- Reality TV adaptation of violent series raises serious ethical questions.
- Replicating stylized and ominous visuals and gameplay does not offset the lack of a social message.
- Portraying violence as justified or rewarding amplifies media's impact on aggression.
- Viewers' investment in characters influences a show’s popularity, as well as the tendency to mimic behaviors.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, Netflix released a new reality game show: Squid Game: The Challenge. The contrast between Thanksgiving and unfettered callousness is a social commentary, suggesting no limits to what people will watch for entertainment. However, that’s a statement about the show in a societal context and not any inherent message within The Challenge, which rewards self-preservation by any means in pursuit of a big cash prize.
This translation of the brutal series will benefit from the widespread notoriety of the original’s violent ruthlessness and ominous visuals. Viewers will show up to satisfy their curiosity. Will they stay? And, perhaps more importantly, what messages will they take away?
Audiences of “spin-offs” aren’t blank slates. They come with expectations. This will work for The Challenge if producers satisfy fans’ expectations by replicating what was compelling in the original. But that series had the benefit of being scripted fiction. Stories like Squid Game, Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and others can use cruelty and death as metaphors for more significant issues, like power and control, without actually killing anyone. Squid Game the series successfully balanced betrayal and selfishness with empathy and humanity in the context of a social commentary about poverty, desperation, capitalism, and social disparities. The reality adaptation relies on viewer fascination with base behaviors to get ratings.
Stories (Even Reality Shows) Need Characters We Care About
The compelling appeal of the original series was the ability of the main characters, such as Seong Gi-hun, to communicate genuine emotions in contrast to the stark cruelty of the story world. This was an incredible feat of acting, given that many of us watched a dubbed version. While the audience was fascinated by the relentless tension, violence, and heartless extremity of the challenges, they also got to experience displays of humanity in the struggles and small gestures. In fiction, death is an emotional, not physical, threat.
Nevertheless, identification with characters or immersion in a story will trigger the physical response of real fear, releasing stress hormones like adrenalin and stimulating repetitive bursting patterns of electrical discharges in the amygdala. The resolution of a story activates the dopaminergic reward systems, extinguishing fear. The viewer receives the psychological benefit of symbolically facing death and surviving. It is doubtful that paint splotches can accomplish the same thing.
In the reality game version, even with rapid elimination at each round, there are too many participants for the audience to care about. Focusing on desperation and duplicity without enabling investment in characters offers little psychological reward beyond morbid curiosity. But unless the game is rigged, there is no way to know which of the over 456 participants will survive each round, and the glue that keeps people engaged will be lost.
No doubt, the producers will monitor the audience’s social media responses and move to amplify emotion with backstory segments. The producers face their own moral dilemma to sustain ratings: If they orchestrate “reality,” they lose authenticity and impact. If they leave eliminations to chance, they lose potential emotional connection if popular participants leave too soon.
Existential Threats in Media
The reality show maintains the unsettling juxtaposition of threat with childhood games, creating dystopic fantasy settings. The neo-Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairytales’ extreme violence and ugly emotions helped children resolve existential issues such as abandonment, oedipal conflict, sibling rivalries, and other internal fears. Similarly, Freud argued that horror allowed for the expression of repressed feelings.
Can reality TV (even though it’s not really reality) help manage existential threats? If not, the impact will be more mundane and less admirable. When audiences identify with reality show participants, whether housewives or survivors, they take away life lessons. Some viewers may take comfort from downward social comparison, reassured that others are worse off than they are. However, most reality shows implicitly reward bad behavior, consumerism, and a reliance on physical appearance.
The Appeal of Watching Others Struggle
While some people wonder if they could survive, others take pleasure in another person’s pain. Known as schadenfreude, this occurs when a person dehumanizes a victim and enjoys their misfortune. Instead of empathy and caring for others, dehumanization is an emotional defense to avoid identity threats. It is reactive, triggered by feelings of envy, superiority, or investment in a social identity like a sports team or political party—all shown to increase the pleasure when bad things happen to the “other.” However, to get to the point of schadenfreude, the audience must be emotionally invested. Characters that viewers care about create narrative entry points and give viewers “skin in the game.”
The Ethical Concerns About the Gamification of Squid Game
All that aside, there are moral and ethical issues about undertaking a reality show “game” that is so directly linked to violence and callous self-preservation and no longer tethered to social issues. Research on the effects of violent media is mixed with conflicting opinions over frequency and effect size. Some suggest that seeing violence and antisocial behavior in media decreases sensitivity to others’ suffering and increases the likelihood of violence (Alia-Klein et al., 2014). The short-term effects of exposure to media violence have been related to priming, arousal, and imitation of specific behaviors.
Imitation is also a contributor to the longer-term effects of media violence on observational learning of cognitions and behaviors related to aggression and activation and desensitization of emotional processes. Young people who identify with an aggressive character and who see realistic portrayals of violence and antisocial behavior in media were most likely to mimic violent behavior. Portraying violence as justified or rewarding violent behavior rather than punishing it increases the effects that media violence has in stimulating longer-term aggression (Huesmann, 2007).
The timing of this program is opportunistic, coming off the success of the series. However, it is also ethically questionable. Even if the effect size of media portrayals that reward antisocial behavior is small, any amount is too much right now. Society is more divided than ever in the U.S. and globally. There are groups of people for whom violence is seen as an acceptable response to discontent with the institutional processes. There is no accountability for inflammatory misinformation from public officials. Squid Game: The Challenge turns the original series, where violence was a call to action against inequality, into a vehicle that promotes the opposite: a “game” among “real people,” where ruthlessness and lack of empathy are essential to a big payout.
Alia-Klein, N., Wang, G.-J., Preston-Campbell, R. N., Moeller, S. J., Parvaz, M. A., Zhu, W., Jayne, M. C., Wong, C., Tomasi, D., Goldstein, R. Z., Fowler, J. S., & Volkow, N. D. (2014). Reactions to media violence: It’s in the brain of the beholder [Article]. PLOS ONE, 9(9), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0107260
Huesmann, L. R. (2007). The impact of electronic media violence: Scientific theory and research. J Adolesc Health, 41(6 Suppl 1), S6-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.09.005