Dr Wasim Ahmed, Stirling University, UK; Dr Mariann Hardey, Durham University, UK; Dr Alex Fenton and Dr Gordon Fletcher; University of Salford, UK.
*Note, spoilers ahead for anyone still yet to watch the series…*
Squid Game is one of the most popular TV shows of 2021 and now claimed as the most popular ever shown on Netflix. In the first month of its release the South Korean production reached 142 million viewers. With high levels of attention it topped the Netflix charts in 90 countries and created a massive online buzz. In this post, we explore the interesting social dynamics Squid Game has generated and the potential it provides for sociological research.
Squid Game and Inequality
For those who have not been touched by the Squid game phenomenon a quick precis may help to explain some of the unexpected popularity. Set in South Korea, 456 players, recruited for their desperate and often dangerous personal situations, are invited to play a series of children’s games. If the players complete the games successfully they are promised a reward of up to 45.6 billion South Korean won (around $38 million USD). Those who lose the games are murdered.
Given the option to leave the games after realising that losing means death, 187 of the 201 surviving players from the first game choose to return to continue playing. The decision to continue is a chilling reminder that the players’ current existence outside the game is as dehumanising and as dangerous as the games themselves, albeit without the prospect of a life changing sum of money.
Squid Game highlights a range of social inequality issues by portraying a corrupt, debased, and often vicious social system that emphasises the significant disparity between the very rich and the very poor. The system is so amoral that wealth alone is sufficient justification for the torture and exploitation of players in the name of entertaining a few billionaire spectators.
The promise of prize money even satisfied a sense that the games and these spectators are “helping” at least some of the players. The players are reduced to becoming components that deliver spectacle and entertainment in each game. Even after death, the losing players become products that are sold as part of the game’s organ harvesting business and continuation of wealth by any means.
The financial costs and psychosocial consequences of problem gambling have converged with contemporary forms of wealth redistribution along with gender, racial and class oppression to create a new mechanism of social dominance. The Squid Game’s social dominance mechanism has several facets, the most prominent of which are structural economic and symbolic forms of wealth — or lack thereof.
Despite the show’s enormous success, the actors and creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, were only paid in accordance with their original contracts and have not received any additional bonuses. To put this into context, costing ‘only’ $21.4 million to produce, Bloomberg estimated that the show will generate up to $900 million in value for Netflix.
Social Media and Society
Squid game also demonstrates the power of social media platforms as they have played an important part in the financial success and impact of the show. Hundreds of thousands of users rushed to social media platforms in September 2021 to share their views, opinions, and humorous observations on Squid Game and as a result generated audiences in the millions.
Netflix released all of the Squid Game episodes simultaneously. This method of release, increasingly popular with streaming content providers, was the catalyst for wider and more intense discussions on social media as users had a complete story arc to comment on. Those who became most engaged after the release could ‘binge’ watch the series and then effectively encourage other parts of the audience to also fully engage to the conclusion.
Some commentators have noted that the show was marketed in South Korea and other Asian countries but there wasn’t the same intense drive to promote it in the United States or elsewhere. The subsequent popularity demonstrates the power of social media in spreading ‘Electronic Word of Mouth (eWoM)’ digitally and across borders independent of more formal marketing actions. Previous research within the movie industry has shown that eWoM volume and valence can have a positive association with product sales.
There were also some darker forces at play. A ‘Squid Game’ crypto token was launched and provided optimistic gamers with access to a play-to-earn game. At its peak, the Squid Game cryptocurrency climbed 1000 percent. Investors were tracking #$SQUID across multiple social media sites until it was revealed that the coin was apparently a cryptocurrency-based ‘scam’.
Lessons and Future Research
The central premise of Squid Game’s offer of significant riches combined with the ever deepening of each surviving characters’ dystopic reality, combined with the direct savagery of the individual games, has sparked hundreds of Reddit threads debating why it strikes such a pop-culture nerve. “Because the plot, the twist, the actors, the cinematography, the emotional investment for each character growing by each episode, the character arc, the background music, the conflict, the excitement, the dramatic irony. It is both horror and wholesome at the same time. It makes you cry, laugh, be happy and get angry all at once. It has the elements that make a movie/series phenomenal.” (r/netflix).
External dialogue through social media adds an addictive quality to the series by making its experience part of a wider moment for mainstream culture. Combining the experience and pressures of real-life pandemic dystopia with an on-screen representation offers one possible outcome that echoes extreme thinking and current culture pessimism. The result is to lead ever larger audiences deeper into the screen to spend hours speculating about what happens next (for the characters and themselves)…
There is plenty in “Squid Games” that does hit close to home. The story about an unfair wealth divide, and individuals trapped in their “normal” existence awakened to the possibility that even a way out could become a greater source of evil and personal catastrophe. Due to its plot and impact after release, the show provides social scientists and those working within other disciplines a rich and topical case study in which to conduct academic research.
Dr. Wasim Ahmed is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Business at Stirling University Management School with a specialism in social media research. Dr. Ahmed has authored peer-reviewed outputs and has delivered external talks including a number of prestigious invited lectures, seminars and workshops around the world. Dr. Ahmed also has several media appearances such as television, radio, and print. He is @was3210 on Twitter and is always interested in delivering workshops on social media research, so feel free to get in touch!
Dr. Mariann Hardey (www.mariannhardey.com) is a member of the University of Durham’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC) group. She is a well-known researcher in the fields of sociology, computing, business, digital humanities, and technological inclusivity. She has written extensively and directed a number of projects centred on social media, digital technologies, and the creative industry. Her book, The Culture of Women in Tech: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, seeks to address gender disparities in the tech industry. Mariann’s research has been covered by the BBC, The New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent, and other international news organisations. Her next book on health technologies, Household Self-Tracking During a Global Health Crisis, will be released in early 2022.
Dr Alex Fenton — www.alexfenton.co.uk
Dr. Alex Fenton is Head of the Centre for Professional and Economic Development at Chester University and former Head of the Research Cluster for Disruptive Technologies at Salford University. With co-authors, he published a successful book called Digital Transformation, A Results Driven Approach and has published widely in the national press and media, The Conversation and international journal publications on social media and disruptive technologies. He is also founder of Fan Fit, a disruptive technology project to improve physical and mental wellness where he has also presented evidence to the House of Lords and appeared on BBC Sport.
Dr Gordon Fletcher
His research focuses on specific examples and experiences of digital culture and practice. He has published work around conflict with online finance communities, economies within the virtual game world and practices of online grieving and mourning. He is currently researching digital transformation and the quantification and visualization of individual digital footprints and digital identity. Other works include examination of science fiction and the use of science fiction prototyping in business development and innovation.