Can They Consent to Play the Squid Game?
By Corey R. Horn
Netflix’s fall blockbuster in 2021 is a South Korean drama where children’s games take a deadly turn. Squid Game began streaming in September and it took less than four weeks to become the streaming platform’s most successful launch to date. One of the show’s main characters, Seong Gi-Hun, is a down on his luck divorced father who owes everyone he knows money. We watch as Gi-Hun has a run-in with his collectors at the betting tracks where he is ultimately forced to sign a contract that states he will either pay his debts back, or they will take organs in place of payment. After Gi-Hun’s run-in, he meets a man in a suit while waiting for a ride in the subway – having just met his daughter as well for her birthday dinner – and the man offers Gi-Hun cash to play a simple childhood game. After several rounds of losing – where instead of paying the man, Gi-Hun pays with slaps to the face – Gi-Hun finally wins and receives his cash prize. Along with the prize, he is given a business card with a number to call if he wants a chance to win more money for playing similar games. An offer Gi-Hun will take.
The participants of the games compete for the chance to win a large sum of money that is displayed above their living quarters in a clear piggy bank. Every participant signs a contract that has three simple agreements: Players are not allowed to stop playing; Players who refuse to play will be eliminated; Games may be terminated if the majority agrees. This simple player’s agreement serves as each player’s consent to participate. In fact, before the players sign the contract the game administrators continuously stress the players’ option to opt-out of the games if they so choose—and their participation is voluntary (for reference, see S1:1, 36:30). Once they sign, the players play their first game, Red-light Green-light. A simple game with simple rules, but those who are caught are shot and killed, bringing the shocking realization to the other players that ‘eliminated’ is being used in a very specific way by the game creators.
After the first game, the players remaining wish to leave but the creators show the cash prize after round one – 10 million won per dead player. After invoking clause three of the agreement, the remaining players return home; but not for long as most decide to return and compete for the prize money. Why would anyone return to such games and risk their lives for money? Every participant in the games is in debt – like Gi-Hun – for millions and billions of won; so, the prize money being offered is a way out for most of the players. Given the players’ financial status, can their consent to play really be considered valid? We must first get a definition of consent in place before deciding whether they could consent to sell their lives for a chance to win money.
What is Consent?
Someone’s actual consent is what matters most in any particular situation because it is the only method that allows the agent to choose what happens to them. Actual consent entails the agent’s value-ordering scheme and allows the agent to choose what happens to them based on their values and life plans. An important feature for someone to give their actual consent is that all necessary information is provided to that agent prior to consent being given. As Derek Parfit states, “when people do not know what effects some act might have, it is irrelevant whether they could rationally consent to this act. People could rationally consent to be grossly maltreated if they did not know what was being done to them,” (Parfit, 184). In order for someone to give their actual consent, they must be informed.
A game creator from Squid Game could object and say but surely Gi-Hun and his fellow competitors did consent! They were told the rules and provided the chance to opt out. While this is true, the player’s agreement lacked one crucial piece of information, that ‘eliminated’ means killed. As Parfit stated, if the players did not know what effects playing the games may have, then it is irrelevant whether the players signed the agreement or not. If signing an agreement with clauses – such as the one Gi-Hun signed – isn’t enough to render valid consent, then what conditions must be met?
Informed consent has four conditions: the agent must be competent, consent must be given voluntarily, they must understand what has been told to them, and all relevant information must be disclosed (Levine, 207). If we use these conditions to evaluate the Squid Game players, it is easy to see that their consent was invalid. Although the creators of the games can claim the players meet the first and third conditions – that the players were competent and they understood what they were being told – they cannot claim that the players meet the second and fourth conditions. Taking the fourth condition first, it is evident that not all the relevant information was given to the players – at first. When the players originally sign the agreement, the creators leave out that ‘elimination’ means death. However, the players do understand what elimination means when they choose to return to the games. So, upon the players’ return the creators can claim to satisfy the first, third, and fourth conditions. It is the second condition that renders the players’ original and returned consent invalid.
The second condition states the player’s participation must be voluntary. On the surface level, this seems to be true. After all, the players willingly called the number on the card, they signed the contract after listening to the creators, and those that returned did so by their own choice (in fact, some choose not to come back). If we scratch just beneath the surface, however, we can see that the players never truly engaged in these games voluntarily. Every player was in debt. Debt that they could not pay back, and even debt to individuals who sought organs in place of cash. The players had no means to make enough money to pay back the debt they had incurred, so faced with the choice between the harsh realities of the real world or the potential to pay off unfathomable amounts of debt, it is no surprise that they chose to participate in the games. It becomes clear that if these players had any other option, they would have taken it. Since the players only played because the cash payment was their only means of repaying their debts, then surely their participation was not voluntary. It is because of this fact that their consent when signing the player’s agreement is invalid.
What Money Can’t Buy
In Michael Sandel’s New York Times Bestseller, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the effects of a market society are analyzed, and the crucial question of what money ought to be able to buy is explored. Sandel argues that there are two primary objections to being able to buy and sell anything that could possibly be bought and sold – included as examples are organs and kids (Sandel, 110-111). One such objection that is relevant for the cases here is that of fairness, “the fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity” (Sandel, 111). What this objection states is if markets allow for the buying and selling of any ‘thing’, then people in economic hardship or lower-income brackets will become more unequal.
Take, for example, two real-world cases. In a 2013 piece on BBC, Sophie Cousins reports on Bangladeshi citizens selling their organs to pay back microloans that they otherwise could not have paid (Cousins, 2013). In many cases, these citizens were told they could sell their organs for a cash value – often never receiving the full promised amount – which was appealing to low-income Bangladeshi citizens who had not been able to repay their microloans to non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) (Cousins, 2013). All of these people were told if they sell organ X, they would receive cash payment Y; and as a result, these patients consented to the operation and market exchange.
The second case comes from a 2015 Forbes article where Maggie McGrath reported on a study that showed 30% of student loan borrowers in the United States would sell their organs to get rid of their student loans. Though this mirrors the Bangladesh case – the Bangladesh case has many more socio-political complexities that for now, we will set aside – this study also accounted for other forms of payment such as drug trials, which 38% responded they would partake in, and military enlisting. Much like Gi-Hun, the Bangladeshi citizens and the U.S. student loan borrowers are in an economic position that forces them to make choices they might not make otherwise.
The Bangladesh example is of particular relevance to Squid Game. The Bangladeshi citizens may satisfy the conditions of competence, understanding the choice in front of them and – if we grant that they would indeed get paid their full amount owed, even though evidence shows otherwise – have all relevant information pertaining to the surgeries and the effects of losing the given organ. Nonetheless, they cannot, just like the players in Squid Game, meet the condition of voluntary participation. These citizens only sell their organs because they owe money that they cannot repay to NGOs. If they did not owe this money, then they would not have to sell their organs. The student loan borrower also would not sell their organs or participate in drug-trials if they did not need the money to pay back their mountainous student loan debt.
Since the Bangladeshi citizen or the student loan borrower could not consent to sell themselves to pay back loans, the practice ought not to be allowed in the marketplace as Sandel argues. If we ignore valid consent, as Parfit argues, individuals could consent to heinous situations—situations such as playing children’s games for the chance to pay off your debts at the expense of your own life.
Corey R. Horn is a PhD student in philosophy at Tulane University. His primary research interests are in political and moral philosophy, and his current work focuses on Kant’s political philosophy and the future of cosmopolitan politics.
Cousins, Sophie. “The Bangladesh Poor Selling Organs to Pay Debts.” BBC News, October 28, 2013, sec. Asia. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24128096.
France-Presse, Agence. “Squid Game Is Netflix’s Biggest Debut Hit, Reaching 111m Viewers Worldwide.” The Guardian, October 13, 2021, sec. Television & radio. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/oct/13/squid-game-is-netflixs-biggest-debut-hit-reaching-111m-viewers-worldwide.
Levine, Robert J. “Informed Consent: Some Challenges to the Universal Validity of the Western Model.” Law, Medicine, and Health Care 19, no. 3–4 (1991): 207–13.
McGrath, Maggie. “Desperate And In Debt: 30% Of Millennials Would Sell An Organ To Get Rid Of Student Loans.” Forbes. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2015/09/09/desperate-and-in-debt-30-of-millennials-would-sell-an-organ-to-get-rid-of-student-loans/.
Parfit, Derek. On What Matters. Edited by Samuel Scheffler. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Robison-Greene, Rachel. “‘Squid Game,’ Class Struggle, and the Good Life.” The Prindle Post (blog), October 14, 2021. https://www.prindlepost.org/2021/10/squid-game-class-struggle-and-the-good-life/.
Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.