14 Lessons “Squid Game” Taught Us About Capitalism
Spoilers for the hit Korean drama Squid Game follow.
In Squid Game, hundreds of debtors come together to compete in a sequence of high stakes children’s games — to the death. But make no mistake. Squid Game isn’t just another battle royale. It’s an exploration of class inequity, human morality, and the crushing weight of social expectations.
Let’s take a look at some of the lessons Squid Game taught us, including some that American viewers may have missed.
1. Success is 5 percent hard work and 95 percent luck. Neither is optional.
Gi-hun works hard. But most of his wins during the games are incidental. In Red Light Green Light, he’s saved by Ali — he could have died in the very first game. During the Glass Bridge test, he goes last only because he’s paralyzed by indecision. That indecision ultimately saves him. Gi-hun had to work hard to get where he was. But he also had to be very, very lucky.
2. You think you’re on an even playing field, but it’s all just an illusion.
When the games start, the showrunner notes that they’re trying to be as fair as possible. Everyone is supposed to have equal footing. But on the Glass Bridge, the lights are cut when someone figures out the game — the fairness of the game is destroyed to preserve its entertainment value. It is never an even playing field when others can arbitrarily change the game.
In Korea, there is a life-changing, career-altering college entrance test that’s taken much like the SATs on steroids. The Suneung is supposed to be fair, but understandably, the wealthy can afford private tutors.
3. No one escapes morally unscathed.
In the Marbles game, Gi-hun is about to lose (and, consequently, die) until he begins to cheat. He’s played the game honorably up until this point, but having to directly compete for his life sways his sense of morality — and it’s easy to justify because he can convince himself he is the more worthy candidate.
Realistically, every player who agreed to play the game carries some responsibility for every other person who died. Part of being a part of the system means that you’re responsible for the actions of the system.
4. If you’re skilled and talented, someone will just change the game.
In the Glass Bridge, the glassmaker figures out the game by being clever. But, as we noted earlier, it amounts to nothing because the game was never intended to be fair. Being skilled and talented alone is not enough. The component of luck must also be there.
5. The choice to participate is an illusion.
Everyone chooses to come back to the game, making the game theoretically a matter of free will. But it’s not, not really. They can play the game or they can end up dead, homeless, or with their family suffering.
No one portrayed in the game (with one notable exception) is doing it for fun. They are doing it because they have to.
6. Everyone is a victim, whether they’re a winner or a loser.
When Sang-woo kills Ali, Ali is clearly the victim; he believed in him and was betrayed. But Sang-woo, too, is a victim. He isn’t as naive as the others and realizes it’s kill or be killed.
Both Sang-woo and Ali are seeking the money for their family, though Sang-woo admittedly got himself into the situation. But we see later that Sang-woo cares more about his family at this point than his own life; it’s just a matter of playing the game.
7. Your worst enemies are pretending to be in the same situation you are.
Il-nam, the old man, pretends to be just another player in the game. In fact, to him, it is a game. Just like the wealthy, nothing has any real consequence for him. He is able to bow out of the game at any time and move on with what is left of his life, just as a millionaire might start a business for fun.
Il-nam is so disconnected from reality that he later claims that the “very wealthy” and the “very poor” both suffer on equal footing, simply because the “very wealthy” get bored — although he is ultimately proven wrong about human nature.
8. Sunk cost fallacy can take you to some dark places.
At any time, the players could have voted to stop the game. But they didn’t. Once the deaths started stacking up, it became necessary to continue to justify them.
By the end, Gi-hun breaks out of this mindset and realizes that he and Sang-woo can just walk away. But Sang-woo can’t accept that the money would be lost; he’s more willing to die.
9. Your family is held hostage by society and your inability to meet their needs is a personal failure.
Gi-hun wants to provide for his daughter and mother but can’t without the prize money. He is emotionally scarred from seeing a coworker die during a union-busting and finds it difficult to function, but it’s still his responsibility to see it through. It’s his personal failure that he cannot.
In Korean culture, it’s critical to protect your children and your elders. Gi-hun and Sang-woo aren’t able to provide for their mothers, which is incredibly shameful. To a lesser extent, Ali calls Sang-woo “hyung” (big brother) during the games — Sang-woo must also betray his brother to win the game.
10. Most of the time, the enemy is just other people.
The guards of the game appear terrifying to the players. But when one is unmasked, it’s just a kid. These are presumably regular people, going out their days, shooting countless strangers, and even vivisecting them for organs to sell on the black market.
The people behind the masks are intentionally “othered” to make them frightening, but they are just ordinary people on the other side of a gun.
11. Your value to society is only as much as your perceived ability to perform.
Women and the elderly are repeatedly rejected throughout the games because they are physically weaker. But raw strength is only a necessity in a single one of the games; the tug-of-war.
The women repeatedly beg to be included, even after they have performed well in previous games. Unfortunately, being perceived as a liability is enough to get them dismissed when it’s as high stakes a game as Squid Game. And the same is true in many real-world environments.
12. When you’re stuck in a zero-sum game, whoever is closest to you becomes your enemy.
In Marbles, many partners pair up with those they trust and are attached to. But they are forced to turn against each other because only one can end up with all the marbles and survive. Of course, the resource scarcity is arbitrary and by design. But that doesn’t stop it from being a life-and-death situation.
Even husband and wife are required to turn against each other during Marbles. And still, no one thinks to call a vote and cancel the game, even though they know that half of them are going to lose their lives.
13. You’re probably going to end up wherever you began.
Most characters in Squid Game experience significant foreshadowing. They jump off a bridge into water and get dragged off a bridge to their death. They threaten to slit someone’s throat and get their throat slit in return.
Fate, like capitalism, has limited flexibility. Though South Korea as a country has been growing economically, many have come to doubt its upward mobility. In recent years, an immense chasm has emerged between the haves and have-nots.
14. If you’re a bum asking for $10, you’re out of luck. If you’re a multi-millionaire asking for $10, don’t worry about it.
At the beginning of the show, Gi-hun is shown begging for money wherever he thinks he can get it. But because he’s unimportant, he’s dismissed.
By the end, a bank representative practically begs him to be of service. He asks for $10 and the perplexed bank representative is only too happy to give it to him, even though he doesn’t need it — a hallmark of capitalism.
The best way to get money, after all, is to not need it.