COLUMN: Netflix show “Squid Game” critiques capitalism and consent

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Ian Palacios, Columnist

Editor’s note: This column contains spoilers of the show “Squid Game.”

“Squid Game” is a trending Korean TV show that debuted in Sept. 2021 about a gambling addict Gi-Hun who, in need of money to save both his mother’s life and his own, resorts to a deadly game where only one of 456 participants can win. The payout is high at ₩45.6 billion (roughly 38 millions usd).

On top of the show’s exciting plot and tense game scenes where one wrong step can leave you shot dead, the themes are (un)surprisingly philosophical, offering strong critiques of libertarianism, capitalism, and the futility of equality under unjust circumstances.

When I say “Squid Game” with capitalizations, I refer to show TV, and when I say “squid game” lower case, I refer to the set of games the characters participate in.

“Squid Game” questions if consent is sufficient for an action to be permissible. Can I hurt other people for fun if they agree to it and I give them money?

At the start of episode 1, Gi-Hun runs into the bathroom to escape a Korean mafia to whom he owes money. The mafia pushes him around and punches him in the face. With a knife in Gi-Hun’s nose, the mafia threatens Gi-Hun to either sign away his bodily rights if he cannot pay back the mafia or get killed on the spot. Gi-Hun, with the coercive threat of the mafia, signs away his rights in blood (9:20).

“Squid Game” contrasts this scene, which isn’t brought up later in the plot again, against a similar scene at the squid game facility. After being gassed unconscious and moved to an unknown location, the squid game participants are given the option to either consent to the games by signing a contract or to leave the games. All participants sign the contract, and one of the workers reminds everyone that they “volunteered to participate in this game of [their] own free will” (38:40).

These two scenes seem different, but are they really? Later, the participants find out that the games they consented to will lead to their death if they lose, so in each contract-signing scene a failure to comply in the contract leads to the person’s death: If Gi-Hun doesn’t pay back the mafia or if he loses one of six squid games, he will die.

“Squid Game” argues that, since it is wrong to force Gi-Hun to sign a contract in which he must either pay back his debt or lose his kidneys and eyes, it is also wrong to allow Gi-Hun to sign into a contract where he can die if he makes a mistake. This shows that capitalism uses the terms of “freedom” and “consent” to hide the fact that it forces people into unjust circumstances. The squid game hosts are wrongly taking advantage of poor people by economically coercing them into a “game” in which they’ll die.

Ian Palacios is a junior English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or impalacios.edu.