Squid Games and Culture of the Contemporary

We’ve been back at school for just a month now and the popularity of the Netflix show, Squid Games, has pervaded school play spaces and other children’s community spaces quickly. In some areas, all just in the first week back! Children are not necessarily watching, or being allowed to watch, the show on Netflix. More often, this contemporary culture makes its way to children through trending feeds on YouTube homepages. It just takes a couple of minutes to find your way to a commentary on, or adaptation of, Squid Games. We do not believe that children should be watching this material as it is not age-appropriate. It creates confusion and horror in children’s play spaces through using childhood games. We urge parents to watch children’s access to their devices and look out for sneaking onto parent’s devices to get around parental controls.

“Sometimes I wonder if there’s lots of talk in the playground like, ‘yeah, I’ve been watching it,’ and then others agree so as not to feel left out even if they haven’t seen it and can bluff their way through by picking up some key words or repeating what they’ve heard about it?

I have no doubt though there are many children who are watching content that is really not appropriate. We’ve had to be the ‘bad guys’ in our house by restricting content…it’s rough because I don’t want to isolate them socially but we need to balance that with not being able to ‘unsee’ scary or inappropriate content that active imaginations dwell on.” – Educated by Nature parent

In the show, ‘getting out’ in childhood games means execution and certain death. Children, of course, want to play this horror out. In our experience at Educated by Nature, children use play as a way to process the things they experience that interest them, confuse them, create fear or worry them. Play is a way for children to process feelings, practice real world interactions in a safe space, experiment with breaking rules of normality and experience being in power or being vulnerable. It is not surprising then, that children hearing a story of playing games where the result of losing is death, feel the need to try out what that feels like.

As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s we were a lot less exposed to scenes of horror. In my family we just had a TV and radio and managed to purchase a video player when I was 12. I remember begging my parents to let me watch Dirty Dancing at my 14th birthday party but ‘no’, I had to wait until I was 15. Even though we had less exposure compared to today, we still loved playing games that involved killing each other, like Murder in the Dark, Wink Murder and even Cops and Robbers.

At a sleepover at the age of 8, I remember having traumatic nightmares after watching Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ music video. What we all did as kids after watching this was to dance it out as zombies and turn chasey into Zombie play. This took something that appeared real on TV and turned it into make-believe. In this safe and playful state we could relive the experience and unpack it, making it clear where the dark and light were and what consequences and power both sides had.

At our programs, we often see the ‘culture of contemporary’ becoming part of play. Several months ago, the game ‘Among Us’ was popular, with children setting up ‘Imposters’ and jobs for ‘Crew Members’. It was great as a playworker to be able to play alongside the children and be part of ‘Emergency Meetings’ that had children explaining why they thought a certain child was the Imposter. It became a valuable opportunity for children to practice social skills like reading body language and expressions and being able to state their beliefs. An adult providing mentorship nearby can enhance these elements.

We believe that one of the most important aspects to playing out popular and often inappropriate and violent contemporary media, is that children have supportive adults to help them discuss these feelings and concerns. Together, we can try out play ideas and decide on boundaries of what is appropriate. Developing a culture of discussion during game play is very important to support this aspect. We use an animal call signal to bring children playing a game together, to have Emergency Meetings if children get hurt or if play swaps to aggression. We also use the call to bring children together to decide on and refine rules. Sitting in a circle, including the adult, allows children to feel they are directing the play and that everyone can be seen and heard. Participating adults can also gauge much adult intervention is desired by the children. If there is too much intervention, children feel that adults have taken over and play will lose energy and interest.

What can we do?

When culture of contemporary play arises at our programs, we encourage our playworkers to:

  1. Become part of the play so that we can keep an eye on what is happening and being said
  2. Ensure that power is equal across the play, meaning that children take turns at being in positions of power and powerlessness
  3. Ensure that mutual respect is still happening, for example children can choose to participate and feel safe
  4. Watch for children feeling unsafe. This might look like red faces, aggression etc. You may need to agree upon a ‘please stop’ signal, like crossing arms in an ‘X’ over your chest
  5. Call the group together regularly to discuss how people are feeling and discuss that this imaginary and not real (sit in a circle so that children can see and hear each other)
  6. Move to another area to play. Try and keep play just among the children requesting it. This way, we may be able to keep younger children from being exposed to something they haven’t heard of yet
  7. Try to find out if the children are watching it on Netflix or have come across it in YouTube or talk in the playground. Share this information with colleagues so that we can all learn about how young children are becoming exposed to MA content