Squid Game: A Breakdown of Cultural History
Squid Game has quickly become one of Netflix’s most popular shows. Not only is it mysterious, interesting, and fun to watch, it’s different from other shows on Netflix because of its Korean origins. It also focuses on key issues such as poverty, greed, and what human beings are willing to do for money.
The story follows several players who are deeply in debt and taken to an unknown location to play various games. Upon winning the games, the remaining player will receive a huge sum of money. Many non-Koreans may not be aware of the deep cultural and historical roots of the children’s games in the show which is what this blog aims to address.
Squid Game: Red Light, Green Light
The first game played in Squid Game is Red Light, Green Light. Most people are likely familiar with this game because it is popular among children all over the world. Often, it involves one player turning their back away from the rest of the players and chanting “Red Light, Green Light, one, two, three,” and then turning to face the other players.
Only while the single player is speaking are the other players allowed to move. Once the lone player stops speaking and turns back towards the others, the rest of the players must freeze in place or be eliminated.
In Squid Game, Red Light, Green Light follows the same rules, except elimination means death. The lone player in this case is a large robot girl. The design of this robot is not random, however. It is actually designed off of characters, Cheolsoo and Younghee, from an old Korean children’s story book.
Also, instead of saying, “Red light, Green Light,” during the game, the robot instead sings, “The Mugunghwa flower has blossomed.” Interestingly, the Mugunghwa flower is Korea’s national flower. It is a symbol of strength and resilience since it appears to bloom forever.
In the next game, the players remaining from Red Light, Green Light are given cookies with certain shapes imprinted into them. These shapes include an umbrella, a star, a circle, and a triangle. The aim of the game is to remove the shape from the cookie without cracking it.
Dalgona cookies became popular in Korea during the 1950s because they were cheap to make during the economic struggles at the time, requiring only sugar, baking soda, and heat. In real life, as well as in Squid Game, removing the shapes from the cookies was a challenge. In Korean, the challenge even has a name: ppopgi. Sometimes, the vendor of the cookies would give children an extra treat if they were able to fully remove the shape from their cookie.
In the show, removing the shapes from the cookies proves to be a difficult task until one of the characters figures out that licking the cookie to soften it is a great solution. This was a trick from the show’s actual director and writer, Hwang Dong-hyuk, who discovered the technique as a child.
Tug of War
Tug of war, or juldarigi, is another game familiar to most people. Two teams are divided and made to pull a rope from opposite sides. Whoever pulls the rope from one side to the other wins. While in western culture, tug of war was a fun children’s game, in Korea, it was often used to bring together different communities and bring about successful harvests. The game was traditionally played on the first full moon, according to the Lunar calendar.
Tug of war is one of the oldest and most culturally rooted Korean games. Traditional games of tug of war even had special ropes that differed village to village.
The next game is playing with marbles. The trick to this game is that the players can make up any rules they want to play with the marbles. Playing with marbles is an especially old game in traditional culture and is often familiar with Korean children and young adults today.
This is seen in Squid Game when many of the younger characters don’t know what to do with the marbles while the older characters know exactly what they’re doing. It was especially popular during the 1960s and 1970s.
While the next game in the show is an exceptionally dangerous game of hopscotch, the final game is one of the most important: squid game. Squid game gets its name from the squid-shaped diagram drawn on the ground consisting of triangles, circles, and squares. Two teams play, one team blocking the other from entering the home base at all costs.
Squid game in real life was known as one of the most violent children’s games. Defense players would push, scratch, and shove the offense players to prevent them from crossing the game’s barriers. It’s extremely competitive and players would often finish the game with their clothes torn up and battered. The show’s director specifically chose this game for the show’s title because of its intense competitiveness and violence reflected in today’s society.