‘Squid Game: The Challenge’: Unpacking all the reality show's controversies

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After the global success of the South Korean drama “Squid Game” in 2021, Netflix decided to turn the series, about classicism and the dangers of greed, into a reality series. What would it look like if the survival thriller became a real life competition show?

The reality adaptation was critiqued when it was first announced for seeming to miss the point of the fictional show, which is a criticism of capitalism and the system of inequality that would push people to participate in such a deadly game.

The Korean series centers on a mysterious game 456 people willingly participate in for the chance to win 45.6 billion Won (about $35 million). But most participants don’t know the stakes of the game when they enter: Only one will win the jackpot, and all others will be killed at some point during heightened versions of children’s games.

The reality series also has 456 players competing in similar games for a jackpot of the same amount, but without the lethal consequences.

Squid Game: The Challenge. Episode 101 of Squid Game: The Challenge (  / COURTESY NETFLIX)
Squid Game: The Challenge. Episode 101 of Squid Game: The Challenge ( / COURTESY NETFLIX)

"Squid Game" creator Hwang Dong-hyuk spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the series, saying he had met with the creator. "What I hope is that they will be carrying on my vision and intention as much as possible for the show," he said, and added that viewers concerned by the premise should not "take things too seriously, that's really not the best way to go for the entertainment industry."

More controversy emerged in practice. About a week into filming, the show made headlines as eliminated contestants spoke out about their experience.

Back in February, contestants opened up to outlets like Rolling Stone and Variety on the conditions their names would not be used, alleging poor set conditions and rigging behind the scenes. Following the release of the first five episodes from Season One, some players are now threatening to sue for the alleged injuries they suffered on set.

Other contestants — like those who spoke to TODAY.com about their time on the show — confirmed the environment was “stressful.” But, they said the conditions were “fair” and expected considering 456 players were competing for $4.56 million dollars, the biggest cash prize in reality television history.

Here is a rundown of what “Squid Game: The Challenge”’s eliminated players have revealed about their experience on the controversial series.

Allegations of multiple injuries and ‘inhumane’ conditions on set

“Squid Game: The Challenge” was first announced in June 2022, with multiple publications confirming that the show would be filmed in the United Kingdom.

Filming began in January 2023 and “Squid Game: The Challenge” almost immediately became embroiled in controversy. At the time, parts of the UK were affected by a cold snap, which brought ice, snow and extremely low temperatures to the region. The Sun was the first to publish multiple articles claiming that contestants battled cold weather during the first game of Red Light, Green Light.

During Red Light, Green Light, all 456 contestants have five minutes to cross the finish line. They are only able to move when a giant robot doll is singing. When she stops singing, they have to pause. If they move, they are eliminated.

Variety also reported on the alleged injuries some players suffered during the first round. Even though they received hand warmers and thermal underwear, the outlet said that a small number of contestants needed medical care after playing the game, which took place in a former airplane hangar.

Netflix responded to the medical treatment claims in a statement to Variety at the time. “We care deeply about the health and safety of our cast and crew, and invested in all the appropriate safety procedures. While it was very cold on set — and participants were prepared for that — any claims of serious injury are untrue,” the company said.

In a statement sent to the BBC, Netflix confirmed that three people received treatment for “mild medical conditions.”

About a week later, Rolling Stone published an article after speaking with four contestants who alleged they suffered the “cruelest” conditions on the show.

“It was just the cruelest, meanest thing I’ve ever been through,” one anonymous eliminated player told the magazine. “We were a human horse race, and they were treating us like horses out in the cold racing and (the race) was fixed.”

The players, who asked the magazine their names were not included due to their non-disclosure agreements, said the Red Light, Green Light game lasted about nine hours and that medics tended to contestants who couldn’t handle the freezing temperatures in the airport hangar.

One alleged they saw a woman convulsing. “People were beating themselves up, including myself, around the fact that you’ve got a girl convulsing and we’re all stood there like statues,” the player said. “On what planet is that even humane? Obviously, you would jump and help — that’s what our human nature is for most of us. But absolutely it’s a social experiment. It played on our morals and it’s sick. It’s absolutely sick.”

Another claimed, “My legs went completely numb.” One eliminated player told the magazine she had pneumonia and an ear infection after competing.

A day after the Rolling Stone report, Variety published another article with details from eliminated contestants. One person said, “It’s not like we signed up for ‘Survivor’ or ‘Naked and Afraid.’

Another told Variety that bathroom and water breaks were not allowed while Red Light, Green Light was being filmed. “I’ve never been that cold for that long a period in my life. We couldn’t feel our feet or our toes. It was ridiculous,” she said.

Netflix and The Garden and Studio Lambert, two production companies behind the series, told Rolling Stone and Variety in identical statements at the time that they took “all the appropriate safety precautions, including after care for contestants — and an independent adjudicator is overseeing each game to ensure it’s fair to everyone.”

Eliminated contestants claim show is 'rigged'

The streaming giant also pushed back against reports of the games being rigged. “Any suggestion that the competition is rigged or claims of serious harm to players are simply untrue,” Netflix said in statements to Variety and Rolling Stone.

Players who spoke to Rolling Stone said that some contestants were miked up and others were given fake microphones because storylines were predetermined for players with larger social media followings.

One said they saw an eliminated player rejoin the game. “It really wasn’t a game show,” the eliminated contestant said. “It was a TV show, and we were basically extras in a TV show.”

Three players said there was a “38-second massacre” in round one when contestants who thought they made it across the finish line within the five-minute time limit were eliminated.

One said she saw a contestant, who went on the show with his mom, was crying as he waited for her to cross the finish line.

“They added (more time) to the clock for her to get across because she was one of the people that they wanted to be in the show,” the person said.

Another told Rolling Stone, “Instead of 'Squid Game', (they) are calling it ‘Rigged Game.’ Instead of Netflix, they’re calling it ‘Net Fix,’ because it was clearly obvious.”

TODAY.com has reached out to Netflix for comment.

Potential legal claims

On Nov. 23, one day after the series premiered, a British personal injury firm called Express Solicitors posted on its website that two “Squid Game: The Challenge” contestants reached out to Daniel Slade, the firm's chief executive officer (legal), about a potential lawsuit.

The firm said the contestants sought “compensation for injuries they suffered during the show’s filming in January of this year.”

Express Solicitors confirmed in a statement to TODAY.com that the firm is looking into the allegations.

“No lawsuit has been filed yet, but we have served letters of claim to the show’s producers for two contestants outlining their injury claims and now we are gathering further evidence before filing court action if necessary,” Express Solicitors said.

The contestants are alleging that they suffered hypothermia and nerve damage, the firm said. One said the clothing was “ill-fitting” given the cold temperatures.

TODAY.com previously reached out to Netflix and Studio Lambert about the potential for legal claims but did not hear back. A spokesperson for the reality show sent a statement to Deadline that said, “No lawsuit has been filed by any of the ‘Squid Game’ contestants. We take the welfare of our contestants extremely seriously.”

What eliminated players told TODAY.com

TODAY.com interviewed former players Lorenzo (Player 161), Dani (Player 134), Spencer (Player 299) and Bryton (Player 432), who were all eliminated in the show’s first five episodes. They spoke about preparing for the competitions and the elimination process.

Lorenzo said he took multiple ice baths and cold showers. He also said the dorm was “livable.”

“Let’s put it (this) way. You can survive in those conditions. And, if you don’t adapt, you don’t deserve to be there,” he shared.

Spencer, who was shown worrying and repeatedly gagging during round two as he struggled during the Dalgona challenge, said that the contestants would wait hours for the competitions to begin. To prepare, he said he accumulated spit in his mouth for hours.

In the fictional series, contestants had to carve out a shape from the honeycomb sugar candy. Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) realized the candy melted when it encountered liquid, and licked the umbrella shape to make it easier to remove.

“I know many people in that room were focused on saving up as much spit in their mouth as they could and I, myself, was saving up spit for the past few hours because I had no idea over the past few hours when the game would finally begin,” Spencer said.

He called the environment “stressful” but he also seemed to have an enjoyable time on the show. Player 299 said the experience was like “adult summer camp.”

In Bryton’s opinion, “Squid Game: The Challenge” and the eliminations were fair.

“You knew what you were signing up for before you even got there. Yeah, some things take skill, but it also comes down to luck,” he said. “So everything is fair. There’s nothing that was unfair in there.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com