Squid Game has swept across the internet and quickly infiltrated our collective and individual consciousnesses. As the various means for social connection and interconnectivity increase in speed, I have noticed this repeated trend to jump over the initial premise, or the basic and banal elements that comprise the foundation for whatever is the cognitive infrastructure for what’s being discussed and leap toward some broader idea.
Likewise, As the show’s popularity has swelled, I have observed the increased production of articles analyzing the reasons for its popularity, exploring the societal and economic implications.
In the specific case of Squid Game, it has manifested as articles, videos, comments, and so forth about what this series showed about this or that economic system. My point here isn’t about the merit of these various connections between Squid Game and economic structures; rather, it is, firstly, to highlight a gap within the current analysis of the show, and, secondly, I hope to offer an exposition that, at the very least, takes aim at this area that has been overlooked. However, I remain stuck on a more elementary aspect of this cultural phenomenon: money—specifically, how do we relate to money? What is our relationship to money? And, crucially, why is money so important to us?
Yes, these are basic questions, almost clichés, but their connection is directly apparent as a core premise to Squid Game. One doesn’t need to research economic systems, such as, meritocracy or brush up their defenses of capitalism to address these fundamental questions;
Instead, the price is far steeper: time, attention, contemplation, and self-reflection. All aspects of our consciousness requiring more start-up energy than becoming emotionally charged with some sort of righteous indigitation for economic systems. Strangely, it’s almost as if we’d prefer to engage in these more ostensibly complex discussions rather than address these other questions—though they underlie our interest in this series. It is likely that shifting to this broader focus functions to distance ourselves emotionally through rational abstraction.
Nevertheless, I could not escape these core questions as I watched the Squid Game. Particularly, my interest in understanding the underlying psychology intensified with scenes depicting the direct connection between one player’s demise and the almost instantaneous transformation of their worth into monetary value, which the players gazed upon with lustful eyes and single-focused minds. These were the scenes that stuck for me, and I haven’t been able to square away their meaning sufficiently to dare and generalize to the societal level of either endorsements or critiques at the level of economic systems.
How could the players be so easily distracted from the death of a person by the allure of money? If you strip away the value of money to analyze these scenes objectively, then you’re left with those alive, those who are dead, and clusters of paper amassing with each additional player’s demise. Put in this crude way, it would seem that the question then becomes why is paper so important to us?
Of course, money isn’t about the actual paper—as fiat currencies have taught us. The form money takes, whether that be paper, metal, digital, and so on (NFTs?), is not what matters. This is both true in reality and for the players in the game.
Changing the form of currency wouldn’t have reduced the players’ indiference toward the death of one of their competitors, so long as a simple condition of monetary value is met: Can that something be exchanged with others for that which perceived of value?
In my opinion, these specific scenes require deeper analysis on the individual level and are fundamentally transformed when generalized to the level of society, shifting from the drives, wants, and desires of the player’s to the policy and politics of a society. By making this transformation to the collective level, an abundance of new variables emerges that aren’t necessarily present in the analysis of the individual. For example, if the form of currency doesn’t matter, then what makes it so captivating? It must be what it represents.
In psychological terms, money is a secondary reinforcer. Contrary to primary reinforcers, like food, drugs, sex, etc., a secondary reinforcer doesn’t have inherent pleasure embedded within it. This isn’t to say that watching your cryptocurrency stocks surge in value doesn’t spike your levels of pleasureful chemicals—it likely does by significant margins, especially when present in a competitive gamified context. However, the reward produced in this example requires some general agreement from others about the specific token’s shared value. Conversely, when you indulge in your favorite dessert, or something of this kind, your physiological reward isn’t contingent upon other’s valuation of this dessert; rather, there is an intrinsic reward value to this latter experience.
Returning to Squid Game scenes, where players stare in awe of the growing amount of prize money at the expense of other players’ lives, it must be presumed their responses are not about the actual, material prize.
As the series progresses, the audience gains further insight into the characters’ backstories. This additional context illustrates how the players’ desire toward the prize money is connected to something intangible, imaginative, and futuristic. The amassing of material paper doesn’t transfix the players; their imaginations’ are activated by the expanding possibilities that of what the prize increase represents to them, personally. The players even discuss what their plans are if they were to win the prize money. In most cases, the player’s future aspirations could be accomplished with substantially less than the total prize amount, yet they all know the game is an all-or-nothing one.
This brings me to my main point: At what cost are we willing to reduce and/or resign from our humanity? The show presents the audience with a context that allows us to witness the most brutal of choicest that a human being can be faced with. Our collective interest in the series is an effect of our identification with the characters, We utilize our imagination’s to perspective take into the fantastical, but disturbing close to being real, situations and, secretly, wonder what we would do for money—what would be our limits? We console ourselves with the fact that, especially in the case of Squid Game, it is doubtful that we will ever find ourselves in such circumstances. Nevertheless, we cannot help but entertain the possibilities dormant within our capacity for self-preservation. It is dangerous to become transfixed upon this; it is worse to be willfully ignorant of fact that this possibility exists. this capacity’s existence.