Squid Game: The Reason Behind Its Success
by Nicole Antonietta
If you haven’t heard of the new Netflix series Squid Game, chances are you have been living under a rock. In the first 28 hours of its release, the kdrama quickly garnered 111 million fans, making it the most successful Netflix original series to date. In a matter of a few days, the show was able to gain 29 million more viewers than the previous number one series, Bridgerton (Tassi). In fact, it became so popular that the sale of white vans—which were worn on the show— saw a 7,800% spike since the show’s release (Tingley). The show’s popularity was a surprise even for the director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, who wrote the script in 2009 (Brzeski). But while the show is so successful today, many fans admit that the show wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if it were made twelve years ago. Squid game’s popularity is mainly due to its unique characteristics that set it apart from its genre, relevant commentary on capitalism, and relatability after our generation’s economic struggles throughout the pandemic.
Although the idea of a death game is relatively new to its western viewers, the concept has been popular in Asian cinema for decades, particularly in Japan. After all, the kdrama was partly inspired by the Japanese show ‘As the Gods Will’, and shares similarities with another successful Japanese Netflix original series ‘Alice in Borderland’ (Brzeski). Death games are also a genre in anime, and includes shows like ‘Kaiji’, ‘Darwin’s Game’, ‘Kakegurui’, ‘Liar Game’, ‘Battle Royal’, etc. But this raises the question: why is Squid Game so much more famous than all the other shows mentioned? What makes this Netflix hit unique? The answer is simple: unlike the other death games that are played in a futuristic or artificial arena, the Squid Games take place in our current reality (How Squid Game Critiques Capitalism). This allows its 111 million viewers to relate to its characters and resonate with the show’s message (Tassi). When asked about his purpose for making the show, Hwang Dong-hyuk shared, “I wanted the viewers who watch Squid Game to start questioning themselves. How am I living my life? Who am I among these characters, and what kind of world am I living in? As you start watching, I want you to think, “What kind of story is this? This is all too surreal.” But then as you watch more, you will get attached to the characters and start cheering for some of them, and hating others. And then eventually, you should have the experience of connecting it all to the real world that we’re living in” (Brzeski). But aside from its non-typical setting, the games played in the show also help set the Squid Games apart from other death game series. In his interview with Patrick Brzeski, Hwang Dong-hyuk explains: “The children’s games that are featured in the show are those that will bring out nostalgia from adults who actually played them as a kid; but they’re also games that are really easy to grasp. So anyone watching, from anywhere in the world, can understand the rules of the games very easily. And since the games are so simple, the viewers don’t need to focus on trying to understand the rules.”
Even the games that western audiences have never heard of before—like the dalgona cookie challenge—have simple, self-explanatory rules. This is different from most other death games, such as kakegurui, that feature complicated games that people usually understand only after a few episodes. While the plot of the show is unique to most western audiences, the genre bending games and setting make it unique to viewers who are well versed in the death game genre as well.
The Squid Games are also an extended metaphor on how a capitalist society works, and critics have applauded its accuracy. The parallels between the games and a capitalist society are shown right after the first game, when players vote whether they will leave with their life or stay for the money. At first glance, the guards and the front man give the impression that they care for the participants by giving them the right to decide their fate. However, this is actually a manipulation technique not only used by the fictional front man, but real life CEO’s—including Jeff Bezos (How Squid Game Critiques Capitalism). For example, earlier this year Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama planned to unionize against the harsh treatment in the warehouse (Palmer). In response, Bezos used scare tactics like the guards in the Squid Game: the guards played videos of the players and exposed the secrets of their private lives, while Amazon sent out messages and put up flyers in the bathrooms urging them to “vote no” (Palmer). However different these tactics may seem, both make their workers feel like they have no privacy because the top boss knows everything. Or, in the words of amazon employees, “They got right in your face when you’re using the stall, I feel like I’m getting harassed” (Greene). Another strategy the top bosses use is baiting the workers or participants with something almost unachievable whilst telling them it is within grasp. In the Squid Games, they use 45.6 million won to tease the players to stay in the game. In Bessemer, Alabama, they use the opportunity of a promotion to sell the narrative that through hard work, the employees can raise their status (Greene). Although obtaining either one of these is extremely unrealistic, both amazon and the front man use the workers and players combination of fear and desire to manipulate them into making decisions that favor them. And it obviously worked, since in the show 93% of the players returned and in Bessemer only 30% of its employees voted in favor of the union (Greene). After the voting process, the show continues to parallel capitalism, most notably through the VIPs. These aristocratic characters are a symbol of the billionaires at the top of the social hierarchy who demonstrate that the games don’t put the rich and the poor against each other. Instead, the competition is between the poor and the poorer; the wealthy just sit back and relax. As stated by The Take, “the VIPs are so removed from seeing the lower classes as real people that they get a thrill from observing the squalid desperation of the competition” (Squid Games Real Message about Capitalism). Even though it may seem like the lower class are playing against the rich in the game of capitalism, they are actually playing against each other for the entertainment of the upper class. The show underlines some very real issues in capitalism such as the manipulation of low income workers, the myth that hard work equates to success, and the bourgeoisie who watch the lower class compete for a higher status.
But even though many people love the well written critique on capitalism, viewers still have some questions: why is this new generation so intrigued by this capitalist dystopia? The answer is more obvious than people think: now that the Covid-19 outbreak has widened the gap between the rich and the poor by leaving 13 million Americans unemployed, audiences want to see shows that expose the harsh reality of lower income workers (Miranda). When Hwang Dong-hyuk was asked why he thinks the show became so successful, his response was, “These days we are, in fact, living in a deeply unfair and economically challenging world. Especially after the pandemic. I mean, there is more inequality, more severe competition and more people are being pushed to the edge of their livelihoods. Currently, I would say that more than 90 percent of people across the world will be able to somehow connect and empathize with the plight of the characters in the series” (Brzeski).
While the show might have made some profit if it were released over a decade ago, its viewers wouldn’t be able to connect the show’s message to their real life unless they were in a desperate situation. He also adds that when he was writing the show, he was experiencing his own financial difficulties and read death games that “became really immersive for me because I was struggling financially myself. I was even thinking that I would love to join a game like that, if it existed, to get out of this terrible situation” (Brzeski). By basing the plot on his own personal hardships, he was able to appeal to the emotions of lower-income people, which is why his financially strained audience feels the show is so real and honest. Audiences want more shows that have characters and struggles they can relate to, which makes them feel less alone: a feeling many people have felt after being locked inside their house for over a year.
Even though Squid Game is a new show, the issues talked about in the show are not new at all; they are issues that have been around since the start of the pandemic. In a way the Squid Games are actually a mirror of our society, and we are all in awe at our horrifying reflection. The show makes valid points about our societal issues, and the numbers of views and profit prove that we agree. It’s no surprise that a show so dark yet deep prompts a lot of questions: will lower class civilians start revolts around the globe? Will more directors make more social class commentaries? And lastly, Who could’ve guessed the show’s distinctiveness from its genre, anti-capitalist satire, and relatability for its audience was the perfect formula for success?’
Brzeski, Patrick “‘Squid Game’ Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk Talks Season 2, Show’s Deeper Meaning” The Hollywood Reporter 13 October 2021
Tassi, Paul “‘Squid Game’ Is Now Netflix’s Most Popular Show Ever, And It’s Not Even Close” Forbes 13 Oct 2021
Tingley, Anna “The ‘Squid Game’ Costume Effect: White Slip-On Vans Spike 7,800% Since the Series Premiere” Variety 6 Oct 2021
Miranda, Leticia “How the coronavirus has widened the chasm between rich and poor” CNN News 24 Sep 2020
Palmer, Annie “How Amazon fought the union drive in Alabama” CNBC 16 Apr 2021
Greene, Jay “Amazon’s anti-union blitz stalks Alabama warehouse workers everywhere, even the bathroom” The Washington Post 2 Feb 2021
Film Fatales “How Squid Game Critiques Capitalism (Spoilers)”
Nicole Antonietta likes photography, painting, and fashion, and she takes various art classes in school. She also does Kung Fu outside of school, and is working with the Girl Up club to bring Kung Fu on campus with self defense classes.
What motivated you to write this piece?
I always loved fictional shows, movies, books, etc. that discuss social issues. When I saw that Squid Game was becoming Netflix’s most popular show, I realized I wasn’t the only one who loved the shows critique. Therefore, I decided to write an essay that not only explains the shows message, but also why this message resonated with so many people.
What was the most difficult part of your writing process for this work?
I found it really difficult to shorten my essay. Initially it was too long, so I had to cut out a lot of information. I struggled to not carried away with my topic, but I think it payed off because it made my essay more clear and concise.
What message do you hope to convey to the reader through your piece?
I want my piece to inspire people to look for a deeper meaning in the shows and movies they are watching. While some shows might come across as just an interesting fictional story, many of them also critique real world problems in a way that viewers can learn from.