The Problem with Squid Game

When it comes to TV, I’m usually well behind the masses. Sometimes I catch up, but more often than not I never get around to it. So I surprised myself recently by watching Squid Game just a mere few weeks after everyone else had already seen it.

It wasn’t exactly a binge watch – my girlfriend and I consumed it like an overcooked, gravy-less Sunday roast. It was slow progress with only the occasional mouthful of enjoyment.

The acting was annoying, the dubbed voices were almost unbearable and the direction was frequently weird and uncomfortable. But this isn’t a TV blog and all of those complaints are well documented elsewhere.

I bring the series up today because the whole premise is underpinned by gambling. Fair warning, if you haven’t seen the series it might be best to stop reading. I’m only talking about minor plot points and nitpicking on content. You either won’t understand it or I’m going to spoil it for you.

In truth, you see very little gambling in the Squid Game. However, it is made clear that the whole extravagant setup is funded by very rich people who want to bet on the survival of the human participants. It’s a very sophisticated operation, so the funding must be in the billions.

The competition is comprised of six rounds, each one inspired by a different children’s game. At one point it is revealed that the event has been running more than twenty years, so the organiser has had a lot of time to fine hone the format for his patrons’ enjoyment.

So why then, by my reckoning, are at least four of the games terrible for gambling on?

It kicks off with a giant deadly variation on What’s the Time Mr Wolf. Sure, I can envisage ruthless mega-rich billionaires getting into that. Later on, you could probably get a dollop of dopamine from deathdrop guillotine tug-of-war. But the others…

I can’t imagine Elon Musk wagering millions on who can cut out a fragile biscuit while cowering on a playground. It would be a rubbish spectator experience with very few interesting betting markets. No highroller is going to get excited by taking the under on 3.5 successful umbrellas.

Similarly, there’s no way Zuckerberg would dip into his pocket to watch people wander off in a maze of alleyways to play dealer’s choice marbles. It’s hard enough to follow lots of discrete simultaneous matches without letting everyone make up their own rules. The director would have a nightmare trying to cover the action and the commentators would be lost.

The glass bridge game had some potential, but the mechanics of it are governed by a simple binomial distribution. The first third of the participants had no chance, and the last third were guaranteed success. Therefore the relevant field was only the middle third of the players.

With so little uncertainty, the game has limited gambling interest. All of the action would be on who picks which jersey at the start, which is basically just a human tombola. I know Jeff Bezos has better things to waste his money on that that.

I won’t even pretend to understand the final Squid Game itself. It’s a bit like Kabaddi, but played on a court shaped like a house. The way it is presented though, it’s pretty much just an anticlimactic fight to the death in a sandpit. Not exactly in the same budget league as Hunger Games.

There is a bit of informal murderous action between the rounds too, but that’s no fun for the gamblers either. They’re not going to stay up 24/7 to see if anyone gets strangled in the night. You’re just adding ongoing uncertainty that destroys the main round-by-round narrative.

Imagine if you had money on Rory McIlroy to win the Open and he’s leading after the third round. You wake up on Sunday to cheer him on only to find out he’s been decapitated overnight by Patrick Reed. I think you’d be a bit annoyed.

I don’t imagine any of this stuff bothered viewers in the way it has bothered me. It’s a bit like how Harry Potter fans seem to accept Quidditch would make a legitimate sport when it’s clearly been dreamt up by someone who has never set foot in a stadium.

I’m aware that I’m being a gambling pedant, but it can’t be helped. This is what happens when you’re obsessive about a thing, and for all of my complaining, I really do love gambling.

The whole thing has got me thinking. If the industry’s big dogs are now lurking around content producers (such as The Athletic) as a means to diversify their business model (more likely to improve their reach and reduce the cost of acquisition), then why not consider creating their own Squid Game.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting they pick out their most vulnerable customers for the purposes of slaughter. They probably aren’t that evil. I’m saying there would be a market for a live Takeshi’s Castle style game as a purpose-built gambling event.

But rather than record it all and slap it together in a nice half hour of highlights, you’d broadcast the madness live every night and take bets on the action. Imagine booking Butlins for a week and inviting a thousand people to compete for £10K a head in a combination of Ninja Warrior, Krypton Factor and Total Wipeout. Add in some celebrity players and it’s a guaranteed hit.

I hereby allow any gambling company to take this idea and run with it, as long as I’m brought on board as lead game consultant and they promise not to harvest any organs.

Bobby’s Bets

It’s No-betsember. I won’t be gambling again until 2022.

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