By Nicole Lyn Pesce
Note: While this piece avoids specific “Squid Game” plot spoilers, it does give a general overview of the story and its themes that could still be considered spoilers.
“Squid Game” fans aren’t playing around.
The Korean survival drama that has become Netflix’s biggest series of all time has spread its tentacles into sneaker and tracksuit sales, WallStreetBets meme culture , crochet patterns on Etsy /zigman2/quotes/202790087/composite ETSY -3.40% and South Korean politics. It’s become Netflix’s biggest series launch ever, reaching 111 million fans in just a few weeks.
If you’ve yet to tune in, the series sees hundreds of men and women on the brink of financial ruin competing in a deadly battle royale for roughly $38 million in cash. It’s bleak. It’s disturbing. And people can’t get enough. About 95% of “Squid Game’s” viewers have binged the show from outside South Korea, Netflix /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX -0.27% says, and the series has been subtitled in 31 languages and dubbed in 13.
The show actually broke the internet in South Korea, leading internet service provider SK Broadband to sue Netflix over the traffic surge stemming from “Squid Game,” calling on Netflix to pay for the costs of the increased network traffic and maintenance work.
Google notes that search interest for converting Korean won to U.S. dollars has hit a record high in the U.S., as American viewers have looked up the dollar equivalents of the won amounts shared in the show to better understand the stakes.
“Squid Game” is the most-Googled Halloween costume for 2021, with viewers also rushing to Amazon and Etsy looking for pieces to recreate the teal green tracksuits worn by the players, or the hot pink guard uniforms. White slip-on Vans sneakers similar to what the players wear on the show have seen a 7,800% spike in sales since the show premiered on Sept. 22, according to Sole Supplier .
And a sweet honeycomb toffee known as featured in the show has become a global craze , Reuters reports. The Seoul dalgona maker who whipped up the treat for “Squid Game” was dishing out less than 200 pieces a day before the show. Now he’s serving more than 500 dalgona a day. And Google reports that searches for honeycomb toffee ( candy) reached a record high this month in the U.S.
What’s curious is that all of these colorful Halloween costumes and TikTok challenges and shopping trends and amusing memes are being inspired by one of the most feel-bad shows of the year.
So why is everyone obsessed with “Squid Game” when it’s such a difficult show to watch? Here are a few key reasons.
It taps into the globe’s financial pain right now
“Squid Game” sees men and women struggling with student loans and medical debt, owing money to loan sharks, or being exploited by their employers, who become so desperate that the appeal of winning roughly $38 million overnight outweighs the risk of bodily harm or even death. The show also condemns capitalism and wealth inequality — rich VIPs are the ones bankrolling the games and watching human beings kill each other for sport.
Some of it is a little too real, especially for the home audience. South Korea is in the grips of a debt crisis , and South Korean politicians have been trying to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the show to take digs at each other, or to add to their stump speeches. In fact, “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk was famously so broke when he was writing the script that he had to sell his laptop at one point for $675 .
“In a way, ‘Squid Game’ can be viewed as a microcosm of our society,” Areum Jeong, assistant professor of humanities at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, told MarketWatch. “Young people today feel discouraged and pessimistic about the unemployment rate and working conditions. While the older generation were recognized and rewarded for their hard work, the younger generation today tends to believe that your background and inheritance (rather than hard work) are more important in achieving success.”
And as economies across the globe have grappled with the fallout from pandemic lockdowns, and the toll the pandemic has taken in human lives, the get-rich-quick fantasy is as appealing as ever. “In the age of social media influencers and YouTubers, it seems that the conventional idea of labor (going to work 9-5) is becoming devalued, and more and more people are looking for (easier and faster) ways to bring in money,” said Jeong. “In Korea, more and more people are becoming obsessed with the stock market and even Korean college students are buying stock nowadays.”
The visuals and costume designs are striking
Teal green tracksuits with white numbers stitched on the front. Hot-pink hooded uniforms with black fencing masks stamped with triangles, circles and squares. An oversized robot doll with a warning glint in her eye. The imagery of “Squid Game” is worth a thousand words — which is helpful when the audience doesn’t speak the same language.
“This show is PACKED with imagery and symbols that are easily recognizable yet fairly simple to replicate, such as the square/circle/triangle shapes on the mysterious recruitment card, the show’s logo, the players’ tracksuits, and the masks and bright-red jumpsuit uniform the staff wears,” Madeleine Buckley, senior editor of the Pop Insider , told MarketWatch. “This makes ‘Squid Game’ perfect fodder for fan tributes, social media challenges, cosplay, and merchandise.”
Indeed, a quick “Squid Game” search on Etsy pulls up almost 8,000 listings , including “Squid Game”-inspired t-shirts, tumblers, crochet patterns, stickers, jewelry, masks and business cards. An Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +1.63% search pulls up dozens of “Squid Game” Halloween costumes .
While most of the “Squid Game” products popping up on Amazon and Etsy are unlicensed, Netflix’s online store does feature official “Squid Game” merch including t-shirts and hoodies for $35 to $50.
And of course, there’s the memes and gifs, as well as the TikTok challenges where people try competing in some of the games featured on the show at home.
“In addition to word-of-mouth, I am sure numerous people became interested in watching the show because of these eye-catching memes and TikTok challenges posted by ‘Squid Game’s’ marketing team and early viewers,” agreed Jeong. “And after these curious viewers watch the show, the striking costumes, objects, and symbols all become references that they now fully understand and can enjoy on social media.”
It’s riding the K-Pop/Korean wave
“Squid Game” hit as Korean culture has been dominating the globe. More than 20 words of Korean origin were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in September, including hallyu describing the increased international interest in South Korean entertainment and culture, aka the “Korean wave.”
“The rise of Korean pop culture in the recent decade, especially with K-pop acts like BTS, Korean films like ‘Parasite,’ and Korean TV dramas on Netflix, has really helped the global audience become interested in ‘Squid Game,’” said Jeong. “And many recent Korean works that were loved by global audiences (‘Parasite,’ ‘Train to Busan,’ Netflix’s ‘Sweet Home,’ etc.) share a common theme in questioning what humanity is, especially how human dignity can be performed or preserved in dystopian settings. A theme viewers could resonate with, especially during the pandemic.”
‘Squid Game’ is fresh, despite being another survival competition
Fictionalized, deadly reality competitions have been done before, from Stephen King’s “Running Man” to the “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games” movies. But “Squid Game” brings its own twists and turns. “Yes, we have seen other media in which desperate people must compete for resources (hello, ‘Hunger Games’), but the absolute brutality of this show paired with the jarring, incongruous fact that these players are staking their lives on schoolyard games really pulls you in,” said Buckley. “On top of that, the show features so many mysteries and unknowns, which give fans so much room to speculate and theorize as they watch.”
Indeed, TikTok and YouTube videos puzzling out the clues and Easter eggs hidden in early “Squid Game” videos encourage repeat viewings.
Plus — and another spoiler alert — the players compete in playground games that are familiar to many viewers, and simple enough for, well, a child to understand. “The childhood games featured in ‘Squid Game’ are not complex at all. Even if you are not Korean and haven’t played [some of] these games before, the rules are simple and very easy to understand,” said Jeong. “‘Squid Game’s’ familiarity and simpleness make it easy for international viewers of different backgrounds to understand and enjoy the show, and participate in sharing popular memes or TikTok challenges.”
Buckley added that “Squid Game’s” universal appeal also stems from the questions it asks about what makes us human, and what we would do to survive. “It taps into some of the most primal and universal themes of being human: the desperation of wanting a better life, being willing to do anything for the people you love, and grappling with the moral implications of choices you make in the most difficult of circumstances,” she said. “No matter what language we speak, all of these factors make the show accessible and interesting to viewers worldwide.”