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The games played in “Squid Game” are important to South Koreans as they created their childhood and are significant in spreading South Korean culture and history.

The Real-Life History and Traditions Behind Those Deadly ‘Squid Game’ Games

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Editor’s Note: The following story includes spoilers about “Squid Game.” If you want to experience all the twists and turns in the series, read this after you finish binging!

“Squid Game,” a South-Korean nine-episode limited series, currently tops Netflix charts at number one. This Korean drama is set in one of many marginalized areas in South Korea as it shows those in debt due to rising income inequality in one of Asia’s richest countries. “Squid Game” introduces Seong Gi-hun (played by actor Lee Jung-jae) who is a middle-aged man, in debt, due to his gambling addiction. Gi-hun later encounters a man at the subway station and the man asks if he would like to play a simple game to win some money. Gi-hun ends up agreeing and gets into a van where he is knocked out by a gas for a few hours.

As soon as he opens his eyes, he is met with more than 400 other players in a huge gym-like room. The 456 players, who are all in debt, are required to play a series of games where one can win up to 45.6 billion won (or about 38 million U.S. dollars). The first game begins as the players are required to walk into a big room, painted with colors that have the color scheme that you would see at a preschool, but the players are clueless of what bloody disaster would soon occur.

For those who have completed “Squid Game,” here’s everything you need to know about the history and the traditions of the games portrayed in the “Squid Game” series.

  1.     Red Light, Green Light

Mugunghwa kkoci pieot seumnida, also known commonly as Red Light, Green Light in America, is a childhood game played widely in South Korea even today. The ‘mugunghwa’ (hibiscus) is the national flower of South Korea and “kkoci pieot seumnida” means that the flower has bloomed. This game takes place in the very first episode of “Squid Game.” This game is played with children as the majority stands on one end of an area and the person who is chosen to be “it” stands at the other end. The person who is “it” must stand with their back to the group facing something like a tree, to prevent them from seeing anything. This is when the “it” person says “mugunghwa kkoci pieot seumnida” and the rest of the children run towards the “it” person before they can finish the phrase. As soon as the “it” person turns around, everyone must freeze and anyone who is seen moving is eliminated and joins the one who is “it.” The game continues until one successfully touches the person who is “it” and everyone will run away, freeing those who have been previously eliminated. 

This game is the very first deadly game in “Squid Game” as the players face a huge doll with installed cameras that takes the role as the “it” person. If a player is to move the slightest when the doll is facing them, they are to be eliminated (killed). The players must cross the finish line before the timer runs out. If they fail to do so, they are automatically eliminated.

  1.     Dalgona (Sugar Honeycomb)
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Dalgona, also known as sugar honeycombs in the series, is a traditional South Korean candy that has the soft texture of a sponge and has the taste of toffee candy. Children would run to street vendors that sell dalgona after the school dismissal bell rings. Dalgona is also another word for ‘ppopgi” which means to pick or select. Dalgona was created after the Korean War. Some parents could not afford sweets for their children during that time so they created a version of their own candy called dalgona. Dalgona is created by melting sugar in a ladle-like spoon which then uses a pinch of baking soda to create the cloud-like texture of the candy. The candy is imprinted with a design like a heart or star, and the children must eat carefully around the pattern, without breaking it. Some vendors in Korea will give you another dalgona candy or a small prize, if you successfully eat around the candy without breaking it. 

The dalgona game is the second survival game in “Squid Game” as the remaining players must carefully eat around the shape they randomly choose, as a crack in the candy would mean death. The players must use their knowledge to find a way to take out the pattern from the candy as carefully as possible with a time limit. Some patterns are more difficult than others, increasing the pressure and anxiety of the players. 

 

  1.     Juldarigi (Tug-of-War)

Juldarigi, also known as Tug-of-War, is the third game in “Squid Game.” Although the origin of Tug-of-War is uncertain, Juldarigi is a game played in South Korea that many people participate in. The sport of Tug-of-War has also been added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List recently, due to it being an essential event mainly played in sports events at schools in South Korea. The game starts with an equal number of people on each end of a rope. Those holding the rope must pull at the same time hence the name “tug.” 

In “Squid Game,” Tug-of-War is the game that eliminates numerous people because many players have to participate in the game in groups. Each group goes up a high platform to reach their area for the game. Most people would conclude that if the other team is stronger than theirs, then the other team would win, but not only does strength have a part in winning; strategy, teamwork, and unity are also extremely important. Although the directions and rules for the game are like the Tug-of-War game we played as kids, this game is played at an extremely high level that causes death if you fall from the platform. This means that the players have to play this game with their life at stake. 

 

  1.     Marbles (Gganbu)
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There are multiple ways you can play marbles. One of the most common ways is called ‘hol-jak-gwa ssam-chi-gi’ where you must guess how many marbles are in your opponents’ hand. The answers can be odd or even. Guessing it correctly will allow you to get the marbles from your opponent. If you guess incorrectly, you must give your marbles to the opposing player. The player who has all the marbles at the end of the game will win the round.

The word “gganbu” is focused in episode six in the series as it is a slang word that means “really close friend,” which highlights the friendship between Gi-hun and his partner. The marbles sequence  in “Squid Game” could be one of the most touching and heart-breaking scenes in the entire series. The players are required to find a partner since there are no set rules for the game. Multiple players die during this episode, with half of the players getting eliminated.

  1.     Squid Game

The final game that ties up the series is the show’s title. This game is played on a drawing on the ground with the pattern of a triangle above a square with two circles right above and below the triangle and square. The players can be tagged as either offender or defender in this game that is often played during recess at school. The defense must stay inside the line and the offense will stay outside the line while trying to move into the squid. The attacker must reach the small space between the circle, but defense has the ability to push you which will lead to elimination.

“Squid Game” closes off the series as the main character, Gi-hun, and his best friend, Sang-woo (played by actor Park Hae-soo), play head-to-head. Because only one player can win the prize money, many viewers feel this is one of the saddest and tragic scenes in the series. 

“Squid Game” is about much more than just thrill and excitement. It is a social allegory that is informed by the history and culture of South Korea. You may think that the games have no deep meanings, but the games played in “Squid Game” are important to South Koreans as they created their childhood and are significant in spreading South Korean culture and history while also sharing fun and enjoyment.

Above image courtesy of Netflix

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comments (1)

  1. Helena M.

    Really interesting to read, I didn’t know a lot about Korean history or culture so this helps foreigners open their eyes to deeper connections in the series!