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These two Washingtonians competed on 'Squid Game: The Challenge.' It changed them

Squid Game, a South Korean show from 2021, was seen as a cynical metaphor for capitalism: Desperate people compete in twisted children's games for the entertainment of the ultra-wealthy.

So when Netflix spun off a real-life, game show version, released last week, critics wondered if Netflix executives missed the point of their own show.

But two native Washingtonians saw an opportunity, not just for a life-changing pot of money – over $4.5 million, the largest in game show history – but to have a life-changing experience with people from around the world.

Courtney Moore, a Tacoma bartender, signed up thinking it would just be a free trip. She was flown to London in January as a standby. Then the night before:

“They knocked on my door and said, ‘Okay, you're in,’” Moore said. She had all of an hour to prepare, surrendered her phone, and joined 455 other contestants in the first episode: "Red light, green light."

In the original Squid Game, that game takes a few horrifying minutes where contestants realize if they move when the music stops, or don’t make it across the finish line in time, they’ll be shot.

In the game show version, it was seven and a half hours of short sprints, according to Moore, followed by prolonged periods of standing completely still while being scrutinized and adjudicated on camera. Everyone had a squib full of black ink under their shirts – when contestants lose, it pops and they're supposed to fall over.

Fewer than half of the contestants made it through that first game, including Moore, and another homegrown Washingtonian: Spencer Hawkins from Spokane Valley. A theater major at at a college in North Carolina, Hawkins was a fan of the original show, like Moore.

A woman with tattoos wearing a brown dress smiles standing in front of a bookcase.
Courtney Moore
Courtney Moore from Tacoma signed up thinking it would just be a free trip. She said the experience "just completely shifted my entire universe."

“If I could really win $4.5 million, I would be able to take care of the people I care about,” Hawkins said in an interview with KNKX.

It’s hard not to get sucked into the show, even if you don’t love the premise: the games are heart-stopping and pit players against each other in subversive ways. In the second episode, at a key moment, Hawkins has to make a decision that could doom him, and Moore and lots of others, to losing. He starts gagging involuntarily and appears close to getting sick.

“I've had a little bit of a history of anxiety, in my past, I think in high school. I had a little bit of twitching,” he said in the interview. But he said he’d dealt with the issue and had no adverse reactions to stress for years before the show.

The production had welfare staff checking in on Hawkins, Moore, and other players after. Other contestants say they’re considering suing Netflix for physical injuries related to the cold temperatures during filming.

Moore grew up in Washington state and wasn’t hurt by the cold, but she couldn’t sleep during the show – everyone was in a single, huge dorm with bunks – or the night after she left.

“I just kept waking up in panic, and being like, ‘what did I just do?’” Moore said.

But despite the stress, both Washingtonians wouldn’t rule out doing it again. While Moore was standing still for hours, during 'red light, green light,' the willpower it took and the silence around her unlocked something.

“I thought about every person I knew," Moore said. "I thought about everything I wanted to do, what I have done and it just completely shifted my entire universe. Which sounds so silly.”

Silly, maybe, but the show also hits you right in the gut. It's hard to turn off — and unlike the original, there are no shadowy elites being entertained. There’s just us.

Scott Greenstone reports on under-covered communities, and spotlights the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington. Email him with story ideas at