Psychologists Say That's The Reason Why 'Squid Game' Is So Popular With People
Squid Game is a gruesome affair that is emotionally punishing and emotionally charged. Its also one of Netflix's most popular shows. Since its September 17 debut, the South Korean thriller has become a global phenomenon: its viewership has grown by 481% in less than month, and the hashtag #SquidGame has been viewed more than 22.8 billion times on TikTok. Its easy to see why: The series is superbly performed and visually striking, with easily identifiable outfits and diabolical plot twists that make it perfect for endless theorizing and memes. It also raises a difficult question: why are we so obsessed with educating viewers on human suffering?
Squid Game at its most basic, it reflects a long-standing fascination with the idea of gamifying survival. In dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Maze Runner, children are pitted against each other in battle arenas. Horror films like Ready or Not, Saw, and Battle Royale follow survivors who must overcome a whirlwind of terror. Even middle school readings revolve around the theme: Lord of the Flies requires a group of teen boys to recreate the rules of society on an abandoned island; in the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, he hunts ya ol' Russian elitist for fun.
Squid Game, a South Korean drama based on South Koreas history and politics, follows Seong Gi-hun and 455 other debt-ridden participants who are whisked away to an island to play six rounds of basic children games. If they survive, they will have a net worth of 45.6 billion won (about $38 million). If they lose, they die in devastation and depravity all while a group of billionaires watches for their own voyeuristic pleasure. Its a clear illustration of how devastating economic inequality and financial instability can be for low-income individuals issues that have only been added by the global epidemic. People can identify with feeling like theyre not the ruling class, but the underdog or the downtrodden, Dr. Eric Bender, a child, adolescents, adult, and forensic psychiatrist, tells Bustle.
Grace Jung, a UCLA scholar with specializing in Cinema and Media Studies, points out that everything is an investment. But the promised return on time and money invested in everything from school loans to unpaid internships to mortgages, often for lower-income individuals, is rarely realized. Jung says, That is the major resonance [of Squid Game]". Debt makes everyone feel vulnerable, anxious, and desperate.
Desperation, in fact, is what drives participants to compete in Squid Game. Although theyre able to leave the game at the beginning of the show, they all eventually return, realizing that scraping by in the real world with no viable way to escape poverty is probably worse than risking death for a life-changing prize. From this viewpoint, the inhumanity is almost irrelevant, although there are likely people who do watch for the gore. Dr. Praveen Kambam, a child, adolescents, and forensic psychiatrist, claims that the violence really gives an exclamation mark on the human struggle elements. [It] shows just how far these people are willing to go... They would rather endure this level of violence, or risk of aggression, than deal with the system outside of the game.
Squid Games dark content also adds to the game s charm. Contrasting the innocence of childhood games against the knowledge that something sadistic is about to happen creates a cognitive dissonance that amplifies the horror and sense of powerlessness we feel while watching, says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, , an media psychologist.
Bender adds that when he sees children in therapy, its apparent that theyre not in control of their lives. When youve got adults forced to play childrens games, itll feel as if the tables are turned and suddenly theyre the children not in control. Squid Game is both heart-pounding and devilishly effective: Just as viewers were horrified to learn that The Hunger Games offers up children as tributes, so too does SQUID Game work to constantly dearm us a reflection of what the characters themselves are feeling.
The premise also addresses an age-old problem. Whats subtle and insidious is that children's games are kind of cruel in and of themselves, Bender says. Theres someone left out, someone has no seat when the music stops, somebody is made to feel like they didnt do a good enough job. Squid Game captures that agonizing feeling and exploits it in increasingly inventive ways. What is the playground, the show asks, if not a microcosm of the cutthroat business world under capitalism?
As Squid Game progresses, the moral dilemmas faced by the characters become more complex, and the show forces us to look inside and question how we would react in similar circumstances. Kambam claims that people tend to "overestimate the moral choice" they would make and "underestimated the influence of group dynamics and compliance." None of us want to believe that wed be friends with the bully or act only in self-preservation. But Squid Game challenges us to second-guess ourselves, and that is [both] frightening and exciting on an unconscious level," Kambam adds.
According to Rutledge, a large part of Squid Games appeal stems from hope: seeing contestants survive, as well as surviving the arduous task of watching the show, can make our own struggles seem possible to overcome. But there's also a twisted complicity that ramps up the intrigue. People have admired watching people face difficult situations for centuries, most notably in the ancient gladiator games that began in late 1200 BC. Gladiators were criminals, slaves or war prisoners who gave up whatever legal protection they had for the chance to make money. The masses enjoyed a public duel to the death while also ensuring that power remained in the hands of the rulers at the top.
We see that dynamic in Squid Game between VIPs and competitors, but it also speaks to us as viewers. Kambam claims that watching onscreen is a safe way of sharing the risky adrenaline rush of the participants, and that it is a safe method of releasing the adrenalin rush. While the VIPs watch Gi-hun and the participants, we watch them all from our own little glass boxes at home.