In a tidy bit of metaphor-making, players who competed in a game show based on Squid Game, the Netflix hit about sadistic rich people who entice people in debt to suffer for their amusement with the promise of a cash prize, say the process was a disaster, with several participants experiencing apparent medical emergencies due to cold weather in England during the filming. Their stated experiences seem to line up with earlier reporting by British tabloid The Sun; Netflix has denied that anyone experienced any “serious injury” during filming. A player also told Motherboard that the game appeared to be scripted from the start, making participants essentially unpaid background characters who had no chance whatsoever in the game.
“I started to realize, this was never a game I could win,” a participant told us. “I’m not a contestant, I'm an extra.”
Squid Game: The Challenge was announced last year; it’s currently being filmed at a former military base in Bedfordshire, just outside London, and the winner will supposedly be awarded $4.56 million. The production is massive, with 456 players at the outset. They are competing in elaborately staged versions of familiar children’s games like those in the original production, with the distinction being that unlike those in the hit show, these aren’t supposed to be truly dangerous or lethal.
A former participant we spoke to—whose name and other personal information we are withholding to protect their privacy—said they were inspired to apply for the show after being served a targeted ad on Instagram. (They assume they got the ad because they had just finished watching the original scripted series.) They heard back several months later and underwent a background check and an interview with a casting director, and had their own physician sign off on a medical assessment. They also had a screening with a psychologist, who stressed several times that the experience would be intense, they told Motherboard.
Did you play Squid Game: The Challenge? Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“My understanding was it was going to be similar to Squid Game,” the participant said. “We’d be put in uncomfortable situations, living with 456 people and trying to form alliances. Except there would be no tolerance for bullying or harassment or physical violence or you potentially getting killed. So the Real World, but a little more intense. That’s how I understood it.”
The participant flew from their home country to England in January after taking a leave of absence from their job; they were told that they would be there two to four weeks, depending on how long they stayed in the game. When they arrived at a hotel in London, they said, “It seemed like there was complete chaos and disorganization. It didn’t seem like a well-oiled machine. People around me were stressed.”
That, of course, doesn’t seem to be intentional. The participants were given a sheaf of paperwork, which Motherboard reviewed; it shows that a UK-based production company, Studio Lambert, had written out detailed onboarding procedures for participants, including COVID tests, a 24/7 welfare team, a presentation about sexually transmitted diseases, and several orientation videos. (Studio Lambert co-produced the show with The Garden, another UK-based company.) The onboarding materials also read, “You are NOT allowed to speak to any other players whilst in the hotel. Our Security and Welfare teams will be around to monitor this during your activities and meal times.” (The participant said they were fitted with a lime green wrist band, and reprimanded by production staff for speaking to anyone else in the hotel who was also part of the game.)
All the participants had their phones and computers taken before being transported to the filming location, and their luggage locked; they were given a track suit to wear, along with socks, underwear, and a numbered player t-shirt. At dawn, they were loaded onto a freezing cold bus and transported to the filming location, an enormous airplane hangar; they were reprimanded again for talking to each other on the bus. Temperatures were below freezing outside, and it felt even colder in the hangar, the participant said; they were served weak coffee and breakfast sandwiches so cold they felt frozen. They waited for two to three hours in a holding room with other players.
It was there, the participant said, that they started to suspect the game might be scripted. Some people were given microphone packs that worked, while others had mics that weren’t actually functional.
“We finally started talking and I asked, ‘Hey, what was your casting process like?” they remembered. One person said they didn’t apply, but had been sought out by a producer; they’d recommended a friend, who was also cast. Other participants included a TikTok star, a set of twins, and a father-child pair. At that point, the participant told Motherboard, production staff came over and reprimanded them again, telling them that discussing the casting process wasn’t allowed.
They lowered their voices and continued talking; by comparing notes, the participant said, several people realized they had flights booked later in the week—as though the production staff already knew they would be eliminated. “I’m like, ‘Well, maybe it’s just cheaper for them to do that and do a change fee,” the participant remembers saying. Other players disagreed, saying the whole thing felt suspect. “I’m like, ‘But it’s a competition! They don’t know who’s going to win!’”
When the game began, it was, as The Sun and other outlets have previously reported, a brutal version of Red Light Green Light, where participants who moved after they’d been told to stop would be eliminated and fake blood packs strapped to their bodies would burst. (This mirrored an element of the original, scripted production, in which players who moved after being told not to were shot and killed.) The participants had been given hand and foot warmers, but the foot warmers were taken away when filming began, the participant said.
“It’s fucking freezing,” the participant told Motherboard. “I can’t move and I’m trying to stop my body from shivering because it’s below freezing.” They had been told they would stand still during the game for about 10 minutes; to pass the time, the participant sang quietly to themselves, and soon realized it had to have been at least 25 to 30 minutes. “We would move for five seconds and stand still for another 20.”
After about an hour and a half, the participant said, “someone collapses behind me.” Another player called for a medic and was eliminated for moving.
“I’m still ignorantly thinking it’s a game,” the participant told Motherboard. “‘I’m like, oh my God, should I be a good person and yell ‘medic’ and risk getting eliminated?”
Over a loudspeaker, production staff told people that if they needed medical attention, they should put their hands up “to be attended to,” the participant said. Players shouted back, saying that people who were in pain or not conscious couldn’t possibly put their hands up. Production staff then announced that if someone around the players needed a medic, “Put your hand up and you won’t be eliminated.”
From there, the participant said, “People started dropping like fucking flies.” They heard continuous cries of “Medic, medic, medic!” from every corner of the room. “People were suffering charlie horses and extreme cramps” because of the cold, they said. “People were throwing themselves on the floor because their feet couldn’t move. It was getting ridiculous.” They couldn’t feel their feet or legs. “The only reason why I didn’t say fuck it and leave is because I thought it was for 4.5 million. If at any point I'd realized I was basically an unpaid extra, I would've left.” (Netflix has said three people were treated for “mild medical conditions.”)
The rules were clearly inconsistent, the participant added. “People were getting out and walking past me and saying, ‘This shit’s fucking rigged. I didn’t move.’ And then I watch people move not get eliminated.”
After six hours, the participant told us, “I got popped,” as did someone near them. “We’re both like, ‘What the fuck? We didn’t move.’”
The participant’s experience echoes that of anonymous players who spoke to Rolling Stone; one person told the outlet, referring to fellow players, “Instead of Squid Game, [they] are calling it ‘Rigged Game.’”
By the time they were eliminated, the player told us, it was a relief to leave the hangar, where they’d been for about 15 hours. They were bussed back to their hotel, where more chaos awaited.
“Everyone is hungry and asking for water,” the participant said. “None of that is there. They’re frantically trying to order pizzas and not caring about people’s dietary restrictions.” No one could order their own food, because their phones and computers were still locked up, and they weren’t allowed to simply leave the hotel and walk somewhere to get something. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to play this game anymore with you people,’” the participant said. They were eventually given cookies at their hotel room door, and, around 1:30 in the morning, some bottles of water. Other people got what the participant refers to as “Fyre Festival-looking burgers” delivered in the middle of the night; there was no apparent rhyme or reason to how the food was handed out, and not everyone even got a knock at their door to let them know they had a burger, of sorts, waiting outside. (Later, when a group of players were commiserating together over better meals they’d ordered themselves in the hotel cafe, they took a photo of it.)
The scene in the hotel was grim, the participant said. “Everyone was exhausted and trying to process. People were drinking or sulking.” A few, what the participant called “reality chasers,” were scheming about how to figure out their way back onto the show. “Some people heard if you argued with them you could get back on the show.”
The saddest part, the participant said, “was talking to people. I have a whole career and a happy life.” The show wasn’t that important to them, they said. Other people, though, felt differently.
“People broke their lease to be on this show,” they said. “People quit their jobs. That’s the part to me that was sad. They made it seem like we all truly had a fair shot to actually win this money. It was already scripted. They already knew the people they wanted in the next round. That’s the part to me that was fucked up.”
The participant said several group chats have formed with disgruntled ex-players; some are discussing whether they would have grounds for legal action. The participant we spoke to said they eventually got their phone and computer back, and realized they’d been booked on a long and impossibly inconvenient flight back. “I just wanted to leave that situation and didn’t want to be around those people. It was really sad.”
In a statement to Motherboard, which they previously provided to other news outlets, Netflix said "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." A Netflix representative declined to respond to our request for comment on the allegation about the show being scripted.
Studio Lambert acknowledged a request for comment from Motherboard but did not provide a statement or respond to followup emails.
Update, Friday, February 3, 7:10 P.M. EST:
After publication, Netflix, Studio Lambert and The Garden offered the following joint statement:
We care deeply about the health of our cast and crew, and the quality of this show. Any suggestion that the competition is rigged or claims of serious harm to players are simply untrue. We’ve taken 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.