“Squid Game: The Challenge” & The Game of Life under Capitalism

Image Description: Scene from “Squid Game” with a giant doll in yellow dress in center with two pigtails. “Squid Game” Guards stand on the sides of a room painted with houses and artificial reeds and nature.

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Following “Squid Game”’s release on September 17, 2021, the South Korean Netflix series quickly became Netflix’s most watched, amassing 1.65 billion viewing hours in its first four weeks. Two years later in late November 2023, “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a game show closely inspired by the 2021 Netflix original, unveiled its first episodes, ultimately transforming the meaning of reality television and consumerism amidst our modern media landscape.

What made the original “Squid Game” so compelling was its striking social commentary on capitalism and consumerism: in each episode, characters competed in childhood games devised to encourage greed, betrayal, and selfishness among people who, outside the game, would have been friends – all in the name of money. Those who lost a game would be immediately shot and killed, with the cash prize increasing by 100 million Korean dollars (equal to $76,300 USD) following each elimination. Players were initially shocked and horrified by their peers’ deaths, but the survivors quickly acclimated to the mortality of the games and were willing to do anything to increase the money in the prize pot: betray a childhood schoolmate, push a comrade off a bridge, and stab a friend in their sleep. 

So of course, when this fictional series was recreated in a reality television show format in “Squid Game: The Challenge,” it sparked widespread interest. Fans of the original – myself included – were curious as to what an IRL version would entail and why it was ever produced in the first place. How would anyone who watched even a fraction of the original “Squid Game” think, “Hey look – betrayal, immorality, and murder. This is a great show to recreate in real life!”?

The answer to this question – as it usually is in cases where a piece of media is so absurd and unbelievable that one can’t help but contemplate its existence – is money. In its debut week, “Squid Game: The Challenge” dominated Netflix leaderboards with 20.1 million views. Simultaneously, its release propelled the OG “Squid Game” back into fame, where it reached No. 6 in non-English series with 1.6 million views. Prior to that weekend, “Squid Game” had not charted that high since June 19, 2022 (nearly a year and a half ago). 

Moreover, UK-based Studio Lambert was billed by Netflix to commence production of “The Challenge” in June 2022 – exactly the same month that Netflix announced that the scripted “Squid Game” would be renewed for a second season. The close timing in these two announcements signals that “The Challenge” was signed off on solely to create buzz around the original show, with little to no consideration of how the idea of a real-life Squid Game is wholly in opposition to the show’s fundamental message. The only thing that producers and Netflix executives knew was that the release of “Squid Game: The Challenge” would bring in two distinct viewer bases and thus two different sources of revenue: “Squid Game” fans who were looking to take a walk down memory lane, and reality television hate-watchers like myself.

Another interesting fact to note is that Studio Lambert has worked with Netflix before on “The Circle;” which is a social-media based reality television series in which online players flirt, befriend, and catfish each other to win money that combines elements from both “Big Brother” and “Catfish.” The popularity of “The Circle” following its debut season in 2020 urged Netflix to renew it for five more seasons, with a sixth season projected to arrive in spring of 2024. Therefore, Netflix executives clearly knew what they were doing when they signed a contract with Studio Lambert for “Squid Game: The Challenge”. Their biggest interest was raking in money and views without much regard for the impact of their media, and Netflix turned to a production company that they knew would churn out something binge-worthy, sensational, and – let’s not forget – frequently morally dubious.

This should come as no surprise, of course: Netflix, a big corporation, wants to make money. Who would’ve guessed? However, in this situation, one should think not only about capitalist interests in the show’s conception, but also the circumstances in modern society that enabled the production of the series itself. What kind of message is being amplified when a game show based on a series that satirizes game shows is one of the most-watched pieces of media in our country?

First, understanding the background mechanics of this reality show is essential to truly grasping the extent of its negative impact. 

“Squid Game: The Challenge” has the largest cast and lump sum prize in reality TV show history, with 456 contestants competing for a $4.56 million prize just like in the original. Each episode of the reality series cost about $1 million to make, making the 10-episode season amass to over $10 million in production cost. Filmed in the UK over 16 days in January 2023, “The Challenge” recruited contestants from around the world through an online casting form (actually open right now for season two potentials). Like “Squid Game,” the one thing that all contestants had in common was their financial hardship, demonstrating the OG show’s theme of betrayal driven by desperation. Other aspects were similar to the K-drama as well –– players slept in bunk beds in one large room without clocks or windows, ate the same thing every day, had to wear numbered tracksuits, and were forced to sleep and wake-up according to when guards turned the dorm lights on and off. When players were eliminated, they of course were not actually murdered, but instead black ink packs (in reference to squid ink) in their vests exploded to simulate blood, and players were instructed to pantomime falling to their ‘deaths.’

The interior design of the reality show was made to replicate the actual show as closely as possible, with game designers, set creators, and engineers working ceaselessly as explained in Netflix’s documentary “Making Squid Game: The Challenge.” In fact, Hwang Dong-hyuk, the producer of the OG “Squid Game,” visited during filming and commented, “Oh my god, you actually built it all for real!” –– since the original show used CGI for most of the sets.

As for the weekly games of “The Challenge”, there were many that were drawn from the original show, but a few that were newly devised. Some of these new games appeared to be left solely to chance, such as rolling dice or playing rock-paper-scissors, leaving many viewers wondering whether the entire show was rigged to begin with. However, Stephen Lambert, CEO of Studio Lambert, revealed in an interview that the games had an independent adjudicator present and had to be “done according to the rules…and played as a ‘real game’.”

In spite of this, some players who were eliminated early on anonymously reported to publications like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone that they were subjected to “inhumane conditions” during filming, and that the show was overall a “rigged traumatic mess.” According to the Rolling Stone, four players recalled that the iconic Red Light, Green Light game – meant to last five minutes – took place over a nine-hour span in a freezing airport hangar. A contestant claimed that he suffered from “a herniated disc and a torn knee tendon” during this very first game (Episode 1 of the show). In fact, during the filming of Episode 1, at least 10 people “fell and convulsed on the ground” while the cast members screamed for the medics’ help; yet producers were hesitant in providing immediate attention to these players because of their own concerns in filming the “best shot.” 

In that same interview, other players detailed how trapped they felt – with $4.56 million on the line, they feared that moving to help someone else would eliminate their own chance of a life-changing victory. In response to this horrific, dystopian situation, one player summed up the sentiments of “Squid Game” perfectly: “People were beating themselves up, including myself, around the fact that you’ve got a girl convulsing and we’re all stood there like statues. On what planet is that even humane?…It played on our morals and it’s sick.” 

Furthermore, one player went so far as to contend that some contestants – a number of whom were Instagram and TikTok influencers – appeared to be “pre-selected to advance to the next round” no matter what, and were given real mics whereas the rest of the to-be eliminated contestants were given “dummy microphones.” They implied that “The Challenge” had chosen people to advance to the next level, primarily based off of their pre-existing fame and success in the outside world. Building on their fellow contestant’s theory, another former participant says they “witnessed an eliminated player being put back into the game.” Two contestants even said that when producers booked their flight to London to begin filming, their return tickets were already booked – on dates that just so coincided with the time in the games they were eliminated. 

Amidst a flurry of these disastrous allegations, Netflix and Studio Lambert stood their ground in a public statement, asserting that “any suggestion that the competition is rigged or claims of serious harm to players are simply untrue.” They stated that in order to join the show, players signed a contract that essentially gave their consent to participate in the games, no matter the conditions – implying that players had already agreed to whatever happened. Moreover, Studio Lambert said that all players were medically assessed beforehand, and any health conditions that resulted from the games were minor and resolved by on-site medics. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Rolling Stone shined light on previous workplace safety violation and negligence claims against Studio Lambert in their production of other reality shows like “The Circle,” “Naked Attraction,” and “The Traitors.”. In 2021, staffers on the UK’s “Gogglebox” revealed that the studio enforced excruciatingly long hours without breaks.

Whether these claims are all 100% accurate or some players’ last-ditch effort to put their names in headlines post-elimination, we must remember that “The Challenge” is a social experiment designed to induce and monetize suffering.

Through the intricately built sets, creative games that designers formulated, and the intense pressure that contestants were placed under, the final product of “The Challenge” engendered what I would consider one of the most unique and troubling viewer experiences in reality television history. 

As I watched the series myself, I can very vividly recall the numerous scenes of players explaining their backstories in an empty interrogation room, speaking to the camera about their traumatizing upbringing wrought with homophobia and rejection, a broken and estranged family, or an excess of unpaid mortgages and loans weighing on their shoulders. Many players even began crying when asked about their background and what they would do with the prize money if they won. Though these scenes were engineered to garner support and build fan bases around characters, they often felt disjointed because of the sheer number of contestants in the games. How were we to know all 456 players and pick a favorite if producers were only showing cut interviews of about 20-30% of all of them? The show’s fixation on sympathetic backstores speaks to the sensationalism and exploitation of trauma in modern media, in which vulnerability makes an individual – or player, in this case – come across as more likable. 

The show’s inherent style is another feature that makes it stand out from other forms of reality TV. Compared to the bubbly, sappy, and personality-based nature of shows like “Love Island,” “The Bachelor,” and “Selling Sunset” or the timeless action-packed style of series such as “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” “The Challenge” draws on elements of psychological thrillers and emphasizes the crossing of one’s moral and ethical boundaries. In “The Challenge,” betrayal is not something to be regretted or questioned; rather it is simply inevitable and wholly necessary to success. Players are continuously driven to the point of deceit in “The Challenge” because it is the show’s entire purpose to underscore their darker human traits. In fact, those who are cunning and double-crossing end up being rewarded in “Squid Game: The Challenge”; whereas in other competitive reality shows, lone-wolf type contestants who betray others are scorned and quickly eliminated by team players. 

On a more tangible level, “Squid Game: The Challenge” is one of the few reality TV shows I’ve watched that employed an extremely cinematic approach in its filming. In their attempts to replicate the original “Squid Game” as closely as possible, producers of the reality TV counterpart utilized close-up shots of player conversations and eliminations, as well as only playing classical music to create an eerie atmosphere. There were many parts of the show that, in my opinion, are entirely just fluff (ex. slow-motion clips of players getting ‘shot’; players falling to the ground after elimination; zoom-ins of the sets). This made it clear that the point of the show was not only to entertain as classic reality television does, but also to pioneer a game show so incomparably dystopian that it urged viewers to perceive contestants as fictional characters separate from humanity itself. 

The underlying messages of commodification and desensitization embedded within “Squid Game: The Challenge” stand in stark contrast to the conclusion of the original show; and highlight dark truths about our position as consumers within a modern capitalist framework. [SPOILER OF “Squid Game”] The OG series concludes with the grand reveal that Player 001 Oh Il-nam, an old man that many viewers had grown fond of for his wisecracks, was in fact the creator of the Squid Games, and was using the cutthroat competition as a means to relive his upbringing before his impending death from a brain tumor. Il-nam reveals that he is extremely rich and invented the Games long ago as a source of amusement for other wealthy people, who could in turn ‘join in on the fun’ by betting on outcomes. As the years passed, Il-nam perceived the Squid Games as proof that humanity was decaying, as contestants continuously betrayed each other for the money. 

Likewise, the production of the reality show promoted complete immersion in the original “Squid Game” universe, driving viewers to step into the role of voyeur and bet on players’ outcomes and ‘survival’ in the games. Viewers of “The Challenge” are doing essentially the same thing as the wealthy people funding the Squid Games in the original series: we are paying money to a corporate entity through our subscriptions in order to be amused by people fighting each other and questioning their humanity. 

We spectate this mess of a show from a place of privilege: with the money to pay for a Netflix subscription; a device to view the show with; and a roof over our heads to shelter us, we distract ourselves from the troubles of our own miserable lives by watching others live in a windowless concrete box for a week, divulge trauma on-screen, and betray friends for money. 

Then, we sit and ask why this show exists, why people would backstab each other, where the cash prize comes from – when the answer to all these questions is us. 

We believe that our role as viewers grants us agency to be entertained by whatever we want. And “Squid Game: The Challenge” gives us exactly that: entertainment. Outside of the screen, we feel completely separate from the real situation that contestants are put through – the pain, the pressure, and the betrayal. So we see no problem in engaging with the media, claiming we are hate-watching, or just curious about what the show is. But with each view that the show racks up and every subsequent dollar that Netflix gains as a result, we are funding players’ suffering with our desire to be entertained. We cannot be so quick to criticize producers for coming up with the idea, Netflix for signing off on it, or contestants for participating in it. We as viewers are the ones who are complicit in commodifying people’s lives, trauma, and financial need for money and exchanging friendship with back-stabbing. 

Apart from the troubling implications of our viewership, the intrinsic lesson of Squid Game is entirely antithetical to the making of the reality show. The original series drew on a metaphor of material success being a ‘prize’ that few are able to obtain. Those who are rich have access to these resources and opportunities that oppressed groups viciously fight for, and their wealth elevates them to a world entirely separate from that of the working-class individual. Minorities are pitted against each other for the chance to win their golden ticket into this upper-class strata, speaking to the facade of neoliberal capitalist society: individuals, not institutions, are to blame for their social mobility or lack thereof. Consequently, the oppression that minorities face within this dog-eat-dog type of system are, in a sense, just as deadly as “Squid Game” portrayed. Capitalism tells us to strive for things that are engineered to inherently be out of our reach, and some spend their whole lives trying to get lucky by playing the game. 

All in all, the original “Squid Game” was an amazingly constructed series, symbolic of the neoliberal framework that modern society is situated within: to succeed in the world, others must fail; and that under capitalism, everything is commodified – even human lives. The brutal deaths of contestants combined with their disregard of basic human morals in the face of wealth, opportunity, and capital underline the cardinal message of “Squid Game,” while simultaneously hinting at the cardinal wrongs of its reality TV adaptation. As consumers, we need to be more conscious of what we pay for and the consequences that it has. Our desensitization to reality television benefits no one but corporate elites trying to monopolize suffering into entertainment.

Following the announcement of “Squid Game: The Challenge,” Brandon Riegg, Netflix VP of Unscripted and Documentary Series, asserted, “Squid Game took the world by storm with Director Hwang’s captivating story and iconic imagery. We’re grateful for his support as we turn the fictional world into reality in this massive competition and social experiment.” I urge you to think about Riegg’s words closely, and truly ponder how similar the world of “Squid Game” is in comparison to what we call our real lives. Is it really that fictional after all?

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