Squid Game and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Achintha Isuru
4 min readJan 11, 2022

Introduction 🔴

I bet all of you have either watched or at least heard of Squid Game by now. In any case, if you haven’t, Squid Game is a South Korean tv show written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. As of November 2021, it is Netflix most-watched series, passing more than 1.65 billion viewing hours during its first month from launch. Now you may be wondering what a tv show has got to do with some hierarchy. Before we get to that, let’s understand what Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 🔺

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological concept proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 journal Psychological Review article “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It displays human requirements as five hierarchical tiers within a pyramid in a five-tier form. Physiological needs (food and clothes), safety (job security), love and belonging (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization are the needs from the bottom of the hierarchy up. Let’s describe them individually,

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

1️⃣ Physiological Needs

These are the very basic needs that a human body needs to survive like food, drink and sleep. Maslow considered this as the most important need and all others to come in second until these needs are fulfilled.

2️⃣ Safety Needs

The second level of human needs is safety needs. After achieving the physiological needs people want to take control of their life and their safety. These can be achieved by obtaining a house or a property and attaining financial security (through employment).

3️⃣ Love and Belonging Needs

After achieving safety needs, the next level of needs is the need for love and belonging. This means interpersonal relationships, affiliating and being a part of a social group.

4️⃣ Esteem Needs

Self-worth, accomplishment, and respect are among the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow divided esteem needs into two categories: self-esteem (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and esteem for others (reputation or respect) (e.g., status, prestige).

5️⃣Self-Actualization Needs

The highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization needs refer to the realization of a person’s potential, self-fulfilment, personal growth, and peak experiences. This level is defined by Maslow as the desire to achieve everything one can, to become the best one can be.

The writers of the TV show Squid Game have done an outstanding job depicting how people in the lower half and top half of this hierarchy operate in society. In the next section, we’ll go over this in further detail.

How it all Connects… 🟥

First of all, let’s look at the background of the characters who are recruited to play the squid game. For example, let’s consider the main character of the show, Seong Gi-hun or player 456. He is a divorced chauffeur who is also a gambler. He lives with his mother and is financially unable to support his daughter. He plays this game to pay off his numerous debts and to establish his financial stability to gain custody of his daughter, who is about to travel to the United States with her mother and stepfather. Let’s take a look at Kang Sae-byeok’s backstory, who is the show’s major female character. She is a defector from North Korea. She joins the game in hopes of finding money to pay a broker to transport her parents across the border and to purchase a home for her reunited family. If you compare these two backgrounds, we can see that both of them are struggling to fulfil their psychological and safety needs which are the most basic human needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy. This was not something unique to only these two characters; in fact, all of the characters who played the game except player 001, to whom we will get to later, struggled to meet these two sets of needs in their life. The series depicts the lengths to which people would go to meet their basic requirements. Especially at the end of the series, it shows how people will even kill their friends to win the prize money, which would help them fulfil those two needs.

Now if we look at our VIPs, they are the embodiment of the people who have already achieved the first four levels of the hierarchy pyramid and are now seeking different thrills and experiences to achieve the self-actualization needs. This comes to its peak when the main VIP chooses to participate in their own game as a player (player 001). He chose to do it because, as he states at the end of the series, the feeling he gets while playing the game is one he does not receive while watching as a spectator. That sensation delighted him; it provided him with a new experience and a sense of purpose that he couldn’t have purchased with all of his wealth. The funny thing is that even though the VIPs have fulfilled their first four levels of needs, they still took extreme measures to fulfil their self-actualization needs, which was no different from the players who played their game.

Conclusion 🔴🔺🟥

I think now you have a better understanding of how the TV show Squid Game depicts how people living at the two ends of the hierarchy can be very similar to each other and yet so different.

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