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‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ crosses the line between entertainment and exploitation

Netflix’s “Squid Game: The Challenge,” released on Nov. 22, the reality show is based entirely on the Korean thriller “Squid Game.”

I have dubbed 2023 as the year television died, as yet another soulless reality show has been released. This one, titled “Squid Game: The Challenge,” is based on the successful show “Squid Game.” Following its release in 2021, “Squid Game” garnered much attention, with IGN Entertainment reporting that the show increased Netflix’s value by $1 billion. The Korean thriller follows Lee Jung-jae through a series of deadly challenges as he and his fellow contestants compete for 45.6 billion won (around $38 million). Capitalizing on “Squid Game’s” success, Netflix on Nov. 22 released “Squid Game: The Challenge,” a reality show that follows the layout of “Squid Game” with a cash prize of $4.56 million. What initially seems like an intriguing new reality show brings in significant questions about the ethics of releasing a show that derives entertainment from the struggles of the working class.

“Squid Game’s” initial popularity grew from the sheer shock factor, as within the first episode a 13-foot-tall doll participates in a murderous version of the childhood game “Red Light, Green Light,” by shooting those who move during a red light. Upon further watching, viewers are greeted with an apparent social commentary on our economic class system. Each player is shown to be debt-laden and desperate for income; this, coupled with the revelation that there are numerous wealthy men behind the scenes viewing the game as sheer entertainment, leaves the show with an oddly dystopian feeling.

The original show opens up a larger discussion about capitalism, with Evie Magazine stating “Squid Game has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its artistic direction, but it’s also being praised as an anti-capitalist story, which is completely missing the point. If you look closely at the show, you’ll realize it’s more about the elites versus us and how we’re just toys for their entertainment.” The show leaves very little room for other interpretations, as the suffering lower class is the object of affluent entertainment.. 

“Squid Game: The Challenge” involves the same number of participants as “Squid Game.” The participants complete the same challenges with the punishment for losing being expelled from the game rather than death. It is a copy-paste of the original show, with the only difference being a lack of death. While watching people participate in the game for the viewer’s entertainment, it puts us in the same view frame as the wealthy men in the show. It encompasses the same concept of capitalism pitting ordinary people against each other for the sake of viewer entertainment but puts a “reality show” spin on it.

Watching everyday people compete in physically and mentally draining challenges crosses the line of ethical entertainment because the show seems to thrive on watching individuals struggle for money. There is also significant irony in participants completing challenges that are additionally created as a means of dehumanization. In “Squid Game,” once it is revealed that the games are being watched by wealthy elites, the choice of games for competition becomes more clear. Childhood games such as “Red Light, Green Light” are employed to make the games more palatable and almost desensitize the viewer to the violence that follows as there is a feeling of nostalgia and safety within the game. The same usage of childhood games in “Squid Game: The Challenge” makes me wonder if copying the framework of its predecessor was used for a similar thrilling effect. The implementation of childhood games almost masks the desperation in participants who participate out of a financial need. Additionally, in the first “Squid Game,” the participants are all decked in identical green jumpsuits, with the only differentiation between them being a number. This is used as a means of showing the audience that the wealthy had no real attachment or care for the participants. The players were simply a number. The same exact jumpsuits are seen in “Squid Game: The Challenge,” although the creators attempt to distinguish participants through interviews there is still a dehumanizing feeling, as their only differentiation is a number. 

In an interview with TV Guide, Executive Producer Tim Harcout justifies the creation of the show by stating “It was about how people come together when they’re required to beat the game; it was also about how we’re ingrained from childhood to be competitive. These games are all childhood games, and they’re super-sized and it brings out this childhood competitive spirit in everyone.” His commentary seems to blatantly disregard the very premise of the show, which is the exploitative nature of capitalism and the consequences it inflicts on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Harcout’s perspective appears to overlook the core themes of “Squid Game,” emphasizing instead the nostalgic and competitive elements, while sidestepping the critical examination of systemic inequalities and the dehumanizing impact of wealth disparity. 

The release of the show brings a broader conversation of the media we consume.  At what point do we become wealthy men viewing human suffering as entertainment? The concept of reality shows has significantly shifted in the past few years, as it’s changed from a look into people’s lives to a scripted and curated form of entertainment in which everyday people put themselves in dangerous or vulnerable situations for money or simply a little notoriety. This transformation raises concerns about the increasingly exploitative nature of these shows, challenging viewers to question the ethics of entertainment that capitalizes on sensationalized challenges as people compete for money. Shows such as “Squid Game: The Challenge” represent a new era of reality television that do in fact cross the line between entertainment and exploitation.

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Saanvi Garg, Reporter

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