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Knee-jerk ban a zero-sum game

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Way back when I was in primary school, I had a good friend who grew up in a deprived household – at least, he felt deprived because his parents wouldn’t allow him to read comic books.

Batman, Superman, Archie, The Beano, Mad Magazine – they were all deemed to be of dubious literary merit and harmful to impressionable young minds.

Which is why, every day after school, on the pretence of doing his homework, he would come over to my place, where he would sit for hours, lost in a world of his own, reading comics.

As far as I know, my friend went on to become a decent and productive member of society. And if he didn’t, well, we can always blame the comics.

We learn from history that parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders have long believed it’s their duty to shield children from supposedly toxic media content, from rock ’n roll to heavy metal to hip hop to video games to TikTok.

Oddly, one rarely sees children warning each other against such things, which suggests either that they are capable of making up their own minds, or that they are too busy rolling their eyes at the grown-ups.

Be that as it may, the latest source of fretting in adult circles is the hit Netflix series, Squid Game, in which 456 down-on-their-luck players take part in a variety of seemingly innocent children’s games, with deadly consequences for 455 of them.

Objectively speaking, Squid Game is a superbly made show, with hyper-stylised aesthetics, audaciously imaginative set-pieces, and a cast of mostly likeable main characters with believable flaws and back-stories.

It also happens to mark the high tide of an extraordinary renaissance in South Korean popular culture, which has already given us Parasite, the Best Picture Oscar winner; K-Pop, the fiendishly catchy musical genre; and a stream of family dramas, historical epics, science fiction spectacles, and crime thrillers on Netflix.

That’s all very well, one might argue, but isn’t Squid Game terribly violent? Well, yes, I would argue back, but no more so than certain classical texts that spring to mind, such as the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex (parental guidance recommended), or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which is riddled with scenes of gang warfare and poor life decisions by teenagers, yet it remains a staple on the high school set-work circuit.

The ultra-violence in Squid Game is cartoonish and over-the-top – rows of players mowed down by automatic gunfire from a giant robotic doll, for instance – and is far removed from the real-life violence one might see on CNN or a YouTube crime report.

Having said that, it’s not for nothing that Squid Game is rated “16” on Netflix. Nor is it too surprising that the Parents Television and Media Council, a United States-based lobby group, has warned parents to “take appropriate measures, whether by applying parental controls or more closely supervising their children on social media and gaming platforms, where content about or inspired by the series is being shared”.

Clearly, this is a matter for consideration and application in individual households — we are long past the days, thank goodness, when the state had to make such decisions on our behalf.

Either way, it seems to me that 16, or thereabouts, is a reasonable benchmark for the viewability of Squid Game by younger people.

At that age, in a culture of ubiquitous access to information in all its forms, one would hope that viewers would be able to distinguish between everyday reality, unreality, hyper-reality, surreality, and reality TV, and also that they will have been sufficiently schooled, on the brink of adulthood, to draw readings from the text and not take everything they see at face value.

A chief reason for the phenomenal success of Squid Game – it is the most popular show in the history of Netflix to date – is that it can be viewed in two different and complementary ways.

As pure, visceral entertainment, without weighing too heavily on the mind, or as an extended analogy for the ills of contemporary society in the age of the pandemic.

In much the same way that Parasite dabbles in what happens when the members of one social class cross the barrier into the next, Squid Game uses the plight of the downtrodden and debt-ridden to show us just how far people will go in the hope of making enough money to solve their problems and make their dreams come true.

The show’s running commentary on capitalism and inequality isn’t particularly deep, nor is it particularly original, but it does add a subtext that bears thinking about, and that renders the violence integral to the storyline rather than as something gratuitous.

That’s why I would say that schools, rather than warning parents to watch out for signs of Squid Game behaviour on the part of their children – “No! You may not have your friends around to play ‘red light, green light’!” – should use the show as a teachable moment.

With that “16” caveat firmly in mind, what might learners be able to learn from Squid Game, about inequity, imbalance, and the yawning divide between, say, Jeff Bezos and his workers back on earth? What would Squid Game look like if it were played in South Africa?

Who would take part, who would run the show, who would be best equipped to win? And to get back to the matter at hand, what can Squid Game tell us about the way violence is portrayed in popular culture and its possible effects on impressionable young minds?

The point is, everyone is already watching the show, or at least talking about it, so let’s put it on the syllabus, discuss it in the open, and remind ourselves, when all is said and done, that it’s really just a game.

  • Gus Silber is an award-winning journalist, editor, speechwriter, and author.

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