What Does “Squid Game” Say About the Subversion of Innocence?

Children’s games should be fun, right?

Photo: Taste of Cinema

“Squid Game,” which premiered on September 17, skyrocketed in popularity, claiming the number one spot on Netflix’s charts. The Korean drama, set in South Korea, follows the main character, Seong Gi-hun and a few of his friends, who all face major financial distress and corruption.


Through the episodes, the viewer learns that citizens are given the chance to win a large cash prize. However, they must endure life or death situations while playing children’s games. Either win the game and move on to the next one, or face a brutal death.


The inspiration for the show came from director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, who wanted to “write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.” But why does Dong-hyuk do this through children’s games?


Children are expected to follow rules as they grow up — in school, at home, while playing games, etc. In analyzing “Squid Game” one can infer the reason children’s games are used is because it reminds the players of their innocence before growing up and facing poverty. Another reason could be to note the authority that rules hold over individuals, and the (potentially deadly) consequences that come from breaking them.


A game played in the series is Red Light, Green Light. A very easy game — run to the leader on green and freeze on red, and if you move, you’re out. The rules are simple and innocent, but what happens when the rules change?


In “Squid Game,” the innocence of the children’s game, Red Light, Green Light, is stripped, only to be replaced with a reminder of what happens when the rules are not followed; a gruesome death, which is a familiar face for the characters in this series.


In the episode called, “The Man with the Umbrella” the participants play the game Ppopgi — the honeycomb game that is currently trending on TikTok.​ The objective of the game is to free a shape from melted sugar with a needle. Some of the players during this game cheat by using a lighter to heat up the needle and melt the sugar, so their shape comes out more easily. While other players, who do not cheat, are unsuccessful in breaking their shape free, and are shot.


Photo: Netflix

Throughout the show, we see the subversion of childhood innocence taking place. While each game is one children play, the way they all end undermines the fun that comes with playing games as a kid. When children play games and lose, they may get upset, but they can always play again. “Squid Game” does not give second chances to win, ruining the fun that would come with playing the games. There is value to a child’s innocence, however, that value is overcome by the prominent need to kill within the series.


As a child matures they lose the innocence they once had. They become exposed to the evil in the world and are able to see the power structures that govern society and the unappealing consequences of transgressing those structures. Exposure comes with learning of the ugly things in the world: death, criminals, corruption. This ugliness is represented through the death of each player in “Squid Game.” For example, Ali, who was friends with the main characters, was tricked during one of the games by someone he trusted. This trick led to his death.


Where does it go from here? Is “Squid Game” just a show of lost innocence?


Ultimately, the series unfolds to reveal not only a lost innocence, but more lenient rules, just like that of adulthood. As the games progress, each one has more relaxed rules than the one before it, until there are barely any rules at all.


The fifth game played in the series is a game inspired by hopscotch, where each player must cross a bridge of glass panels. The glass panels are either tempered glass or fragile glass, but the players are not aware of what the panels are before they step on them. The rules of the game are to cross the glass panels and make it to the other side of the bridge. The lack of rules in this game leads to the demise of thirteen of the sixteen remaining players. Their deaths came from both pushing each other off the bridge or jumping on the panels with the fragile glass.


Photo: Polygon

Why bother having rules if the players can kill each other? This game is just one example of where the rules become more malleable. In previous games, the players were told they cannot win through violence, but that rule vanished.


The death of each player leads to 100,000,000 Won — the currency of Korea — being added into the winner’s pool. The knowledge of this leads to the players’ betrayal of each other, and the innocence of children’s games is completely lost. The outcome of this is chaos, as players killing each other is not written into the games children play.


“Squid Game” gambles with the importance of innocence while displaying the importance of rules and how easily they can be twisted. There are no moral lessons to learn from the show, but it proves that anything, even the sacred innocence of childhood, or life itself, will disappear with enough capital incentive.