Squid Game

You’re Missing the Point: Squid Game

if you’re treating it like a game, I hope the irony isn’t lost on you.

By Sydney Kim


You’ve heard it before. “Oh my god, you haven’t seen Squid Game yet?” For the past couple of months, it’s been Squid Game this and Squid Game that dominating the news cycle and every social media platform. It’s all getting so… tired, no? Believe me, I’m just as sick of it as you are. But it’s not the countless YouTube videos detailing “10 Things You Missed in Squid Game” that irk me (well, not the only thing). It’s the way Western audiences are consuming the show.

The Korean series follows Seong Gi Hun, a part-time chauffeur and full-time gambling addict, who finds himself competing against over 400 other people, likewise massively in debt, in a series of traditional Korean children’s games. Win, and you’re one step closer to the 45.6 billion won prize money (~40 million USD), but lose? Well, you don’t want to lose.

Since its mid-September release, Squid Game has rapidly garnered attention and praise from international audiences. Characters like Sae Byeok, a North Korean defector fighting to reunite her family, and Ali, a Pakistani migrant worker, have quickly become fan favorites. Even morally questionable characters like Deok Su, a ruthless gangster, and Sang Woo, a disgraced hedge fund manager and Gi Hun’s childhood friend, have won over viewers across the globe.

At its core, Squid Game is about the illusion of choice. After all, each player has a choice to participate in the game. But do they actually? Each player is a reject of society—someone whose debilitating debt is all-consuming. In Episode 2, aptly titled Ji-ohk (Hell), every player that chooses to stay in the game acknowledges that returning to their lives on the outside would be akin to returning to hell. The message is clear: none of us really have a choice in participating in this capitalist hellscape.

No doubt the show is well-executed. Each episode propels the plot forward—there’s rarely a dull moment. From its fresh cinematography to its three-dimensional characters to its hauntingly enticing score, it’s no wonder why it took writer/director Hwang Dong Hyuk over a decade to bring the series to life. Well, that and the fact that no one wanted a show so brutally honest until it was trendy to be anticapitalist.

The problem with watching this series as a non-Korean is the lack of context. Of course, much of the larger commentaries made by the show are universal. Regardless of your cultural background, you are likely to pick up its message: the majority fight over scraps while the “VIPs” not only watch for entertainment, but have orchestrated the whole damn thing. But what you probably will miss out on are the little details. And those are what make the whole show, or rather, fully flesh it out.

Take the first game for example: Red Light, Green Light. Except, not really. The rules of the games are identical, but the actual name translates to “the mugunghwa kkot has bloomed.” The mugunghwa kkot, or hibiscus flower, is the national flower of South Korea—a symbol of the country and its people’s resilience. The importance of the symbol, one that the Japanese government attempted to choke out during its occupation of Korean land in the early to mid 1900’s, is lost on most of Squid Game’s international audience. Granted, it’s not something that can be conveyed through subtitles, but I’ll leave you to reinterpret that scene.

Other details get lost, too. The mistranslation of honorifics, which can drastically change the tone or intent behind a character’s dialogue. The extreme exploitation and social stratification of non-western migrant workers in Korea (not unlike the U.S.). The difficulty and discrimination North Korean defectors face while attempting to assimilate. The fact that Gi Hun’s backstory of watching a co-worker die during an auto strike is essentially straight out of a history textbook. You wouldn’t exactly pick up on these details from the shitty subtitles (and don’t even get me started on the dub).

As a Korean-American, I have mixed feelings about Squid Game’s runaway success. I want to believe the show’s excellence is what launched it into global fame, and while that’s true to some extent, I know better. While the hype around the series may have initially been due to its no-holds-barred critiques of capitalist systems, it has quickly become the simultaneous commodification of Korean culture and erasure of the show’s overarching message.

What frustrates me is seeing what the show has been reduced to. Viewers not even bothering to learn the characters’ names, instead referring to them by their player numbers. Video games mimicking the games showcased in the series to whet the appetites and goldfish-like attention spans of children. To add insult to injury, Korean culture has become synonymous with Squid Game. Video titles like “Squid Game Cookie” that are so blatantly a misrepresentation of the series and the Korean culture it draws inspiration from. Then you get headlines like this:

Click on the article, and you’ll see what they really meant: a Korean cultural festival may be coming to a city near you. But that doesn’t sell, does it? Or you get something like this:

Right, they’re “channeling” the show, as if it isn’t merely a facsimile of the very real issues the Korean working class faces. But sure, let’s just chalk it up to Squid Game vibes.

And once the hype inevitably dies down, all people will remember about the series is their 2021 Halloween costume inspo. Am I saying you can’t watch Squid Game? That you shouldn’t dress up as your favorite character? Of course not. Do what you want. But if you’re treating it like a game, I hope the irony isn’t lost on you. Understand that you’re missing the fucking point.