“$456,000 Squid Game In Real Life!” by YouTuber MrBeast is well on its way to becoming the most watched YouTube video of 2021, with more than 137.9 million views as of press time. The video re-creates the popular game scenes from the hit Netflix show. And in MrBeast’s version, these players — crucially, not at risk of losing their lives — compete for $456,000. As is typical with MrBeast (23-year-old Jimmy Donaldson), the video is high energy from the get-go, with over-the-top sets, fast cuts, and frequent pauses to promote sponsors.
Yet MrBeast’s Squid Game isn’t just extremely successful; many in the tech industry are heralding it as a blueprint for the future. Jon Youshaei, YouTube’s former head of creator product marketing and now a consultant for NFT platform Origin, said in a since-deleted tweet that MrBeast’s Squid Game not only outflanked the original Squid Game in views, but was also cheaper and easier to make and distribute. This hyper-efficient model of producing monetizable content for tech platforms, Youshaei argued, is “the promise of the creator economy.”
But as this creator economy grows, so will its demand for continuous content in order to sustain it. And it won’t take long until it is saturated with derivative imitations of pop culture franchises, only to be met with reaction-based content and imitations of the same imitations.
On one level, MrBeast’s version of Squid Game missed the point of the series. The show is a firm critique of hyper-capitalism in which innocent childhood games are turned into life-or-death matches, where the poor and needy perform for the entertainment of wealthy observers. While the stakes aren’t that high in MrBeast’s re-creation, it does actively pit friends against each other to raise tensions, and several contestants are competing for the cash prize in order to help their families out of tricky financial situations, or to pay hefty medical bills. While MrBeast may have perfectly imitated Squid Game’s set designs, that’s about as far as he went in engaging with the series’ core ideas — more or less using set dressing to get millions of clicks.
Of course, this is nothing new. Platforms like YouTube and TikTok have been filled with influencers performing their own “real-life” Squid Games, as have video games like Roblox and Minecraft. Squid Game merchandise, manufactured by poor workers in sweatshops and warehouses, was the top-selling costume trend this Halloween. MrBeast is far from the only person to misunderstand the themes of Squid Game, or to incorporate its aesthetics into his own commercial branding.
MrBeast’s Squid Game video is mostly the logical conclusion of this “creator economy,” which prioritizes instantaneous and ephemeral content over original, experimental ideas or formats. I make a living as a content creator, and this has been evident to me for some time. On YouTube, there are endless reaction videos — literally content responding to content — that receive hundreds of thousands of views. Meanwhile, as the podcasting space also finds its way onto YouTube, some creators have found that they can rack up just as many views, likes, and shares by putting out long-form podcasts in video form. These videos can be shortened into TikToks, Instagram Reels, and other highly shareable content.
As this readily producible content proliferates, some creators have realized that the fastest way to achieve growth is to be featured with other high-volume creators who are making similar content. These days, much of the top-performing videos on platforms like YouTube aren’t necessarily new or innovative, or even from fresh, unheard-of voices. Instead, they’re more of an amalgamation of fan bases of creators who are wealthy enough to be able to run an entire content production apparatus. As Motherboard’s Gita Jackson puts it: “There is no shortage of people who make original art and put it online, but the internet is dominated instead by people who can take advantage of existing properties and fan bases.”
This is not to say that such content isn’t valuable, or that MrBeast’s videos don’t deserve to exist. But this “promise of the creator economy” seems to prioritize reactionary content over original art — as Jackson notes, it took 10 years for Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk to get the show made — when it isn’t just conflating the two. (It’s also worth noting that all of this is increasingly mediated by tech: The original Squid Game exists, in part, because of the money available to Netflix due to its valuable algorithmic technologies.)
At a time when it is easier than ever for tech companies to profit off of art, both through platform monopolies and technologies like NFTs, artists are more vulnerable than ever. If the creator economy is inevitable, it should be the creatives — not those simply responding to them as quickly as they can — who reap the rewards.