Contestant 299 lets out a guttural shriek before dropping to the floor in convulsions. He has just failed Squid Game: The Challenge’s Dalgona challenge, which sees players use a needle to delicately cut out shapes stamped into a piece of honeycomb. His decision to yield to three other group leaders and select the umbrella pattern over the simpler square, circle and triangle options has just cost him and about 40 others the chance to win $4.56m. “I think some of them are going to remember me for the rest of their lives as the person who ruined their chances of becoming a millionaire,” he says. It’s moments like these that are leading people to question the ethicality of Netflix’s decision to adapt its hit 2021 dystopian thriller series, Squid Game, into a real-life competition series.
Just like the original South Korean drama, Squid Game: The Challenge (the final of which airs tonight) sees 456 money-desperate individuals compete in various challenges of wit, physicality and luck for a chance to win a vast sum of cash – the biggest jackpot in TV history, in fact. But instead of being summarily executed like in the fictional series, contestants have an ink pack strapped to their chest that explodes when they are eliminated.
In the original thriller, it’s eventually revealed that the lethal game was put on for the entertainment of bored, ultra-rich clients, providing a vicious takedown of class systems and inequality. Ironically, the spin-off itself seems to play directly into the same trap – nobody’s dying, but we’re still witnessing the desperation of the proletariat as entertainment. The production’s use of money to “lure” people into “giving away core parts of their humanity for the sake of entertainment is 100 per cent an ethical violation”, says Ling Lam, a lecturer in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. “They are being asked to choose between a pot of money that seemingly promises them happiness in life, but the price they pay for that hope is to willingly sign away core aspects of their brain’s hardwired emotional need. And that’s a really heavy price for something they may not get.”
In early January, contestants were brought to Cardington Studios in Bedford, an enormous aircraft hangar where the likes of Inception and various Star Wars movies were filmed. There, they competed in the first game, Red Light, Green Light, an exact replica of the first event in the original Squid Game, which requires players to make it across a finish line while a 14-foot robot doll sings. Once the doll stops singing and turns around, the players must freeze. Any movement detected results in a player’s immediate elimination.
Player 215, 33-year-old Stephen from Ireland, who was the second to cross the finish line, remembers the challenge to be “very, very taxing”. For viewers, the game appeared to be over in a matter of minutes, but for the competitors, “it lasted around six to seven hours, some people longer”, Stephen reveals. “We would sprint for five seconds and then we’d be frozen in a static position for 30 to 40 minutes.” Although players had been forewarned about the cold temperatures and gruelling time commitment, concerns have been raised about the treatment contestants received during the filming of the show.
Two unnamed contestants have reportedly threatened legal action against Netflix after claiming they suffered hypothermia and nerve damage while filming Red Light, Green Light. A spokesperson for Squid Game: The Challenge disputed the reports, telling Deadline: “No lawsuit has been filed by any of the Squid Game contestants. We take the welfare of our contestants extremely seriously.”
According to fan-favourite player 182, 39-year-old TJ from Texas, who was eliminated in episode eight’s glass bridge game, putting players’ physical, emotional and mental toughness to the test was just par for the course. “That’s the name of the game. Literally, we signed our name on the contract. And we knew it was coming,” he says.
Throughout their time in the competition, players lived together in a giant, open-space dormitory, lined with teetering four-tier bunk beds, just like the accommodation in the drama series. The dorm also served as the location where several of the show’s tests and games occurred. It became the place where alliances were forged, as well as lifelong friendships. Stephen recounts hosting a talent show for the whole group. “Those were the days where we just played around,” he says. “So, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.” Forming these relationships in extraordinary circumstances is part of humans’ survival instincts, says Lam. “It’s really our collaboration that helps us survive because humans all die if they are left on their own in the wild. And we have forgotten about that.”
However, as the show goes on, the tests and challenges deliberately force contestants to destroy these relationships and encourage them to betray those they’ve grown closest to in order to progress. Never is this more apparent than in the penultimate episode’s game, Circle of Trust. The segment sees the final eight players sitting blindfolded in a circle, each with a desk in front of them and a gift box in the centre. On every turn, one player is selected to place the box on the player they wish to eliminate’s desk, before creeping back to their seat. The giver is eliminated if the recipient correctly guesses their identity, and if not, the recipient goes home.
In the first round of the game, player 287, 55-year-old Vietnamese refugee Mai, gives the box to her “dear friend Roiland”, because he is the least likely to suspect she would stab him in the back. In one heartbreaking moment, Roiland says: “Love you, Mai, unless you placed [the box] on my desk.” He is then unceremoniously eliminated after guessing incorrectly. “The message is that we’re all kind of potentially in it together. We can all be happy and harmonious when, really, it’s ruthlessness and a lack of empathy that are going to be the route to the big payout,” Noel Bell, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), says.
Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist for Potent, argues that those who find the show “uncomfortable” should consider how it mirrors capitalist societies. The pressure to compete, she says, and potentially throw someone under the bus “is a very real part of Western culture, whether we like it or not. So really, if people are so outraged by the Squid Game challenges, we should surely be getting outraged about how similar these challenges are to our everyday lives.”
TV isn’t the problem, she continues: “It’s life. It’s a mirror. And if you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you have to do something to change it. And I think that’s what’s really intriguing for me as a psychologist, is that the people who shout loudest about how terrible it all is are probably the very ones with the sharpest elbows.”
Squid Game: The Challenge is available to stream on Netflix.
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