Gamble responsibly: what Squid Game says about gambling and neoliberalism in Australia

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We’re seated in a Chinese restaurant with an Italian name in Burwood. Or in an Italian restaurant because my mother was tired of Chinese. Or in a neon-drenched Malaysian cafe deep in the Genting Casino and Resort, sitting in the clouds of the Malaysian highlands. In each of these settings, my family met for a meal (at a place that meets my grandparents’ approval), with my grandparents coming after a few hours in a casino. As Asian migrants who had ‘made it’ in the wealthy western country, they saw it as their right to enjoy their hard-earned money. Once, over yum cha, we reprimanded Grandpa for spending all morning there. Quietly, he replied, ‘where else would I go?’

His health had been debilitating for years by then. First, it took away his sixty-hour working weeks as an anaesthetist, later his weekends of skiing, golfing, extensive travel and hosting parties. The casino had been a meagre part of his eight-day week schedule as a younger, more mobile man, but now it was all he had other than family meals and shopping.

With him gone, Grandma visited The Star Casino on a weekly basis. She gambled, lunched, walked from the casino down to the water, and then her support worker drove her home. This was one of the more pleasant rituals she and Grandpa shared in the last few years of his life. Her mind, back and hands had gone into caring and organising care for him—this was the only hobby that remained.

Between Covid-19 lockdowns, Grandma would brandish glossy brochures at me, insisting we go to the casino restaurants to claim the benefits paid for by her membership, ‘or else it would go to waste.’ When my sister and mother admonished her, she insisted that she knew her limits. She wouldn’t ‘lose money like your grandpa did.’ It took the Sydney 2021 lockdown to break her habit.

Gambling is widely legalised and advertised in Australia, despite the wealth of research on the devastating impacts to a person’s health and financial security. You can hardly turn on a TV without hearing about how to ‘double your multi’, and sporting pre-match commentary frequently spends as much time talking about the odds as the teams. According to Kerry GE Chambers’ Gambling for Profit (2011), Australia has one of the highest gambling government revenues in the developed world. We also have the highest rate of gambling losses per capita.

Martin Young and Francis Markham describe the relationship between gamblers and capitalism as an ‘akratic’ form of consumption. Gambling is a coercive commodity, which workers consume despite its known harms. Some may say this contradicts capitalism: if a capitalist society depends on workers so deeply, why would the ruling class risk harming workers? Young and Markham reason that, firstly, gambling creates conditions for workers to compete with one another for capital. More importantly, it perpetuates the economic disparity between workers and capitalists by causing workers to spend rather than save their capital. This ensures that workers remain socially and financially immobile, stifled by their bosses.

My grandparents’ story, while tragic, is digestible. If it were told in news magazine form, they could star as helpless senior citizens, villainous migrants, or wealthy punters left unscathed by their bad habits. As in reality they were nearly archetypal rags-to-riches migrants, their gambling problem can (and perhaps should) be left out of the epilogue of their shared narrative. But the stories of gamblers, whether they are betting at the pub or in the office, on horses or the share market, are not always told so kindly.

In Australia, it is difficult to escape the lens of neoliberal capitalism, which tells us people are to blame for their own successes and failures. Perhaps if we were better at telling and listening to these stories, we would not stand for the system of exploitation responsible for the suffering of gamblers. Perhaps, if it was easier to see and accept who is to blame, another casino walking away free from an investigation into its corruption would make us angry enough to act.

One person, though, and the team of creatives who signed onto creating his vision, understands, and has given us a chance to reframe the narrative of gambling in our society.


You gotta love this city

Squid Game is a TV show in which characters drowning in unpayable debt and other financial troubles are offered a second chance: play children’s games for the chance of becoming a billionaire. Lose, and you die. What sets Squid Game apart from 1984 or The Hunger Games is that the show is not a cautionary tale to divert us from our current trajectory, or a portal to a distorted distant future. Hwang Dong-Hyuk has painted the real world in its current state, with only the thinnest veneer of escapism.

Despite the distance between the rich South Korean cultural context of the show and my Anglicised middle-class upbringing in Australia as an Eurasian woman, Squid Game depicts my own reality. As the show’s creator Hwang Dong-Hyuk said, ‘we are all living in a Squid Game world.’ It is this TV show more than many other works of media that understands and articulates the gambler’s experience, the human experience, under neoliberal capitalism.

So what makes Squid Game about our world, rather than an imaginative exercise in what could have been? Simply that the Squid Game happens, though covertly, in the present day and real world. There is no meaningful point at which the reality of the show deviates from our world; there is no fictional history explaining the basis for the game organisation (even the Ssang-dong strike in Gi-hun’s past is real). While South Korea may not be hiding a world of funhouse buildings and masked pink soldiers, the use of children’s games with deadly consequences mirrors our reality—only, characters die instantly instead of suffering over a lifetime. One character compares their home lives to the game world, saying ‘out here, the torture is worse.’

Squid Game promises a better life amidst the washed out streets of material inequality, broken homes and hungry debtors faced by the players. It is no different to casinos, lotteries, the stock market or the housing market. These things are too alluring in a world where capitalism teaches us to hope for things engineered to be out of our reach. Getting lucky is our fairy tale.

The colourful game world reminds me of shiny scratchies sold at the newsagent. Or the snazzy outfits that my loved ones burned their savings on for Melbourne Cup Day. Or the patterned carpets and crisply dressed staff of the Star Casino. Unlike most dystopias, Hwang repeatedly takes us back to the real world, behind the smoke and mirrors, through the detective’s storyline. Guided by his face, we see secret lives of the masked staffers and the ins and outs of the game’s island. This style is key to Hwang’s story, as by remaining in the real world we never get the cognitive estrangement of science fantasy. We never get the reassurance that this organisation isn’t real; it is all too believable that somewhere out there, the Squid Game might exist.


Make the world safe

A couple of years ago, a relative of mine quit his job at senior career level to pursue the share market full-time. He considers it a five day a week job.

At my partner’s new job, his colleagues turn up their noses at betting on animals. They all invest in cryptocurrency.

The other day, I saw a high school teacher of mine on a train. After teaching my class for a year, she started to tell us stories of flipping houses with her spouse for a living. It was risky, but she didn’t see them stopping any time soon.

Squid Game tells the stories of our loved ones in Australia. The twentieth century saw Australian state governments legalise gambling machines outside of casinos (GMOCs) and taxed lotteries, as a means of sourcing public goods. This move was an attempt to cash in on the perceived revenue streams enjoyed by Australian clubs and organised crime bodies.

The New South Wales government introduced legalised GMOCs with a portion of the tax revenue going towards a hospital. Chambers calls this ‘emotional legitimacy.’ Politicians and gambling lobbies claim that funding welfare is dependent on gambling tax revenue, justifying the place of gambling in the status quo.

This is but a smokescreen. Those who truly profit from the Squid Game mirror those in our world: multinational elites who don’t care about or even enjoy the suffering of others. That said, the causes of suffering precede the lifetimes of the handful of masked benefactors, which perhaps is why Hwang gives them limited screen time. Loan sharks are merciless. Striking for workers rights can leave someone underemployed for the rest of their life. Non-citizens working low-pay jobs have little protection against exploitation. We cannot blame any of the characters for their losses and debts, when they played by the rules of capitalism only to survive.

Just as Squid Game creates one more billionaire by exploiting and killing hundreds of workers, the Australian Government funds public goods by perpetuating public harm through gambling tax revenue. Australian band The Whitlams capture this paradox in Blow Up the Pokies. In a loving portrait of a former band member, the lyrics emphasise that the government justifies the gambler’s suffering by using the tax revenue to fund public infrastructure. The Australian government takes food off the gambler’s table and uses it to make the trains run on time, the song says, in a sinister reference to Mussolini.


Blow up the pokies

I knew a boy through a church I previously attended who went to the pub on his eighteenth birthday with his mates, and tried the pokies for the first time. He lost a bit of money, he said, but he liked it, and had since been back to the pub down the road a couple of times by himself. I got through a couple of polite but firm sentences on the skewed odds of gambling when he told me that he’d heard all that from his mother already. She’s an actuary, he told me.

When a game of poker goes south, or the turbulent housing market swerves or a celebrity billionaire withdraws from cryptocurrency, who is responsible? Do losers blame themselves, the winners or simply the game? Does that boy’s mother blame herself for her son’s new habit? Does the magic age of eighteen render him fully responsible for his own actions?

In Squid Game, one person’s loss is directly equated to another person’s gain. Over four hundred deaths happen on screen in Squid Game, but Hwang doesn’t let us become desensitised to it. Close ups linger on the corpses of minor characters, and each game is followed by the rollout of black coffins with pink ribbons. It is only after players have died that electronic music fills the players’ quarters and prize money spills into the golden piggy-bank. This is not a metaphor: one gambler’s loss funds another gambler’s victory, and no one profits more than the house. All Squid Game does to this is compress the violence: the financial hardship and inescapable debt which destroys lives is shortened to instant death.

A perhaps uncomfortable point for many Australians is that Hwang draws no distinction between betting on horses and share trading. ‘You bet on your future?’, Gi-hun incredulously asks Sang-woo, directly equating their seemingly different roads to crippling debt. This connection is fresh and relevant to Australia, and perhaps one of the key points that sets Squid Game apart.

A dear friend of mine has bought scratchies all of his life. A single parent for many years, and a severely underpaid worker, he is confident that he will never ‘make it’. He is a whiz at maths and as a youth, worked at a newsagency where lottery tickets were sold. He knows the odds and knows his weekly habit adds up to thousands each year. He is worlds apart from my relative who follows the share market full-time from a much more affluent position, but I see them both in Squid Game.

In the show, any one of the players could be a hero or a villain. Protagonist Gi-hun is a gambling addict who is indebted to loan sharks, chews through his elderly mother’s savings and can’t afford to buy his daughter a ‘nice dinner’. At first, it is painful to watch him and easy to blame him for his mother’s and daughter’s unhappiness. We learn later that he has been devastatingly underemployed since participating in a strike, after his factory was shut down and the workers laid off. He disbelieves that his childhood friend Sang-woo could be in debt, too—he went to SNU Business School! But he is far deeper in debt than Gi-hun, having gambled on futures, and been charged with embezzlement. Introduced as a cut-purse, Sa-byeok desperately struggles to find the money to pay brokers to help smuggle her parents across the border from North Korea. Ali, an underpaid Pakistani worker who can’t afford a bus fare across the city, tries to scrape together enough to support his family, knowing he is overcharged and exploited at every turn.

The disparity between these characters, and between them and their adversaries, shows the complexities of each worker’s struggle to survive. The choice to villainise Sang-woo through his ruthless manipulation and murder of other players shows Hwang’s genius. By pitting players (and the audience) against Sang-woo, Squid Game lets us hate certain players and root for others. These divisions continue the charade of neoliberal capitalist society in which individuals, not systems, are to blame for their personal success or failure. Surely, we’re led to think, Sang-woo is evil. Then, Hwang pulls the rug: Sang-woo commits suicide, Gi-hun’s victory is deeply unsatisfactory and the season finale rolls on for another half an hour. We realise only too late that the two of them should never have been enemies.


The curse stops here

On my Google Photos timeline, I see that my grandparents, mother, sister and I spent Christmas in Malaysia together two years ago. I am confronted by images of garish buildings in every colour from cotton candy to peppermint green. They loom and stretch in cartoonish proportions, a funhouse facade sitting over the shopping mall and casino complex of Genting.

My sister and I had taken turns pushing Grandpa through the wheelchair-friendly parts of the resort, shrouded in the clouds of the highlands and faux snow of the winter wonderland festivities. I had wondered then if the colourful facades are up all year round or if they’re only part of the Christmas cheer. Now, I can’t unsee their eerie resemblance to the headquarters of Squid Game and its masked overlords.

Was my grandpa a ‘problem gambler’? I would argue that in current usage, ‘problem gambler’ refers to the point at which an individual burdens our welfare and health systems—the point at which they are an immediate problem needing government intervention. They became a risk to themselves long before then. Yet up until that point, the Australian government (and many other governments around the world) justify gambling as a legitimate practice with value to the community.

In an article on reducing harm from gambling, Angela Rintoul urges Australia to set compulsory and universal loss limits, lower maximum stakes, establish a regulator and phase out reliance on gambling tax revenue. Activities that involve betting on uncertain odds are not inherently bad—for many, they hold social and cultural significance. Like the consumption of alcohol, recreational drugs or caffeine, regulations and policies are necessary to protect people and encourage positive behaviours.

Unfortunately, implementing these changes relies on the Australian government taking responsibility for the systemic harms of gambling. This would require significant shifts in attitude and policy, as neoliberal societies blame the harms of gambling on individuals. In Australia, gambling ads must include the disclaimer ‘gamble responsibly.’ Those two words absolve the providers and governments of any responsibility for the suffering of gamblers, betters or investors. Neoliberalism points the blame back to ourselves.

We have a lot of work to do if we’re to protect our loved ones from the horrors of our own squid games, or better yet, transform our world into a kinder reality than Squid Game offers. We’ve had our Royal Commissions and inquiries, and now Netflix has sold our oppression under capitalism right back to us in pretty packaging. Will you get on the plane and forget what you’ve learned, or will you turn around and march back into the fray?

The finale to Squid Game’s first season leaves the story open-ended. How do we want this story to go? Fortunately, we do know where to start. We can vote with our ballots and our dollars, rally both on the streets and behind closed doors, and put our hands behind our backs until working conditions change. We can love those hurt by capitalism and stand with them on the picket line.

Gi-hun’s optimism is treated by other players as a weakness, but his decision to face Squid Game shows that it is also his strength. To face the terrible odds stacked against us, which make us feel resigned to this cruel status quo, we must have his hope. We also must have what he represents: solidarity.

Lin Blythe

Lin Blythe is a sci-fi lover, writer and socialist activist of Eurasian descent.

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