Not just a game: What has made ‘Squid Game’ so popular?

Social inequality, poverty and debt. Why the success of ‘Squid Game’ is also a stark reminder of the times we live in

October 15, 2021 01:38 pm | Updated 05:57 pm IST

Who would have thought a dystopian story of 465 debt-ridden contestants willing to put their lives at stake for 45.6 billion won (approximately $38.6 million), playing a deadly version of a children’s game, would have taken off as it did? Ever since Squid Game ’s premiere on September 17, the nine-episode Korean series directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk has been the most watched and talked about show across the globe — it amassed 111 billion views since its release making it Netflix’s biggest series ever.

Real-life irony
  • Peony Hirwani, Jaipur-based culture writer at The Independent, explains how such shows help people process trauma and think through what’s going on in the world. “Squid Game belongs to the battle royale realm, like Hunger Games, The Running Man and Liar Game. However, the deadly game trope, the storyline, class differences, and deaths, make it a compelling watch. They’ve literally viewed humans as mere toys in this series — something that humans usually do with other living beings on this planet for their own benefit. It’s almost ironic.”

“The aesthetic is brilliant and unlike anything on TV right now,” says film critic Raja Sen, explaining that while Squid Game draws us in with drama on a very universal level and makes us care about the characters, it then entices viewers the way a reality show would: with rule-changes, advancing levels, and elimination threats. “Audiences living through a pandemic might be relating more easily to characters whose survival is threatened. We have all lost friends and family over the last year, and that, clubbed with anxiety and uncertainty on various levels, does make us feel trapped like the characters in the show. Cheering for the protagonist, therefore, feels satisfyingly cathartic,” he adds.

Rise of thrillers

Amid the slow-burn romances and fun comedies, K-dramas are tackling subjects that highlight the ills plaguing their society. And the interest in such horror-thrillers has been picking up recently. Like Squid Game , the super hit 2019 zombie series, Kingdom — directed by Kim Seong-hun, and set in the 16th century — is ironically predictive of the future. Though it follows the story of a kingdom afflicted by a mysterious plague that turns people into zombies, Bae Doona, one of the stars of the show, admits that the period drama (all set for Season 3) is also a telling tale of the current times we live in.

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On similar lines is Hell is Other People , a 2019 psychological thriller that critiques how expectations and power structures make life hell for the helpless; 2020 horror-fantasy Sweet Home , where humans turn into monsters based on their long-hidden desires; and last year’s critically-acclaimed Extracurricular , which tells the dark story of a student who takes to a life of crime to pay his college fees.

Resonating now

Interestingly, director Dong-hyuk admits that Squid Game was rejected by studios 10 years ago, when he first wrote the pilot (inspired by his own debt-ridden state). “At the time, it seemed unfamiliar, too violent, complicated and not commercially viable,” he said, during the show’s promotions. Today, however, it’s these very traits, “reflective of the times we live in”, that is finding its fans.

Filmmaker Vijayeta Kumar, who watched the show twice, says that the horror and gore in it “isn’t just the deaths, but what capitalism and greed do to you”. “The horror of poverty, being debt-ridden to the extent you have to sign away your own body, and not being able to fit into a class-conscious society, is, for me, the real scary part,” she says.

Squid Game has struck a raw nerve as South Korea grapples with increasing household debt, income inequality and lack of employment. It has also found resonance across the world because many have been facing severe financial crisis over the last few decades. And now the pandemic has seen many lose their jobs, businesses and source of income. For people grappling with mental stress and anxiety, the extreme representation of it on screen seems to have triggered varied reactions.

Talking numbers
  • The number of social mentions of Squid Game had increased to 331% in the second week since its launch, with anger, sadness and joy being the three most used emojis by netizens to express themselves.
  • Courtesy: Cision Social Listening

Dr Kamna Chibber, Head of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare has had several clients discuss the show’s premise with her. “People identify with parts they feel are reflective of the reality of the world they occupy, that are easy for them to make sense of,” she says. “However, it is also important to recognise that there are people who do not identify with the media they consume and are not attracted to the same. Aggression and violence across platforms needs to be represented in ways that it prevents over-identification, and the de-sensitisation that can occur as a result of continued exposure to it.”

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