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Squid Game holds up a mirror

19 November 2021

The drama series depicts the brutal consequences of debt, says Wan Gi Lee

© Netflix/Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

A scene from the Netflix drama series Squid Game

A scene from the Netflix drama series Squid Game

WHEN I first came to London from South Korea, I was surprised by how many betting shops there were on the high street. In South Korea, it is still illegal to open betting parlours in the high street, except with limited licences in some hotels and premises.

These days, small and big betting businesses have migrated online, sponsoring Premier League football teams with aggressive commercial drives on many TV channels and social-media platforms. The temptation is just one click away. It is no wonder that so many people become addicted and trapped, falling into debt and life crises. A media report in 2020 suggested that more than 6.5 million people in the UK alone experienced financial problems as a result of gambling.


THE main characters of the global hit Korean Netflix drama series Squid Game mirror this reality.

In the drama, 456 players, all in financial debt, play a deadly series of children’s games, in the hope of winning a huge cash prize. The main character, Ki-Hun, plays the game because he has lost hope of finding another way to overcome his gambling addiction and debts. Others are also caught up with it, owing to financial and relationship crises. Another main character, Sang-Woo, a troubled investment manager, has seen astronomical amounts of money that he invested in financial markets evaporate.

The characters are, however, recognised as active players in the game. For desperate people, such acts of recognition can be their last hope. This raises the question whether the Church really recognises people who are on a cliff edge and offers them help. Jesus calls the Church to serve “the least of these” — but it is often not easy to tell now who these people are.

There are many Ki-Huns and Sang-Woos around us, but it is more difficult to spot them, because the destructive habits that lead to poverty and despair thrive behind closed doors, and in technologically mediated environments such as online gambling and loan sharks. Churches need deeper discernment and wider support networks to detect and offer pastoral and practical help.

Another challenge that arises from Squid Game concerns “the rules of the game”. Those who play the game are told repeatedly that the game is fair. This is arguably true, given that all participants have the same opportunity to play and to win.

They are not, however, allowed to participate in the process of making or changing any rules. It is the “architect” of the game who decides the rules — even the way in which players are penalised and rewarded. Ironically, therefore, participants find themselves extremely restricted in a game that they thought was free and fair. Sadly, the three Christians in the drama are all subjected to the same conditions that the system has imposed as given rules.

This mirrors real-life society, in which more and more people feel restricted without having an access to a level playing field. As a result, more and more people are desperately trying alternative playing fields — including many opportunistic populist movements — as the last resort, if they provide even the slightest hint of hope.


SOME viewers may find the drama too violent and cruel. But real life does not look better: more than 12 million people in the UK have been struggling with debt problems during the pandemic, according to the Financial Conduct Authority. Many of them end up with their own “squid games” in the form of gambling and addictions, until such games gobble them up.

Unlike the architect of the game, who is hidden and takes sadistic pleasure in what is played out, God’s plan is fully revealed in Christ, who made himself open and available to all. God’s plan of salvation for all creation, through Jesus, is also open and applies to all.

A challenge for the Church is how it provides a radical alternative space in which equality and unity are, in God’s grace, practised and realised, and that works against the brutal reality caused by inequality and division, the breeding ground of small and large squid games.

The Early Church model in Acts 2 is an embodiment of this alternative community. If the Church fails to aspire to and practise this model, in whatever way it can, wherever it is, it will lose more people in the squid games that permeate society all around us.

Dr Wan Gi Lee, from South Korea, is a Salvation Army officer (pastor) with the St Albans Corps. His doctorate is in cultural studies.

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