What Squid Game takes from reality


Photo provided by: Julia Moon

Photo taken of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, in 2019. Many of the city scenes in Netflix’s Squid Game were shot on location in the country’s capital, where the fictional contestants struggled through their circumstances before entering the trial of deadly games.

Julia Moon, Editor in Chief

Squid Game (오징어 게임). Released Sept. 17, 2021, the South Korean title was an instant success for the global streaming giant Netflix, setting the record for the company’s biggest original series launch and the most-watched series on the platform. But Squid Game’s commercial success is not the only facet that deserves recognition. 

The story’s premise is tightly coiled around the issue of economic insecurity. Despite being a fictitious show about indebted adults competing to the death for the final monetary prize of 45.6 billion won (around 38 million USD) but similar in addressing the stark contrast between the wealthy and poor as in the Academy Award winning South Korean film Parasite, Squid Game continues to show South Korea’s ever-deepening concern over economic divides and financial struggles. Subsequently, this story’s relevancy and similarities to other media also gives way to clichés and common tropes surrounding the topic, points that were criticized by South Korean critics and viewers alike.

“I got a little addicted when it first came out,” junior Sara McNiff said. “It was the one show from my home country that wasn’t technically a ‘Korean drama’ and I got invested because it was my two favorite things: games and death shows.”

For multiple years South Korea has had the highest suicide rate per 100,000 people and in 2018 had the highest elderly poverty rate among OCED (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, making the premise of Squid Game that much more pertinent, especially to the South Korean population. Throughout the country’s contemporary history, many have experienced economic and political crises, such as the effects of the 1997 IMF (International Monetary Fund) crisis and organized strikes throughout the 1980s and late 90s, just a few of the many events that Squid Game director Hwang Dong-Hyuk drew from during the 10 years spent planning the project. 

“I just feel like this world is a very ‘you make it or you don’t’ kind of thing, and I feel like it really reflects [in] the show in a very high-violence way,” junior Zackary Ghowiba said. “What I liked about the show was that it had an interesting dynamic on, honestly, life.”

As for the program’s global popularity in places beyond South Korea, Squid Game also happens to have been released on the coattails of the COVID-19 pandemic and after many people had experienced events sparked by other nations’ own domestic crises. Along with this, themes of social injustice within the story allows the show to captivate a global audience as large as it was. 

“One thing from the show that reminded me of life today was how even though the contestants had little to no chance of winning the games they still tried because there was that slim chance they would earn all the money,” senior Amanda Halladay said. “Most people believe that they have a chance to become millionaires, but in reality that chance is extremely low.”

Such experiences give Squid Game high relatability and understanding for viewers internationally despite the lack of knowledge of the Korean children’s games and language present in the series; highlighting the characters’ relationships and hardships that form and break with other contestants as the game continues on.  

“I think that the theme itself should be showcased but in different ways,” McNiff said. “Because it’s about a bad economy and people in debt and the reasons for debt. It’s also about survival of the fittest, but how survival of the fittest incorporates itself to economic structures.”

Although Squid Game’s global appeal did not quite reach the show’s home country as an instant hit, the show strives to present a story of dystopian survival that is authentic to Korea, with a goal to form a visual allegory that models after the downfalls of modern capitalism.

“I always find it interesting to see how people can create these societies that seem so scary to us but in reality most of the stuff happening in these dystopias are based on things that go on today,” Halladay said. “It also helps us connect certain dystopian elements of the show with real life, allowing us to see things that need to change. After watching you’re like, ‘man I’m glad that doesn’t happen to us,’ but it does in a way.”