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Why are young viewers so drawn to ‘Squid Game’?

'Squid Game' appeals to the TikTok generation for its video game-like feel, says Amy Lu, a communication studies professor whose research focuses on the power of narratives. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Attention, all players, the first game is about to begin. Please follow the staff’s instructions as you make your way toward the game hall.”

Those ominous instructions from a loudspeaker mark the beginning of several compete-to-the-death contests in Netflix’s ‘Squid Game,’ a nail-biting bloodfest that quickly became the streaming service’s most watched program ever.

Since its release last month, the South Korean production has become a global phenomenon with story lines that show characters working with and against one another with millions in prize money on the line. Amy Lu, a Northeastern faculty expert whose research focuses on the power of narratives and characters, chalks up the popularity of “Squid Game” to its simplicity.

Financial insecurity, a major theme in ‘Squid Game,’ is an unfortunate way of life for many in South Korea, especially those just starting out in adulthood, says Yurim Ko, a third-year pharmacy major who was born in South Korea. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It’s like an adult graphic video game,” says the communication studies professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design. Lu, who holds a joint appointment in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, directs the university’s Health Technology Lab, which studies the health effects of media and communication technologies.

Lu points to certain features of the show—a staircase colored in cotton candy pink and lime green, and soldiers dressed in magenta pink uniforms—as the kinds of visual effects that draw the eyes of younger viewers.

“Another thing that’s interesting are the soldiers’ faces,” she says of the black masks with white symbols of squares, circles, and triangles that cover their heads. “Add an ‘X’ and you have a Sony PlayStation controller.”

The masks are what Lu describes as one of many “meme-able moments” for the TikTok generation. She notes a similar Hunger Games-like storyline and shock elements found in popular Japanese anime and manga publications such as Gambling Apocalypse, a comic book series about a perpetually indebted gambler.

“People around the world, especially during the pandemic, have a lot of stress psychologically and financially, and talking about debt, financial inequality, and capitalism is even more relatable to younger people,” she says.

Incorporating children’s games such as red light-green light or marbles make the story line easy to follow and relatable to viewers, even for those who aren’t Korean, says Eu Dahm Jahng, a fourth-year communications studies major.

Communication studies major Eu Dahm Jahng, who did a co-op at a horror film company, appreciated the artistic license in ‘Squid Game’ that turned innocent children’s games into grisly and macabre scenes of death. ‘They took something so innocent and made it so brutal,’ she says. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“They were all games I used to play as a child too,” says Jahng, who was born in the South Korean capital of Seoul. In the same way that art imitates life, playground rules mirror the real world, she adds. “There’s the big bully who has a bunch of boys behind him, and the weaker kids who have to link up to survive.”

Jahng, who did a co-op at a horror film company, appreciated the artistic license that turned innocent children’s games into grisly and macabre scenes of death. “They took something so innocent and made it so brutal. It was very interesting,” she says.

To South Korean-born Yurim Ko, a third-year pharmacy major and vice president of Northeastern’s Korean American Student Association, financial insecurity is an unfortunate way of life for many in her native country, especially those just starting out in adulthood.

Debt “is like a cycle that just keeps getting worse and worse,” she says.

Adding to the stress is pressure to do well on highly competitive college entrance exams. Ko compares it to the “Squid Game” character Cho Sang-woo, who, despite graduating from Korea’s top school―the prestigious Seoul National University―stole money from others and lost it all in the stock market.

The Netflix series reminds her of another South Korean hit―Parasite. The 2019 blockbuster garnered several Oscars, making it the first South Korean film to receive Academy Award recognition. Both productions, however, received criticism over English subtitles that missed the mark.

“Idioms in Korean don’t make sense if you directly translate them to English,” says Ko, dismissing online complaints. “The translating team did a great job at least trying to convey the meaning.”

Jahng, the communication studies major, says “Squid Game” builds upon the success of other popular Korean horror flicks, such as her favorite, The Wailing, the 2016 hit about a mysterious sickness that overtakes a small village, and 2003’s Tale of Two Sisters.

“I just hope that people will have more interest in Korean entertainment than just BTS,” she laughs, referring to the mega-hit selling K-pop group.

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