If you haven’t seen Squid Game yet, you’ve probably at least heard the title. Becoming Netflix’s biggest hit ever, this Korean drama tops other successful series by millions of more views worldwide, and maybe will never let you watch another game of “Red Light/Green Light” with the same innocence of childhood.
But isn’t that part of the massive appeal? The juxtaposition of innocent childhood games with life-or-death stakes draws the viewer in to find out who lives, who dies, and who wins.
Under a simple premise, the characters that bring the story to life demonstrate a human connection that has allowed the series to impact viewers from Asia to Europe to Latin America — becoming a truly global phenomena.
So what is it about Player 456 and his rivals that highlights the human condition?
Because even though there are clear rules to the games, stark contrasts between players and workers, and stereotypical characters, there underlies an ambiguity as well.
There are no clear winners at the end of the game.
While we empathize with Player 456 (Seong Gi-hun), at no point do we think he’s a great guy. He’s a gambling addict, a neglectful father, a leech on his mother’s resources (one could even argue he is responsible for her death).
So why are we set up to sympathize for a deadbeat?
What about Player 456 is globally relatable?
At some level, are we all that emotionally damaged and financially burdened?
We’ve all made poor choices — some with more dire consequences than others — and we’ve all seen the spiritual toll dragging financial debt around with us can cause.
The capacity alone for a modern viewer to imagine the possibility of having “unpayable debt” speaks to the problems that capitalism has created.
In the United States alone, there is 1.73 trillion dollars of student debt. Compile student debt with car loans, credit card payments, and rent, it’s not too difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the Squid Game players — willing to risk it all for the opportunity to finally be debt-free.
Another refreshing view of the “Game” is that people from all walks of life are represented — doctors, parents, elderly, college graduates, spouses, immigrants, drug dealers — everyone can find themselves within the snares of money problems.
Except, of course, the VIPs.
While the VIPs make us cringe, I don’t think it was for the overly stereotypical portrayals of the hedonists indulging in fleshly desires or their complete disregard for human life.
I think it was the language.
It’s rare for Americans or any native English-speakers to consume media in a language other than their own. (One huge benefit of Netflix producing multi-language media is that we’re now exposed to a lot more of it.)
For the majority of the global population, however, watching movies and shows with subtitles or overdubs is common practice. And time and time again, non-white, non-English-speaking characters are reduced to their stereotypes.
As an American watching Squid Game, I felt uncomfortable when the characters switched to English to communicate with the VIPs.
When depicting the overly rich and powerful on a global scale— the people who have too much money to spend in their lifetime — Americans come to mind first.
The rich white man is the stereotype.
And it makes us (as Americans) uncomfortable.
Because we’re not used to seeing ourselves characterized.
We’re used to being the heroes, not the villains.
Squid Game got many things right — the ambiguity of good and bad, the crushing weight of debt, the dangers of unchecked capitalism — but they also nailed the portrayal of greed.
In a global perspective, the United States consumes too much, squanders resources, destroys other cultures, and disregards human life if found outside its own borders.
So while there is no overt moralizing made throughout Squid Game, the characterizations alone speak for themselves.
Seong Gi-hun’s character is placed within a game of life and death, where the lust for money drives his every move — from forming partnerships to his ingenuity to his betrayal — but isn’t that true for all of us?
Don’t we all make our own calculated risks each and every day based on what benefits us and what brings us closer to our end goals?
So maybe the global appeal of Squid Game has nothing to do with the childlike games or the cold-hearted killings, but everything to do with finding a connection to our everyday lives.