The Psychology of Squid Game: The Challenge (2023) | Netflix Reality Competition Show Analysis

About Squid Game: The Challenge

Yes, we are all waiting for Squid Game’s second season, and no, this new TV show wasn’t it, even though many viewers, and even some publications, have treated it as such – I have no idea why, but the online reviews quite frequently mention that expectation and the subsequent disappointment.

This minor human issue aside, Squid Game: The Challenge is a new reality competition show based on the insanely popular series, with a high chance of becoming quite loved by the public itself, once the audience figures out this is not a continuation of the initial TV show, and the producers figure out how to create suspense of a superior kind, since thrills were quite rare during this first season.

If you are a fan of Squid Game, you will likely love The Challenge as well, especially since the competition is taking place in some of the familiar, enormous, gorgeous sets, and features most of the games in the original series, such as Green Light Red Light, Dalgona, and The Glass Bridge.

While the game show fails, in certain respects, to match its inspiration, it definitely provides an interesting experience for the viewers, one that’s enhanced if you are willing to see the competition as more than a simple set of steps for the winner to get the $4.56 million cash prize, and decide to consider the many aspects in which The Challenge mirrors real-life and its chaotic, unstructured way to distribute success in its many forms.

I will discuss elements of this process next, how Squid Game: The Challenge can help you understand life better, and why certain things happen to certain people but not to others.

  • SPOILERS AHEAD • 

The Analysis

In Squid Game, the series, we followed the main character Seong Gi-hun’s journey, as he defeats 455 other contestants in a deadly game that leaves the single winner with a $4.56 million cash prize, severe emotional trauma, as well as many doubts and questions about themselves and about life itself.

We cheered for Gi-hun and expected him to win, there was no surprise there. But The Challenge was different. It started with 456 people, and we could barely keep track of the main players throughout the ten episodes. We didn’t even know who’s who, let alone be able to infer who’s got more chances to win.

I guess this part counts as the main appeal of the reality show – it resembles real life and those in front of the screen have a bird’s eye view of the situation. Scripted bits, and what I believe to be planted contestants aside, The Challenge keeps you watching because of this very reason: you have no idea what’s going to happen next.

And this time, since you’re not an active participant, and don’t have to concern yourself with “winning at life”, you can simply relax and observe how order is shaped out of randomness.

Here are a few elements that caught my attention.

  • Competition is everywhere, all the time. We all want something in life. Money, attention, recognition, relationships, jobs, you name it. To get what or where we want to, we have to compete against other people who want the same thing. This is valid for most finite resources and even for many of those considered infinite when, for example, we all want a result at the same time. Even if you don’t consider yourself competitive, you will engage in life’s contests every day, one way or the other. Even if you go to the grocery store to get bread, once you take it from the shelf, it means the supply is now diminished, and this can potentially cause others to not be able to buy bread that day, or go for a different brand, or drive to a different store, etc. Whether you like it or not, life is a contest. And a deadly one, too.
  • Competition is unknown. In most contexts, you have no idea who your competition is, what are their strengths, weaknesses, and whether you can use any of that information to win. Things may become clearer along the way but in the beginning, you have no idea who you’re going against. If you apply for a job, pursue a love interest, or want people to buy your book, at the very beginning, you have no idea how many others decided that’s their goal as well.
  • Sometimes, rules don’t apply. Humanity managed to put some guidelines in place, both legally and socially, to try and ensure a harmonious common living for most of its members. In some contexts, these rules and recommendations work just as fine, but not all life contexts are built the same. We sometimes find ourselves in situations where the rules and structure we know, no longer apply. This may mean uncharted territory, a zone where players refuse to respect the previous conventions, somewhere where participants are governed by different rules, or a context where one’s rules simply cannot be enforced. You have to be prepared to function  – and win! – in situations where everything you know is suspended. Rigid minds will fail.
  • Values and principles, follow them at your peril. There will be life contexts where we need to reconsider our core values and the principles that shape our existence, in the light of our goal. One may have to suspend, renounce, or adopt new values, beliefs, or principles, to properly manage a certain situation. While I do advocate for an assertive lifestyle, which means you can act in any way you like as long as you do not harm or create any discomfort to another being, one must be realistic about the nuanced aspects of existence – some contexts may require one to do things they are not comfortable with, and which go against the interests of others. Sometimes, you can avoid these hard decisions but at other times, your well-being, and that of those around you, may depend on this decision of yours. Of course, this part won’t necessarily cover life and death situations, but here’s just an example of the kind of situation I have in mind: If you find out you and your best friend applied for the same job, you love your friend and vowed to always support them, and you both need the job equally, would you forfeit in their favor? The same for a love interest. As for the extreme kind, consider self-defense, or defending those you love. Would any of your beliefs regarding harming others be suspended in that context? Food for thought.
  • You can only rely on yourself. Ultimately, no matter how many people cheer for you, if it ever comes to you versus them, I suspect you would be cheering for yourself. The same happens in The Challenge. There is a single victor, and the winner takes it all. By the way, I can’t be the only one who thought families and friends participating in the game could decide to share the prize with each other, or even incentivize other players with this kind of a promise…
  • Skills don’t guarantee success. Squid Game: The Challenge is definitely not a competition that rewards merit. People with great skills failed to move higher in the game, while some of the alleged misfits or tagalongs faired most of the challenges just fine.
  • To lead or not to lead. In this game, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  The Challenge only allows one winner. This is not a team game in itself, but it relies on teamwork for certain parts of it. Deciding whether to be involved as a leader, and accept the responsibility and risks that go with the role, or to simply follow some other contestant and put your fate into their hands, must’ve been one of the toughest types of choices for the participants.
  • Sometimes, it’s luck, and you can’t do anything about it. Many contestants left the competition not because they were bad at it but because their fate was decided by some random factor. A game of luck, a forced decision, an element that affected the group they were part of, etc. It happens in life too, and quite often, that is. You have to be prepared to accept that there are situations that you have little or no control over, and that they will still affect you, sometimes in a significant way.
  • Sometimes, it’s stupid, and you have to go with it. Some of the games put players in ridiculous situations – Dalgona is one of them – and yet, one had to make a fool of himself or herself to move forward in the competition. 
  • Visibility and low profiles. So many people look for fame or want their name to be known for something specific. Yet, if you’re visible, it means you’re putting yourself at risk of being made into a target. People won’t attack what they can’t see, which is why some of the blandest contestants managed not only to remain in the game for a long period but even make it into the final rounds. I had no idea where some of the contestants came from. Some were forced into the light because of a game or because the number of contestants kept decreasing, while others intentionally made it their strategy to keep a low profile throughout the game, and use that to their advantage in the later phases of the game.
  • Some goals and the path toward achieving them bring out both the best and the worst in people. Sometimes, it’s the same individual displaying both effects, at different points in time. It’s all in the triggers included in every segment of the game. Different context, different person. In The Challenge, we’ve seen participants show the best kind of human qualities – camaraderie, fair play, accountability, etc – and also the worst of traits – greed, narcissism, sabotage, manipulation, etc. That is also why we need to be careful about our real-life environment and the people we surround ourselves with. When we have a choice, and that is in most cases, I’d say we go for those that nurture and bring out the best in us and others, instead of searching for opportunities to start new fires and burn everyone and everything in our path. 
  • Confined spaces or forced environments make people act in unpredictable, irrational ways. If people are forced into a certain physical environment or in social groups they do not like, disaster is, more often than not, about to happen.
  • Being good at the game won’t mean you’ll win it. I did touch on the merit aspect before but here I want to also add the fact that being incredibly skilled or good at what you do may also turn you into a target, not only for other skilled players but mainly for those who lack your abilities and envy you for your results and potential. Haters and saboteurs may have a chance to use their destructive powers against you, and they will. It’s irrational to think that everyone would admire you simply because you mind your own business and are good at what you do. Those who want you out of the game lurk everywhere and have no other interest than to increase their chance of success by ruining yours.
  • You won’t win if you don’t play. Only the Squid Game contestants were eligible to win the $4.56 million cash prize. Those of us watching from home couldn’t get the money, no matter how valid our observations were and how good we could’ve been at every one of those games. You simply cannot win a game you’re not participating in. It’s the same in life. If you want something, you have to intentionally put yourself in the situation and environment that can generate the desired result. Otherwise, your skills and aspirations are wasted. 

These are only some of the elements present in Squid Game: The Challenge that can be applied to real-life contexts as well. Ultimately, I think this show has the potential to gain a dedicated following simply because it resembles life’s struggles and dynamics. And, unlike the movie, The Challenge is already casting players for the next season.

Let’s just hope they’ll jump on the right square this time as well and won’t fall into the television void where so many of their fellow shows have gone to be forgotten.

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