It’s bleak, bloody, and No. 1 on Netflix. How ‘Squid Game’ won the pandemic.

Netflix
Early on in the fictional series "Squid Game," numbered participants vying for a cash prize await instructions for the first game. The show on Netflix has been seen around the world by more than 140 million viewers.

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Popular show “Squid Game” has conquered 94 countries and counting with its tracksuits and bleak message of social inequality, spawning hundreds of memes in the process and becoming the anti-“Ted Lasso.” Within a month of its mid-September debut, it overtook steamy Regency romance “Bridgerton” as Netflix’s most-watched series ever.

That people gravitate toward dystopian fiction to make sense of difficult times is nothing new – liberals turned George Orwell and Aldous Huxley into bestselling authors, decades after their deaths, during the first months of the Trump presidency.

Why We Wrote This

People often gravitate toward dystopian stories to make sense of difficult times. But what does the global popularity of the violent Netflix series “Squid Game” say about the current cultural zeitgeist?

“Squid Game,” however, has become part of the global conversation in a way that few other stories have. Its rise reflects a growing appetite for Korean culture, the desire for a novel streaming experience, and a sense of economic uncertainty around the world – all while reigniting debates around the role of violence in media.

“Global audiences have been living in an increasingly precarious world, especially since the pandemic began,” says Sung-Ae Lee, an Asian studies lecturer at Australia’s Macquarie University and expert on South Korean film and television. “And it seems that during dark times, people turn to dystopian stories ... because it can be a way of processing trauma.”

It makes “The Hunger Games” look like a third grade field trip. It doesn’t star Jennifer Lawrence or Woody Harrelson or any other big Hollywood names. And it’s got subtitles – poorly written ones at that.

But “Squid Game” has conquered 94 countries and counting with its tracksuits and bleak message of social inequality, inspiring hundreds of memes and becoming the anti-“Ted Lasso.” Within a month of its mid-September debut, it overtook steamy Regency romance “Bridgerton” as Netflix’s most-watched series ever.

That people gravitate toward dystopian fiction to make sense of difficult times is nothing new – liberals turned George Orwell and Aldous Huxley into bestselling authors, decades after their deaths, during the first months of the Trump presidency. “Squid Game,” however, has become part of the global conversation in a way that few other stories have. Its rise reflects a growing appetite for Korean culture, the desire for a novel streaming experience, and a sense of economic uncertainty around the world – all while reigniting debates around the role of violence in media.

Why We Wrote This

People often gravitate toward dystopian stories to make sense of difficult times. But what does the global popularity of the violent Netflix series “Squid Game” say about the current cultural zeitgeist?

“Global audiences have been living in an increasingly precarious world, especially since the pandemic began,” says Sung-Ae Lee, an Asian studies lecturer at Australia’s Macquarie University and expert on South Korean film and television. “And it seems that during dark times, people turn to dystopian stories ... because it can be a way of processing trauma.”  

In these contexts, she adds, violence is “used to both engage audiences and encourage them to view society critically.” 

Personal struggle strikes a global chord

Part of the popularity of “Squid Game” comes down to a basic rule of internet virality: Hype feeds hype.  

“Everything [on social media] was ‘Squid Game’-related. After a certain point in time, I couldn’t relate to the memes anymore,” says Nyah Tewani, a junior at Northeastern University in Boston. “I was like, ‘OK, I have to watch it so that I can actually know what’s going on.’”

Other viewers have praised the show for its cinematography, outstanding cast, genre-bending humor, and unique premise.

“[‘Squid Game’ was] something that I had never seen before,” says Ben Reingold, a visual and media arts student at Emerson College in Boston. “The entire concept of playing kids’ games to be able to keep your life is just completely nuts to me. ... A lot of American films would not go that far.”

This isn’t the first story where those who are “haves” pit “have-nots” against one another in a play-to-the-death competition. But unlike in “The Hunger Games” or Japanese film thriller “Battle Royale,” “Squid Game” participants actually have the opportunity to end the games if the majority votes to leave. This happens after the first trial, a robot-monitored round of “red light, green light” where 255 of the 456 players are gunned down for moving at the wrong time. 

When confronted with the real-world challenges of living in debt, almost all return to the deadly games for the chance to win roughly $38 million. This includes a North Korean defector who needs $33,000 to smuggle her mother across the border, and a kindhearted father whose debt and gambling problems are tearing his family apart. The games may be outlandish, but the dystopian world around them is very real.

“The show is motivated by a simple idea,” director Hwang Dong-hyuk recently told The Guardian. “We are fighting for our lives in very unequal circumstances.”

The 2007-08 global financial crisis hit South Korea hard. Like many other Koreans, Mr. Hwang had to take out personal loans when he was unable to work. During this low point, he wrote “Squid Game,” and though it took a decade for a studio to pick up the series, its anti-capitalism messages are even more relevant today. 

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio is now the highest in Asia, contributing to a growing wealth gap. Around the world, similar trends have been exacerbated by the pandemic, reports the International Monetary Fund, with 120 million people pushed into extreme poverty as billionaires became wealthier.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
People take a selfie with a giant doll named Younghee, from the Netflix series "Squid Game," on display at a park in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 26, 2021. In the show, the towering robot, based on a character from Korean textbooks, referees a gory game of "red light, green light."

Jacob Atagi, in Alexandria, Virginia, watched “Squid Game” after seeing clips of the show on TikTok, and recognized the anxieties around debt and financial security. He saw them play out among his friends who graduated in 2020, during the start of the pandemic; some had job offers pulled at the last minute, and others had to wait months to start work. “So you definitely see how [“Squid Game”] would play into those fears,” says the associate at KPMG, adding that he’s recommended the show to several friends.

New York University student Morgan Martin binge-watched the series within a few days. She says the main character, Seong Gi-Hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), reminded her of her own financial worries when starting college. “Though his debt was definitely different than mine, [I related to] that feeling of trying to do whatever you can to make money,” she says.   

The extreme inequality showcased in “Squid Game” was also familiar to Ms. Tewani, the Northeastern student, who grew up in Johannesburg until she was 16. “That part resonated with me, because I [realized] I’ve been put in a position where I’m so privileged that I would never feel inclined to do those things,” she says. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Oh yeah, I would never [choose to compete].’ But a lot of people would actually go for that because it’s their livelihood and they’re trying to support their families.”

Violence: gratuitous or necessary?

“Squid Game” is all over social media, though it’s not always clear how gruesome it is from a screenshot of the pastel- and primary-colored sets. The show is rated TV-MA for graphic violence and mature themes. Regardless of viewers’ tolerance for gore, Ms. Tewani believes understanding the gravity of the players’ circumstances outside the arena is key.

“People went into this game because they’re suffering from severe economic problems,” she says. “You can’t romanticize that.”

By showing each death head-on, she says, “Squid Game” forces viewers to confront the fact that this is not a normal game show. People aren’t being “eliminated,” but killed. “I think that if they censored it even slightly, it wouldn’t have gained the same traction,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean all 142 million viewers actually enjoyed “Squid Game.”

“It’s interesting to watch, but it doesn’t make you feel good,” says Amy Lu, associate professor at Northeastern University and director of the school’s Health Technology Lab. The show’s graphic nature – especially the mass death witnessed during the first game – strikes her as a marketing strategy.

“I think it’s a very successful commercial operation in terms of predicting people’s attention,” she says. “People’s sensation-seeking curve, especially for guys, will grow during their adolescent years and then gradually go down.” 

Combine that with the simplicity of the games, versions of which are played by children in many cultures, and she says it’s easy to see why the show took off. 

Dr. Lee in Australia has a different take on the role of violence in “Squid Game.” 

“Audiences are not necessarily drawn to violence in itself,” she says, “but it heightens tension and suspense, and an audience’s visceral response to violent images ... becomes a metaphor for deep social malaise.” 

Mr. Hwang is one of her favorite directors, and before “Squid Game,” he was best known for films like “Silenced” (2011). The movie dealt with real-life abuse of students at Gwangju Inhwa School for deaf people. Mr. Hwang depicted not only the abuse, but also the structural issues that allowed teachers and administrators to act with impunity. More than 4 million Koreans saw the movie, and the ensuing public outrage pushed the National Assembly to abolish the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and disabled people. 

“That’s really powerful,” says Dr. Lee. “These kinds of things can change society.”

Staff writers Pavithra Rajesh and Tomás González contributed to this report.

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