In the Netflix megahit, Squid Game, a diverse group of down and out contestants (men and woman, old and young, and from various professions) play six children’s games, betting their hopes on winning $38 million for a fresh start. Ruthlessly tracked and recruited by an unknown organization to take part, the contestants are picked up in a van, gassed to make them unconscious, transported to a remote island (to protect the game that has been running for some 30 years from scrutiny), and, after regaining consciousness discover they have been stripped and placed into tracksuits with numbers on them. They await what will be a horrifyingly brutal contest of competing to the death. Names and personal history are no longer needed, deidentifying them from their former selves.
The first game, Red Light, Green Light, involves trying to get across a finish line within a time limit without being caught moving by, in this case, a huge doll-like figure that rotates turning its back (green) and then turning forward (red). Anyone caught moving, the players discover, is immediately shot dead from gun ports in a wall. This results in many players mowed down by rapid fire while trying to escape, their bodies piled up by a locked exit. Those that don’t make it to the finish line in time are also shot. After this, the surviving players exercise their “right to vote”—one of the organization’s perverse rules and a sardonic nod to democracy—to stay or leave. With the majority voting to leave, the contestants are once again gassed and transported back to their former unsatisfactory lives, only to be recruited again and ultimately agree to return to finish the game. The world outside is no different from the game when it comes to the gambling away of one’s life.
As the games resume and contestants meet their fate, masked guards wearing bright red uniforms shoot the losing players at point blank range. These executions are dispassionate, “business as usual” tasks. In other games, teams of contestants fall to their deaths after being pulled off a high platform by other contestants: “tug of war.” After each and every mass culling, the dead bodies are removed by the uniformed workers in cardboard boxes that resemble large gift boxes and then taken to a crematorium for “disposal.”
Occasionally some of the main characters act with friendship and even altruism, sacrificing themselves for their opponent’s survival, but on the whole players are pitted against each other in a win-lose, zero-sum context with ultimately only one winner. As the series unfolds, we discover that the mysterious organization behind the games victimizes candidates for, it turns out, the simple and sadistic pleasure of bored, self-indulgent, and wealthy VIPs (who are not Korean but mostly Western). They follow the games for their entertainment at a distance, and when they attend in-person enjoy a luxurious setting with servants to meet their every need.
Unpacking Squid Games
On the surface, the Squid Game is a sustained critique of class and ultimately the egregious excesses of contemporary capitalism. Akin to the highly successful Hunger Games franchise, poor contestants are pitted against each other by the wealthy, and the audience invariably identifies with the few proletarian protagonists who display some moral compass amid a primitive “dog-eat-dog world” at once contrived and sensational and yet a direct mirror of contemporary society.
Below the surface, however, and in addition to what some critics may see as mere “pretense at social commentary,” the Squid Game succeeds at offering incisive organizational commentary, and particularly at illuminating the terrifying efficiencies of state-sponsored and organizational violence.
Indeed, for the psychosocially-informed viewer, the series has many easily observed organizational linkages, most notably elements of the Nazi era, but also much of the history of mercantilism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and ill-conceived but common organizational change dynamics such as downsizing resident in the plot.
The following briefly summarizes some of these linkages.
- Growing economic inequality fostered by capitalism and authoritarianism has resulted in an “unlevel playing field” for citizens and workers who are unilaterally dominated by often invisible people and forces. This inequality includes poor job security where anyone may become excess organizational “fat” to be cut (terminated) from the organization.
- The staff in the games have submitted to a faceless authority, the Front Man, who oversees the games for the VIPs. They wear uniforms (no numbers) and masks making them remote, faceless, anonymous, inhuman, numb, robotic, and soulless to the players. It has long been recognized that hierarchical bureaucratic organizations provide job descriptions with position numbers, remote oversight, and require obedience to policies and procedures, rules, and regulations as a social defense against anxiety. And As Howard Stein rhetorically asks in his 2007 paper, Organizational totalitarianism and the voices of dissent, “We must ask what happens internally, interpersonally, as a work group, and as an organization, to those who have been through often multiple firings and who are “waiting for the second shoe to fall”? What do the “survivors” (as they often call themselves) give up of themselves—of personal integrity, values, ethics—in order to survive? What do they become, to themselves, and to others?” For Stein they become emotionally devastated if not destroyed, continuing in a kind of living death, broken psychically and physically by life in contemporary organizational life hiding behind the mask of entrepreneurship, narrow self-interest, and steely indifference for the sake of profit.
- Players have had their identity stripped by the issuing of a uniform and a number, much the same as the Nazis numbering prisoners with tattoos, the US military issuing service numbers now replaced by the use of social security numbers, and prison systems.
- The players found themselves pitted against each other in a game of life and death, sometimes attacking each other, similar to the competition in large organizations regarding hiring, promotions, raises and tenure.
- The vans (similar to Nazi cattle cars), gassing, stripping of clothing, provision of sterile minimal sleeping quarters, limited institutional food, piles of corpses, workers from the same class (Jews) removing bodies, and cremation are all images from Nazi Germany. Not to be overlooked also are the Roman Games held in the Colosseum and all too common ethnic cleansings and genocides.
- The illusion of free choice to initially participate but more profoundly return to the games is a sinister joke that lies at the heart of the capitalist work relation. “You can check out any time. You just don’t get paid”
- Why children’s games? Children are closer to the world of visceral love/hate, good/bad, but they also have the capacity to sublimate–precisely through a game–their sadistic impulses. Nursery rhymes also have violent themes. But in this case the adult players are infantilized (sleeping on stacks of bunk beds) by a remote sadistic powerful authority and made to humiliate themselves as well as defend against the atrocity the game represents—not by sublimating but by relying on primitive survival.
- The games for children also infantilize the players (helpless and dependent, lacking self-efficacy) – something sometimes said of bureaucratic hierarchies for their members and those who depend on them. The autocrat treats others as children sometimes using the metaphor of one big happy family with the autocrat in charge.
- The illusion of free will and choice in playing is a sinister joke at the heart of the capitalist work relationships where being manipulated by the promise, in this case, of winning money is the coercive context workers experience in the encounter with public and private organizations. Sacrificing one’s autonomy, self-efficacy and freedom to choose are “part of the deal.”
The unpacking of this imagery of this series is just beginning on the internet with many different voices offer insights. This unpacking has relied on a psychosocial and historical perspective mapping the same dynamics back in history and to organizational dynamics. The imagery – sadly – is all to familiar.
Stein, H. (2007). Chapter 5: Organizational Totalitarianism and the Voices of Dissent. In Dissent and the Failure of Leadership (New Horizons in Leadership Studies) Editor Banks, S. Northampton MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.