What would you do for almost $40 million?
That’s the question at the center of Squid Game’s capitalism commentary. The South Korean survival drama quickly ascended the Netflix ranks to become the streaming service’s #1 show in the U.S. this past weekend. On the fictional show, 456 South Korean people — all of whom are in debt and desperately need the money — compete in old children’s games like Red Light, Green Light to win ₩45.6 billion (about $38.4 million). All the characters have to do to win is survive six rounds of games. Sounds simple, but here’s the twist: It’s literally a survival show. As in, if you lose, you die.
Squid Game has already drawn much intrigue from viewers and critics alike for its extreme violence and gore. The first episode alone features a massacre (and a nightmare-inducing doll) that will make you rethink how fun Red Light, Green Light can really be. Most critics have already called it disturbing, and a quick search of “squid game nightmares” on Twitter will reveal a whole host of people who claim the show is already making them lose sleep.
Yet none of that seems to be turning audiences, especially Gen Z, away from watching the show. #SquidGame already has over 15 billion (yes, with a B!) views on TikTok. “Red Light, Green Light” has become its own TikTok trend, with creators parodying the show and acting out how they would fare in the Squid Game themselves. Even the language and culture barrier doesn’t seem to be stopping people, since it’s the first Korean show to reach #1 in the U.S. on Netflix, perhaps following in the footsteps of Parasite’s success. In fact, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said on September 27 that he thinks Squid Game could become Netflix’s biggest show of all time, overtaking the beloved Bridgerton.
So, why are we so fascinated with this bloody, morbid show? And what does it say about Gen Z that we’re even passively thinking about our own shot at winning this fictional game?
It’s worth noting that while Squid Game certainly has its own novelty, it’s not the first piece of media of its kind. Gen Z was practically raised both on TV survival shows (Survivor, Project Runway, The X-Factor) and on critiques of them (hello, Hunger Games). But what Squid Game does differently to the Hunger Games or movies like Battle Royale is examine the illusion of choice under capitalism. The contestants are told that if the majority of players vote to leave the game, they will all be sent home safely. And they do — only for most of them to come crawling back, since the threat of financial ruin in their regular lives is a worse fate to them than the trauma of possibly killing each other for money. These characters aren’t living in a dystopian society controlled by the government; they’re in the modern world we, the viewers, currently occupy. Perhaps that relatability is the scariest part of the show.
College students are no strangers to financial stress. Forbes reported that student loan debt is at $1.7 trillion in 2021, among 45 million borrowers. A 2021 report by researchers at EducationData.org found that it takes the average borrower 20 years to pay off student loans, meaning most of Gen Z will be well into middle age by the time they’re out of debt. Just like the players in Squid Game, maybe college students have a choice to walk away from college and no longer suffer through these financial hardships — but how much of a choice is it really? A 2013 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reported that over 65% of job openings require a college degree of some kind, so most students can hardly just drop out of college, and applying for financial aid is notoriously complicated.
Students get desperate. They ask celebrities to pay their tuition. They joke that they hope to be hit by a campus bus so they can get free tuition. College students have even turned to actual game shows for help: Paid Off made headlines a few years ago for being a game show dedicated entirely to helping students pay off their loans. In a way, Gen Z’s dark, nihilist humor and defeatist attitude is a perfect match for a show like Squid Game.
Another part of the show that Gen Z can connect to? Nostalgia. Even though the children’s games depicted on Squid Game are twisted beyond belief, we’ve all played Red Light, Green Light on the school playground. Tug Of War, the third game in the show, is also a Field Day classic at many elementary schools. Some of the others are less familiar to Americans, like the eponymous Squid Game, which Men’s Health described as a “tag-like” game played by South Korean children in their explainer on the rules. No matter the game, though, the theme is the same: everyone’s innocence from childhood is eventually ruined by the demands of capitalist society. Some people might complain that the blood and death is too much, but, well, that’s kind of the point.
Watching Squid Game is kind of like watching a car crash: Even if you wanted to (which you probably do), you just can’t look away. Is it enjoyable to watch? Maybe not. But it probably depicts a truer reflection of ourselves than any of the shows that are.
Friedman, Z. Student Loan Debt Statistics In 2021: A Record $1.7 Trillion. Forbes.
Hanson, M. Average Time To Repay Student Loans. EducationData.org.
Carnavale, A.P., et. al. Recovery: Job Growth And Education Requirements Through 2020. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.