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Why "Squid Game" Is So Popular

A psychological explanation for the surprising impact of the Netflix show.

Key points

  • Netflix's Korean show "Squid Game' has achieved global popularity despite limited promotion, and psychology may provide an explanation.
  • The premise appeals to a growing frustration at the divide between the wealthy and the poor.
  • Meanwhile, the Korean setting and language make it easier for viewers to psychologically distance themselves and enjoy the escapism.

Everyone is talking about Squid Games. In spite of its odd title, the Korean TV show is on course to be Netflix’s biggest show ever, having become the most popular foreign content after just a week of dropping. This is especially remarkable given that it had virtually no serious promotion or ad campaign. And the social media world went wild. The show spawned hundreds of memes and dozens of TikTok challenges.

So, why is Squid Game so popular?

Without revealing too many spoilers, it is about a secret game, played by more than 400 desperate people in debt. Only one of them will win the 38 million prize money. The rest will die. All the rounds of the game are versions of Korean (and worldwide) children’s games, like tug of war.

We’ve seen content like this (The Hunger Games comes to mind easily). Why is it so remarkably popular then? Well, it is extremely well made and visually striking. All the episodes end with well-invented cliffhangers and shocking reveals. And the cast is excellent. But the same is true of so many other shows. Why is it Squid Game that has become a global sensation?

I think the explanation is psychological. The premise of the show is a pretty obvious critique of our competition-obsessed capitalist society. The poor compete in a game of life and death quite literally for survival. And all this to entertain the super-rich. At a time when more and more people are worried about social injustice and more and more people are disillusioned with the hamster wheel of our performance-driven society, this kind of reflection on social injustice in jungle capitalism clearly sells.

But, again, there are many shows and films that ride this wave. One that comes to mind easily is another worldwide Korean success, the Oscar-winning Parasite. Also, as social criticism, the show’s premise is a bit too obvious and maybe even heavy-handed.

A psychological explanation for its popularity

What sets Squid Game apart is that it gives two psychological twists that make the social criticism more digestible for global audiences.

First, while we identify with the competitors and put ourselves in their shoes, that is not all we do. After a couple of episodes, it is revealed that these games are watched by VIPs who put money on the competitors, just like one does at the horse races. In some sense, when we watch this series, we are in a very similar position to these VIPs who take voyeuristic pleasure in finding out who dies in this round and who survives.

So we occupy a double perspective: We are aligned with the competitors, worrying about their every move, but we are also aligned with the VIPs, coldly observing the games. Switching back and forth between these two perspectives is the most important, innovative move of the show, and it is one that makes it easier to combine caring about the social message and at the same time get all wrapped up in the story.

Second, the show is Korean. It is set in Korea, and people speak Korean. This, on the one hand, taps into the global Korea-mania, evidenced by the breathtaking popularity of K-pop. It may also appeal to the exoticism of people who were prevented by the pandemic from traveling to other countries in the last two years or so.

But the most important psychological effect of the fact that the main character speaks Korean is a form of distancing. As it is set in a different country, it is easier for the viewers to have an outsider point of view—to avoid having to think that it is all about us. The whole premise is a bit close to the bone for most viewers, and that is part of the attraction. But if it were too close to the bone, it would take away the escapist appeal. The simple fact that it is in another language manages to combine both of these perks.