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What’s Behind ‘Squid Game’ Appeal? Debt and Economic Despair

Have you watched 'Squid Game' yet?
(Photo credit: Netflix)

We were struck by the news this week that Squid Game, the South Korean streaming miniseries, has been seen at launch more than any other show in Netflix history. That’s saying something.

The show tells the story of a band of strangers who are compelled to play a series of children’s games for a chance to win a fortune — with the caveat that if they lose these games, they are brutally killed. (If you’re not up for the show because of the violence, you’re not alone.)

We were wondering about what all of this means — why is this show resonating so deeply? It’s obviously touched a nerve — the fact that it’s full of gore and filmed in Korean with English subtitles hasn’t seemed to diminish its appeal in the U.S. So what’s the motor driving interest in this story?

Dorian Lynsky wrote a review at UnHerd that caught our attention and may reveal an important insight. He notes that, in South Korea, “the net worth of the country’s top 20% of earners is 166 times that of the bottom 20% and rising fast.” He reports that the leading cause of suicide in the country is debt. 

Viewers who are feeling economic despair can identify with characters in the show, who are thrust into a no-win, high stakes game. He writes:

South Korea is at a stage where social pressure to succeed no longer aligns with the chances of success. Squid Game, then, is an extreme example of a common malaise: what happens when people who have been told they can thrive as long as they work hard and play by the rules discover that the game is broken and they cannot win after all?

So one source of Squid Game’s appeal, then, might be that it’s a way to visualize and feel the kind of economic despair many of us are dealing with as we struggle with debt. Lynsky captures this despair in a vignette from episode two:

According to the rules, contestants are free to abandon the game and return to society if a simple majority votes to do so, which is what happens in episode two. Game over? Of course not. The show then explains how the characters’ everyday lives are so brutally, intolerably restricted that even near-certain death seems like the better option. During the vote, one character says: “Will it be any different if we leave? Life out there is hell anyway, damn it.” Another agrees: “I’d rather stay here and die trying than die out there like a dog.” Ultimately, 93% of the contestants choose to rejoin the game. The episode is called “Hell”.

It’s a thoughtful review that might help explain what we’re seeing with this show’s popularity — well worth reading the whole piece.

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