Communities vs. Opportunists and the ‘Glass Bridge’ – A Squid Game: The Challenge Example

Recently added to the Netflix streaming service is Squid Game: The Challenge, a reality show based on the popular (and often shocking) South Korean fictional series Squid Game. Although reality TV is usually a genre that leaves me cold, I found The Challenge rather interesting, because the games it presents, as well as the relationships between the participants in the given situations serve as typical examples of existential opportunism.

The show pitted 456 players against each other for the $4.56 million prize, but only one of them took home the full winnings: the one who survived all the challenges and came out on top. The huge stakes thus practically provided the motivation for the participants, putting all of the previously unknown people (with the exception of a few who knew each other beforehand) in a position to regard each other in one way or another, but essentially opportunistically, with their own ultimate victory in mind.

If only for dramatic effect, the creators of the show have created the various games and tests so that the participants never know what’s coming next. Thus, they could form alliances in certain situations, while at other times it was precisely by turning against each other – even against former allies – that they stood a better chance of progressing. There were times when the participants had to come to a joint decision in order to succeed in a game, but it also happened that they had to unexpectedly compete with a person they had paired up with out of mutual sympathy, friendship or even kinship. Ultimately, however, it was up to each individual to decide what strategy to use in relation to others, whether it is the most unlikable character in the game or their very own mother.

In one way or another, the game as a whole was pretty representative of real life – even if it was often rather condensed and a bit distorted. As one may see from their own experience, today’s societies, still fundamentally defined by the law of money and the law of the jungle, are also heavily characterized by existential opportunism, whereby individuals prioritize their own (or their group’s) success, often at the expense of other individuals (or groups), and the community or society as a whole. And existential opportunism essentially means thinking and behaving opportunistically in order to secure one’s own existence, which was as true in the show as it is in our everyday lives in general.

In these circumstances, of course, one of the most difficult questions is always what tactics to use on the others. On the one hand, you want to look as cool as possible and have as many friends and allies as you can on your side to rely on in difficult situations. At the same time, it is not uncommon that we are forced to put ourselves first in order to achieve our own well-being at the expense of others – in a society that basically favors a ‘win-lose’ strategy over a ‘win-win’ strategy, this is basically inevitable. So it’s no coincidence that in life, just as in The Challenge, you have to think about which you prefer: the community or your own advancement?

The contrasts between collaboration and individual opportunism came to the front in the show when a game called ‘Glass Bridge’, adapted quite faithfully from the original series, was performed. There were only 20 participants remaining in this game, as the others had all been eliminated in earlier trials. The venue for the game was a bridge made up of seventeen pairs of ‘glass tiles’. They were arranged in pairs so that one tile could hold the weight of one – or more – players, while the other could not, and as soon as someone jumped on it, it would fall off with the subject. Of course, the players did not know in advance whether the left or right side was safe for them. However, only those who crossed the bridge within a certain time limit, meaning who were able to avoid falling by using the safe tiles, were allowed to continue The Challenge.

The trick was the order in which the players would step onto the bridge, which had to be decided beforehand between them. This was done by randomly drawing a number between 1 and 20 and then giving this number, which determined the order of crossing the bridge, to another player who had not been selected before, as a result of their own choice – based on tactics or sympathy. Predictably, the relationships between the players fundamentally determined who was placed in the worst positions to minimize the chance of crossing the bridge, but luck also played a major role in deciding the order. But since the game was timed, and all players could have been eliminated if the time limit was exceeded, the pressure was on all participants to find the safe way across the bridge as quickly as possible.

If you think that sounds cruel, I would have to agree with you in principle – but we must also remember that at the end of the game only one person could take home the prize, so everyone else had to be eliminated one way or another. Nevertheless, even in this tight situation, solidarity was still evident, as someone suggested that everyone should try their luck at just a couple of ‘glass tiles’, while respecting the starting order, and then pass their place to the next in line, thus essentially equalizing the chances of all participants to 50-50. The majority of players tacitly accepted these new common terms, in addition to the original rules.

Naturally, there were still players who were eliminated immediately when they picked the wrong side, but for a while the strategy worked, and no one had to risk more than anyone else. Yet there were some participants who did not confirm to the others that they agreed with the common strategy, nor did they intend to cooperate. Such was the case with player 278, Ashley, who simply refused to go ahead and jump after player 301, Trey, had already done his part by landing on a suitable ‘glass tile’. The standoff resulted in some haggling, but everyone was aware that time was running out and someone would have to take the next leap to get closer to the end of the bridge.

In the end, it was Trey, standing in front, who couldn’t take any more, and decided to take the next jump, too. However, even though he succeeded in this obstacle, nothing seemed to change behind him, so neither Ashley nor anyone else stepped forward to overtake him. And before anyone could talk him out of it, Trey took his third jump, which became his undoing: because alone – simply by the law of large numbers – he still had almost no chance of making it across the bridge, he essentially sacrificed himself for the community. (Whether he consciously intended to do so or not.) Then it was up to another player, the next in line, to continue the search for the right tile, and Ashley was only willing to go forward when she realized that the common terms were in her interest, or when the pressure from the others became too much already. She eventually succeeded in completing the game.

One lesson from all this is that if you don’t stand up for yourself, you can easily be the one to pay the price. On the other hand, it is also true that if one does not respect the rules the community has agreed on, this may give the individual an advantage – at least for a while. But the most important thing is likely to see that it doesn’t really matter whether the opportunistic or deviant Ashley excluded herself from the joint decision because she was afraid, or because she was malicious or selfish, or for any other reason or motivation. The only relevant aspect regarding the outcome is that one has put oneself before others and the community, thereby fundamentally undermining the possibility of reaching a decision in a way that is fair to all concerned in the situation.

What could have been done in such a situation? For one, Trey, the direct sufferer, could have taken to his heels, saying that he was not going to move on, and that if they did not stick to the common terms, they would all be out due to the time running out. Or anyone else could have pointed out the same thing, for that matter, and no one else did… This may be partly understandable given the stressful nature of the situation, but after the ‘Glass Bridge’ game, most of the players seemed to have simply forgotten what happened on the bridge and Ashley’s eccentricities. In fact, several of them confronted the person (Mai, player 287) who continued to voice her disapproval of Ashley not playing by the agreed terms.

Obviously, the whole situation is quite subjective, just as Mai’s attitude did not necessarily win everyone’s sympathy. It was also a fact that there was only one final winner in the show. However, in real life terms, the most important thing to understand from all of this is that when someone steps out of line in a similar situation, it’s not just one person who gets screwed as a result, it’s the whole community. Because that is in a large part what working together as a community is about: sharing the risk so that some members do not bear a disproportionate share of the burden. And this is precisely why people need to be discouraged from such opportunistic behavior, while cooperative attitudes need to be consistently rewarded.

While it may seem a bit far-fetched at first, when you think about it, it is a perfectly valid and legitimate question: if members of the community cannot consistently discipline rule-breaking opportunists that follow their own self-interests in such a relatively simple set-up, how could we do it on the scale of society as a whole, let alone the entire human civilization? As we all know, today we are facing serious global problems such as climate change, nature loss, epidemics, wars, drastic social inequalities, and many more. From this point of view, the ‘Glass Bridge’ can even be interpreted as a metaphor for the test of humanity as a whole, which we can only successfully cross – without losing a significant part of the population – if we unite and stand up for our common interests and cooperation, despite all deviant and selfish efforts to the contrary.

It is true that we need to be somewhat opportunistic in order to survive and progress, but this must be done primarily not at the level of the individual, but at the level of the community, society and humanity as a whole. In practice, this can only be achieved by preventing opportunistic individuals from interfering with our common prosperity. This would make it possible to achieve social sustainability and the environmental sustainability that goes hand in hand with it – without which, however, it is an absolutely realistic possibility that we could face such catastrophic conditions, even in the next few decades, that one with a little goodwill would not wish even on their enemies.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *