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Why are we all so damn obsessed with death game TV?

By Jack Ramage

Oct 16, 2021

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Squid Game, the Netflix phenomenon—which has since become the most-streamed series of all time on the platform and has boosted Korean media stocks a whopping 50 per cent—has definitely got the world turning heads… Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot involves a scene where individuals are kidnapped and forced to play a series of games to win prize money—if they lose, they die. The ‘death game’ concept adopted by many other series, from The Hunger Games trilogy to Alice in Borderland, has had a significant rise in popularity over the last decade or so. But why are we so drawn to the hellish dystopian landscapes—the fictional scenario of characters placed into a game which is literally: sink or swim; kill or be killed?

Why do people love death game TV?

There’s something strangely gripping about the scenario of human beings being stripped down to their primal instincts—void of social inhibitions. In essence, it is the ‘what if’ which is fun to fantasize about. People like to imagine themselves as winners—reasoning their way through the borderline of unfair puzzles and impossible situations. But let’s be realistic, games have losers—and with the survival rate of Squid Game being 1 in 456, would you take your chances?

Within the death game genre, there is usually one particular trope that draws in the viewers: the main character is usually just an average person. In Alice in Borderland, Ryōhei Arisu is just a normal guy—it’s an aspect that makes him actually quite endearing. He’s not particularly strong and struggles to apply himself in the real world—the main character is void of Hollywood perfectionism, which gives him a level of relatability, the ‘I could be that guy’ feeling. Seong Gi-hun, the gambling-addicted father who is the lead star of Squid Game is the same: he isn’t particularly impressive and only makes clever moves when it counts. People love to root for the underdog, and the storytelling of these shows have tapped into that.

But what about the science?

Okay, so that might be stating the obvious, but what about all the psychological research explaining why we’re all so obsessed with death game TV? Surprisingly, when digging for details, I was left empty-handed. Indeed, there is a wealth of information on why we’re drawn to the horror genre but not specifically the death game genre. Researchers, if you’re reading this, you know what to do—the world needs to know…

Luckily, there are a few points we can draw on to explain why Squid Game has made such an impact over the last month. Research in the Journal of Media Psychology found that people watched horror movies for three reasons: tension, relevance and unrealism. For some, tension from the shock and thrill of a horror or thriller movie can be an entire experience of its own. Others are drawn to the relevance—as mentioned earlier—with specific characters the viewer can relate to in a dystopian universe. For others, horror can be a satisfying experience of ‘unrealism’—the enjoyment of knowing, for a fact, that it’s all fake anyway. 

To put it simply, it’s complicated. “There are different experiences people have while watching horror movies,” Doctor Katherine Brownlowe, an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Bustle in an interview. “Some people enjoy the gore, some people like being startled, and some people love the sheer escapism it offers.”