There’s no sense of ridiculous complexity like the gory Rube Goldberg machines of Saw, or needing to be a superhuman archer, survivalist and debate champion rolled into one as with The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. Players can be smart, tough, agile or none of those things and still have a chance of winning. Cheating can be just as effective as playing fairly by the rules. Staking your life on something so seemingly everyday adds to the weight of Squid Game’s drama and grounds its more over-the-top aspects. (Guards in sci-fi masks with rank denoted by shapes, giant glass piggy bank filled with billions in cash, terrifying robot child with a deadly gaze.)
Many of the greatest tabletop games have the power to make even basic decisions feel like life-or-death choices.
In the same way, many of the greatest tabletop games have the power to make even basic decisions feel like life-or-death choices, even when that’s very much not the case. Exploring rooms in Betrayal at House on the Hill, pulling cards from your deck in Magic: The Gathering, rolling for combat in Dungeons & Dragons: these can be moments of tension, utter disappointment or jubilant relief. There’s never a true sense of danger or loss attached to them in the majority of cases (the likes of poker and card games played for real money aside), but the combination of theme, gameplay and player iteration can make it feel that way as the dice tumble or you flip the top card.
Squid Game magnifies this simple feeling to its dramatic superlative, reflected visually by supersizing playground games played by a handful of kids to hundreds of adults fighting for their lives. What once felt like life-or-death becomes literally that. Unsurprisingly, its players look to bend the rules to their advantage (although breaking them entirely may come with fatal consequences), work with or against their fellow competitors only as long as it benefits them, and attempt to strategise both inside and out of the latest set of rules they’re given.
The contenders are both players and pawns in someone else’s game.
Much of their at-any-costs behaviour will be familiar to anyone who’s played a particularly aggressive strategy game before, tried to strike off-the-table deals in Monopoly or lied to their friends’ faces in a social deduction game like Werewolf. But there’s much more to win than bragging rights, and far more to lose than a few hours of smug satisfaction. Would you still swindle your friends out of a win if it could cost them their lives? How about a stranger?
Squid Game poses these questions, but avoids ascribing a simple moral judgement to the answer. The contenders are both players and pawns in someone else’s game, given the illusion of agency over whether to keep playing but ultimately left with no choice but to press on to the final round. They may be familiar with how to play each playground game, but they’re just as bound by a second set of rules over which they have no control - and that was the case before they even started playing.
In an era of reality-show TV where popular board games - from Ticket to Ride to Uno - are being brought to television as competitions played on grander stages for bigger prizes, it’s refreshing to see a series like Squid Game step back from the table and comment on the very nature of playing itself. Why do we play? Is playing to win really worth the cost? When does the reward outweigh what’s lost? In Squid Game, the game may change, but the unspoken rules remain the same - winning or losing is less important than how you get there.