Within the first hour of Netflix’s new blockbuster show Squid Game, more than 200 people are gunned down in the highest-stakes game of Red Light, Green Light known to man. The deaths—and there are hundreds more over the course of the show’s nine-hour runtime—only get grislier and more emotionally fraught as the show goes on. Which, of course, makes Squid Game perfect fodder for the TikTok meme machine.
The overall premise of the Korean-language drama is fairly straightforward: A group of people who have each racked up millions of won in debt are invited to compete in a series of games where the potential prize is a huge cash reward and the penalty is death. Since the show premiered on Sept. 17, the TikTok hashtag #SquidGame has been viewed more than 39 billion times (yes, you read that correctly: billion with a B). Of the hundreds of thousands of videos collected under #SquidGame, many are what you might expect: simple clips of the show set to sad music or fan theories. There are also makeup tutorials. And a lot of general horniness for South Korean model and actress Jung Ho-Yeon, who plays Kang Sae-byeok (or Player 67) in the show.
And then there are the memes, most of which focus on the games featured in the first and second episode of the show.
There are two primary memetic trends involving the show’s deadly take on Red Light, Green Light. Both of them use the sound from a clip of the show where an animatronic doll very creepily and catchily sings “mugunghwa kochi pieotsumnida” (the name of the Korean iteration of Red Light, Green Light). The first iteration of the Red Light, Green Light trend is, yes, you guessed it, people playing a (suspiciously well-choreographed) game of Red Light, Green Light.
The second is far more interesting and follows a typical TikTok convention where users edit themselves into the world of a TV show or film. TikTok edits can range from highly produced to extremely low budget—Squid Game edits tend to fall toward the latter end of the spectrum, with many opting to just use the app’s built in green screen feature.
Meanwhile, others on TikTok are opting to try out the second game from the show, where players have to attempt to cut a shape out of dalgona candy or risk a summary execution. Like the Red Light, Green Light trend, this nondeadly version of the dalgona game has a few different iterations. The first usually just features one of the many pairs of disembodied hands of the internet, demonstrating how to make the dalgona out of sugar and baking soda.
Other versions follow users as they attempt to then cut the shapes out without breaking them.
And then of course there are the jokes.
It’s not surprising that TikTok has latched onto Squid Game: It’s currently Netflix’s most-watched show, surpassing Bridgerton, another TikTok phenomenon in and of itself. The show’s popularity, along with its inclusion of easily mimicable games made it ripe for a trend cycle, of which this very website is taking part in. And unlike Bridgerton: The TikTok Musical, which saw users writing and performing musical renditions of scenes from the show, taking part in Squid Game content requires little to no musical talent. Squid Game memes are, however, another example of how quickly the internet, and TikTok specifically, manages to turn everything—even a gruesome piece of social commentary about financial desperation—into a joke. It’s a little uncanny, if not unexpected, to watch (in many cases, mostly American) users debate whether they’d survive a game that preys on the despair and strain of insurmountable debt. And it’s more than a little funny watching TikTok turn a show about the ethics of spectatorship into yet another spectacle to be viewed and consumed and replicated.
Still, there’s already an element of satire to Squid Game, with its adult-sized kid games and its almost one-dimensional depiction of the billionaires who come to bet on them. It would be too easy to look at the videos above and label them insensitive. The Squid Game meme cycle, in all its gleeful gaucheness, is just turning the dial one notch further—satirizing the already satirical. No, the award for Squid Game thoughtlessness belongs not to teens on TikTok writing themselves into the world of Squid Game for a laugh but the usual worst meme offenders: brands.
It’s almost as if corporations, in their eagerness to seem hip, failed to actually grasp the message at the heart of Squid Game. And if there is a worst of the worst, that honor goes to Hyundai, which, in attempting to capitalize on a show where the main character is an exploited former car factory worker traumatized by the violence he saw carried out against his fellow workers, managed to become something of a meme itself.