The most popular Netflix show in the platform’s history is perhaps an unexpected hit. Why do people so enjoy watching others get brutally murdered simply for losing at children’s games? According to Edward Castronova, it’s because we see ourselves in the players. Life itself is a game, and these days it’s a rigged, zero-sum game: winner gets all, while the losers do nothing but suffer. Yet, while we sympathize with the players on screen, at the same time, in our own lives, we continue to play and perpetuate our own version of Squid Game. But even if life is a game, there are other ways of playing it.
Read Rebecca Roach’s counterpoint article, Life is not a squid game.
When the shooting starts, everyone gets hysterical. The players shriek when they realize what losing means, to be shot and burned. Rich sickos love to watch it, but so do we. Currently the top-rated show on Netflix, The Squid Game shows how much today’s people resemble Romans attending the gory entertainments of yore. The series trots out the old metaphor of life-as-game, and with no compromise with losing. Losing is not OK in-the-end, not an occasion for deeper awareness, not “actually winning” by some strange logic. Nope, it’s just losing. Make the wrong move, and you’re dead.
Life is not a squid game Read more Why does this series resonate so much with audiences? Like most artifacts, it has an appeal in a time and place because it reflects the local reality all too well. I’ve been studying life-is-a-game metaphors for a few years and concluded that the human condition is not a metaphor for playing. Life actually is a game. In my book Life is a Game, I explain that mathematicians define a game as a set of players, a set of strategies, and a mapping from game outcomes back to the well-being of the players. Yes, that’s it, that’s what we are doing, that’s the human condition into which we were thrown and from which we cannot escape. The universe is not God’s joke, it’s his game. God (or Nature if you want it that way) is the Game Master of a role-playing-game big enough to occupy all time and space.
I’ve been studying life-is-a-game metaphors for a few years and concluded that the human condition is not a metaphor for playing. Life actually is a game.
What is the game, though? It is a role-playing game, like Dungeons and Dragons. Each player takes on a role – an elven warrior, a hobbit thief, a dwarven priest. The Game Master gives them a setting: “You are in the nastiest tavern in a nasty port city. A well-dressed woman runs in, terrified, her dress torn. Gruff voices can be heard outside. The lady looks for somewhere to hide. What do you do?” From that point forward, the Game Master leaves things open, letting the players decide their pursuits and explain the consequences that follow. If they hide the lady, the Game Master reveals that the local boss now wants to kill them. If they don’t, he says “The noble lady is carried off into captivity, but on the way out she screams, ’100 pounds of gold to whoever saves me! 100 pounds!’” The Game Master enforces the rules of reality but lets the players take the consequences as they come. People love that. It’s empowering but constraining, risky but rewarding, free but dangerous.
Play is disruptive. When people play, they experience a different way of organizing themselves.
Is it fun? It depends on what fun means. Psychologists don’t study it, in fact very few professors study fun and games, they say it’s not “serious” enough. I don’t think that’s the real reason, though. Play is disruptive. When people play, they experience a different way of organizing themselves. In some Mardi Gras traditions, a peasant is crowned King for a day. That kind of thing can give other peasants ideas. In our own age, kids playing with video game money became creators of crypto currencies, those digital coins that reveal how blurry the boundary between real and fake money has become.
So far as I can understand it, fun is what we feel when we face a significant risk with a significant reward, in a not-so-serious situation that has some relevance for our ancestral evolutionary needs. A dragon is scary, gold is alluring, a dragon sitting on gold – being sheer fantasy, nobody will get hurt – is fun. Not all games are make-believe (think of elections), but we enjoy a make-believe survival-relevant risk-reward challenge.
Some people are privileged enough to treat life as a not-so-serious occasion. Others aren’t so lucky. Life’s a fun game for the former. They jump into heart-of-humanity problems like money or fame, take on risks, avoid them, and earn rewards. This is fun, as long as you have a reasonable chance of avoiding the risks and even if you don’t manage, nothing too bad will happen.
Fun is what we feel when we face a significant risk with a significant reward, in a not-so-serious situation that has some relevance for our ancestral evolutionary needs.
It’s not fun if the risks are insurmountable or losing has dire consequences for players. But, at the same time, the higher the risks and dire consequences for the players, the more fun it is for spectators to watch. That’s the Squid Game. That, and an annoying ping-pong-ping-pong soundtrack, a great-grandson of Pong or Space Invaders that simply will not leave your brain.
Players of the Squid Game face unkind odds. There’s more than 200 of them, and only a few will make it to the end and get the money. Perhaps those odds look good compared to the lottery, but then again, you don’t get killed if you lose the lottery. The game has some cooperative elements, but for the most part it is effectively one parachute per two passengers. And as mentioned above, if you lose, you die. Not fun. You can’t even be a hero. If you die for somebody else’s sake, the odds are that they’re going to eventually die in the game too, so what’s the point?
Squid Game is an utterly unforgiving metaphor for life’s game in our times. The elites have a stranglehold on culture, government, and business that is stronger than anything we have seen in a democracy before. Conformity is brutally enforced – those who step out of line are mercilessly erased from society. Entry into the elites is gated now the way it was 100 years ago. Back then, you got into the elite because you were raised by people in the elite. Then there was an interregnum where a good test score and education could get you up there. No more. The elites have tossed over tests of merit – last year, colleges across America proudly announced that they would ignore all university entrance exam scores – and replaced them with vague assessments of worthiness based on political and ideological categories. The categories are not defined anywhere, but the administrators say they know a good candidate when they see one. Somebody like them, of course. There’ll be no more of this barging in of the uninvited.
Squid Game talks about precisely this. One crude lady – she swears a lot and is not ashamed to hide unusual things in unusual places – reveals that she is, in fact, very smart. She just didn’t get to study, that’s all. She didn’t get admitted to college. The lady tells this to the preppy college man who did get admitted. In so doing, she strikes a nerve with all young people today. If working hard and being good is no longer the way forward, what is?
These stories lure us in by making common cause with ordinary people. They seem to express, and ally with, our frustration and hopelessness with a world gone mad. Yet it’s a trick.
Meanwhile, the elites watch. They don’t come off all that well in Squid Game. They are rich, yes, but it’s their character that turns us off. The Squid Game’s elites, are like ours: Primarily interested in personal pleasure. In a Marxist age, we’d code them as capitalists, but that’s no longer accurate. In today’s world, the elite only partly consist of the guys who created businesses and sold a lot of stuff. The larger share consists of celebrities, artists, and athletes. I’d include journalists too. Though not rich, they certainly have abandoned their traditional gadfly role and become a mouthpiece for the powerful. The elite includes the politicians too, of course. They never change, they are certainly no less corrupt than ever. All these people have one thing in common - they want a world where they can do whatever they want.
A world of “you-do-you” works well if you’re on top of society, with the means to take care of the ugly consequences (unwanted kids, depression, drug addiction, and so forth) that inevitably come along. It destroys the middle class and the poor, leaving them desperate. If your love of a drug got you into prison instead of a ritzy rehab, if your love of a guy got you a kid you can’t feed instead of one you can send to boarding school, you’re going to have to scrape and struggle mightily just to survive. Since the libertine system puts so many people in this situation, it creates an entire culture that the gods of entertainment, politics, and media can exploit to tell their stories. Every movie about urban life in the past 60 years has decried the hopelessness and decay of these places; isn’t it funny that the people who actually run them haven’t done anything about it? Why would they? Urban anarchy is the golden goose as far as taut, gritty storylines go.
The elites like to make these stories, and, as we learn from the success of the Squid Game, millions of us love to watch them. Why? Because it is a classic bait-and-switch. These stories lure us in by making common cause with ordinary people. They seem to express, and ally with, our frustration and hopelessness with a world gone mad. We point to the Squid Game and say, “That! That’s exactly what it feels like! One false move, and BLAM! They kill you.”
Yet it’s a trick. The same people who commiserate with those on the screen are busy offstage perpetuating the misery.
I wonder, how long will people believe this particular lie? How long will we play the real-world squid game fed to us by the entertainers, journalists, and politicians? The question is never moot, because we can always switch back to the original game of the original Game Master. Nobody can shut that game down. The Great Game of life always remains open.