By Sammy Ferris
Netflix’s newest hit show
Game 5: hopscotch. Step on the correct panel, stay in the game. Step on the tempered glass, plumet to death. American men wear gold animal-face masks and drink cocktails, cheering as South Korean citizens gamble on their lives. The shattering glass and bodies crashing echo in their theater. The observers laugh along.
“Squid Game” is on track to be Netflix’s number one show.
Vulgar violence. English voice-overs and subtitles. A recipe for captivating America’s college demographic. It has taken over Instagram memes, Twitter commentary and Tik Tok videos. The violence of childish games and a disassociation from the horror are key ingredients to stomaching the savagery.
The Gen-Z perspective
This juxtaposition of innocence and violence is what captured Carson Smitherman, 21.
Teams competing in tug of war with a deadly abyss in between; contestants etching a perfect shape out of hardened sugar or executed on the playground.
He acknowledges that it is bizarre that he would want to spend over nine hours watching horrendous acts of violence.
“Yeah, that’s a good point. Why would everyone want to watch a show where people are getting point-blank shot? I am really sensitive to violence in the media, especially school shootings. I don’t know why I would want to watch a show like this. But I do.”
The dystopian feel to “Squid Game” is in part attributed to plot: hundreds of people with massive amounts of debt sign up to play a series of childhood games. The ruthless deaths of contestants who failed the first game pierces the scene.
In an instant, the players realize they are not simply playing for money: they are playing for their lives.
The show has six games, each one with the same stakes but intensifying difficulty. In the final episodes, ‘VIPs’, who are old white men betting on contestants, watch the last game in an exorbitant lounge. The protagonist, Seung Gi-Hun, wins the grand total of $38.6 million.
His victory is unrewarding in the face of his haunted future. Hanging like the storm clouds floating over the final game are his futile pleas to end the game before his final adversary dies.
Tik Tok was how Payton Walker, 19, first heard of “Squid Game.” She was in a social media rabbit hole when she saw a clip of the first game: Red Light Green Light.
Over four hundred Korean citizens dressed in matching teal jumpsuits. One huge doll commanding ‘Green Light,’ and the contestants run. When she chants ‘Red Light,’ they must freeze. Her supersized head swivels around like she is possessed. Her eyes narrow in on those who failed. Gun shots fire off, killing losers within seconds of their stumble.
Her neck quips back around, and the contestants hear: “Green Light.” The only way to survive is to play to the finish line.
When Payton saw contestants being mowed down, she immediately went to Netflix and told her roommate, Gray Perry, about what she was watching.
“Gray, I am watching this sick show. I just finished the second episode.”
“That sounds so weird. Why are you watching that?” Gray asked.
“It is so good. The concept of it is twisted, and I want to see how it unfolds. It’s similar to ‘The Hunger Games.’ The ultra-dark parts of it keep you invested.”
Payton went on to finish the entire series in two days.
Both Carson and Payton said that the game-like format creates distance between them and the violence. Carson went on to say that their generation’s tolerance to violence is higher, making it easier to watch the show.
“It doesn’t feel like ‘open society.’ Because it’s supposed to be a secluded game in a toy-like factory, it makes it easier to see. It doesn’t feel real.”
Not everyone is comfortable
Their surreal experience does not resonate with Jeri Rowe, father to a first year at UNC Chapel Hill.
He called his daughter on a Sunday and asked what she’d been up to. When she told him watching a new show called “Squid Game,” he and his wife decided to take a look. The same scene that hooked Payton on her 48-hour binge pushed Jeri to look at his wife and say, “No. We are not watching this.” One round of Red Light Green Light, and they decided to start “Ted Lasso.”
For Rowe and others in his generation, there is no desire to watch the cruelties of the world on a screen, even if their children are.
“The world is dystopian enough right now, you know. With Democrats and Republicans fighting each other. With millions of deaths from the pandemic. I watch television to escape. ‘Squid Game’ doesn’t help me do that.”
Gen-Z is different. As elementary school students during the Sandy Hook shooting and high schoolers during the Stoneman Douglas shooting; as young adults during the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; as the rate of mental illness skyrockets in their age group – maybe this generation can tell the difference between what happens in a television show and what violence, pain, and suffering feels in their real lives.
Payton says that there are many factors that allow her to disassociate herself from the characters in the show.
“It would be hard to watch if it was something realistic to my life as a college student and very violent. Horror movies that don’t seem real don’t scare me, but if they are realistic, I can’t watch them.”
The show has captured social media, and conversations about it have not slowed down. Even if this generation can distinguish between what is relatable to them and what is not, their empathy and imagination are still strong.
U.S. college students digesting violence can still see the irony.
While the American VIPs in the show place bets and fetichize death, the American young adults have started dialogues. Through memes and Tik Toks, “Squid Game” opened discussions of poverty, inequality and Capitalism.
Payton, like many members of her generation, is left questioning what this means about places and people she does not know.
“All the white men at the end with money and power make you wonder if stuff like this does happen. Not to this extreme but somewhere in the world, something like this.”
Edited by Sterling Roberts