The hit Netflix show draws from schoolyard games played in Korea—and thankfully, the stakes are much lower IRL.
WHEN LIM YONG-SU, 58, watched the dystopian Korean drama series Squid Game on Netflix, he was ecstatic. The show, likely to be the service’s most successful, features 456 contestants vying for 45.6 billion won ($38 million) by playing a series of childhood games once popular in Korea . As president of the Yeongi Folk Museum, an institution devoted to preserving the region’s relics and traditional Korean play, Lim is the go-to person for all things Korean game-related.
While he was quick to point out that many of the games are not traditionally Korean (but remnants of Japanese colonialism), he says he’s ecstatic to see the games he played as a kid become visibly mainstream. “I was really good at Squid Game, because I was one of the strongest. Everyone wanted me on their team. I got hurt over and over again–scrapes everywhere you could imagine and ending up in the hospital with a broken arm once–but I never stopped loving the games,” he told WIRED over the phone.
Here’s a breakdown of how the games are featured in the series versus how they are really played, by the people who played them best, and links to online versions of the games.
(Spoiler alert: Details from several episodes, including the finale of Squid Game, follow.)Preliminary Game: Ddakji
As seen on the series: This appears halfway through the first episode when a mysterious man (Gong Yoo) approaches main character Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) in the train station and asks him if he would like to play a game. The “solicitor” opens a suitcase with neat piles of cash and two colors of ddakji (folded paper tiles). “Each time you win, I’ll give you 100,000 won,” he says. The solicitor drops his red ddakji to the floor, and if Gi-hun can manage to flip it over by slamming his blue ddakji on it, he wins the money. If not, the solicitor gets to slap him across the face.
Prep: Ddajki can be made with hard paper. In the aftermath of the Korean War, when paper was difficult to come by, ddajki was typically made with out-of-date calendar strips and used notebook covers. In the ’70s and ’80s, handmade square ddakji were phased out by circular kinds sold in stores featuring popular cartoon characters or the faces of baseball stars. You can find instructions on how to make ddakji at home here or play with pogs and milk caps, which is essentially the American version of the game.
How to play: The game requires two or more players. According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture, there are four ways to play ddakji, but flipping, the kind played on Squid Game, is the most commonly known version.
1. Play rock, paper, scissors to see who will go first.
2. A places ddakji on the ground.
3. B attempts to flip it over by slamming their ddakji hard onto it.
4. Switch turns.
Whoever succeeds in flipping over the opponent’s ddakji first is the winner.
Pro-tip: Yohan Yun, 29, says that ddakji briefly came back in popularity when he was about 5 years old and claims to have been a “master ddakji player” in his neighborhood of Dong-ducheon. The trick is to analyze the ddakji and target that ddakji’s weak points, he says. “A flatter ddakji is more likely to flip over if you hit its corners, while a thicker ddakji moves with the motion of your ddakji so you have to hit it flat on its center,” he insists.Game #1: Mugunghwa Kochi Pieotseumnida (The Rose of Sharon Has Bloomed)
As seen on the series: The first official game played in Squid Game is led by a creepy, giant doll with motion-sensor eyes. The players are lined up against one end of the playground, and they can move only when the doll turns away from them and chants “mugunghwa kochi pieotseumnida.” Players that move when the doll is facing their direction and players that don’t make it across the finish line before the allotted time of 10 minutes are shot and killed.
Prep: One of the beauties of this game is that it involves zero prep, but hardcore Squid Game fans can purchase costumes from third-party retailers online.
How to play: Netflix translated the title of the game to “Red Light, Green Light,” no doubt because the rules of the games are similar. Both allow for an unlimited number of players. Here’s how to play the Korean way:
1. Play rock, paper, scissor to see who will be “it.”
2. The player who’s “it” stands at one end of the room while the rest of the players line up on the other end.
3. That player then faces a wall or a tree, opposite the players, and chants the 10-syllable phrase. At this time, the players are allowed to move.
4. When the “it” player is done chanting, they turn around and pick out players they see moving.
5. Players that have been picked out must now be “chained” to the “it” player by holding hands or linking pinkies.
6. A. If a player successfully reaches the opposite wall (or tree), and there is a chain, the player can free the chain by manually breaking the hand hold. (Some versions of the game have all players freed, while others just free those manually torn apart.) Those free of the chain can run away.
6. B. If a player successfully reaches “it,” she or he can tag the “it” player and run away.
If you are tagged by it, you are the new it. The goal here, similar to tag, is not to be the new it.
There are more complex takes of this game, where a different move must be had if the “it” player calls out a different chant. See example here.
Pro-tip: Claudia Lee, 33, remembers being “quite good” at this game when she was a child. She says coordination and prudence are keys to winning. “The closer you get to it, the more careful you have to be, because all your movements will be more visible,” she says. If you’re it, and you want to trip up the other players, play with how quickly you say the syllables. TikToker @mykoreandic shows how.
How to play online: There are dozens of versions surfacing on Roblox. We recommend the one titled “Squid Challenge: Red Light, Green Light by Time Only.”Game #2: Ppopgi
As seen on the series: In Episode 3, the players are taken to a playground where they have to stand at one of four doors, each adorned with a different shape: triangle, circle, star, and umbrella. Once the game has started, each player is given a case that holds a round, sweet treat—the series uses the translation “honeycomb toffee”—with the aforementioned shape pressed into it and a needle. Players have 10 minutes to chisel out the shape from the treat or be shot to death.
Prep: There are dozens of recipes for how to make dalgona candy, which is similar to ppopgi but uses glucose in lieu of plain sugar, and *Squid Game–*inspired kits that offer up all the ingredients in one package. The recipe is essentially sugar and baking soda quickly heated up over a ladle, but if you need a visual to walk you through the process, this New York Times instructional makes the process crystal clear.
How to play: Ppopgi are usually not made at home. Although ppopgi stations are not as common as they once were, Korean children purchase the treats from vendors set up outside elementary schools or playgrounds. If you manage to eat around the pressed shape, the vendor rewards you with a second. Back when ppopgi was more popular, Lim says, the vendor would give you the easiest shape–the triangle–first before gradually giving you the more difficult ones. The honest way to play is breaking off the larger chunks then nibbling around the shape’s edges.
Pro-tip: Using apparatuses of any kind is considered cheating, but Lim says licking the entire candy and then scratching out the shape with any tool with a thin, sharp end is the best way to win. (He’s used this method to get as far as the star shape, but has never seen the umbrella, he confesses.)
How to play online: There is an effect on TikTok that gives you 15 seconds to cut out one of four shapes with your nose. Make sure to tap on your main screen before the time starts, because there’s not a moment to lose with this version–especially if you get the umbrella.Game #3: Tug of War
As seen on the series: Featured in Episode 4, this game has two teams of 10 facing off against one another on an elevated platform with an opening between them. When the losing team is pulled off the platform, the rope connecting them is cut via a guillotine in the center and they fall.
Prep: Traditional Korean tug of war, or juldarigi, is one of four variations of the game that is listed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List and involves a rope almost 5 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Making, repairing, and guarding the rope was an essential part of the game, but if you’re not willing to go that far, all you need is a conventional rope.
How to play: Split into two teams and position each team at opposite ends of one rope. Draw a line in the middle, and have each team pull at the rope until one side is brought across the line.
Pro-tip: High school gym teacher Cho Yong-du, 53, says that he’s overseen dozens of tug-of-war games throughout his 30-year career, and he’s never lost a team he has led. He says the advice that Player 001, or Il-nam, gives on the episode is spot on:
“Place the rope in the middle and have the players go on alternating sides of it. There should be one player to the right, then another player to the left, and so on. Place your two feet straight forward and stick the rope between your armpits so you could give the rope all your strength. And, lastly, this is the most important thing, for the first 10 seconds of the game, you just have to hold out and you have to practically lie down. Push your lower abdomen to the sky, push your head back to the point where you can see the groin of the person in front of you.”
Fun fact: Lee Kwon-ho, a researcher at the National Folk Museum, says each region had their own take on the game, but it was common for the game to be divided up with married men on one side and women and unmarried men (because they weren’t considered “real men”) on the other.Game #4: Marbles
As seen on the series: This game appears in Episode 6. The players pair off in twos, and each person is given one pouch of 10 marbles. An overhead speaker announces the rules: Their partner will be their opponent, not their teammate, and the objective is to “take all 10 marbles from your partner” in 30 minutes. The show features three kinds of marble games:
1. Throwing: According to Ji-young (Lee Yoo-mi), who is paired off with Kang Sae-byuk (Jung Ho-yeon), they are apparently free to make their own rules. The two play one round in the last few minutes by seeing who can throw it the farthest.
2. Guessing: Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) explains to Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), who has never played the game before, that the “even-odd” version of the game is played by guessing whether the number of marbles in your opponent’s hand is an odd number or an even number.
3. Flicking: Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) and his partner take turns throwing marbles into a hole they’ve dug. “If your marble reaches the hole, then you get to take all the marbles on the ground,” Deok-su says.
Prep: Most of these games can be played with round rocks, but you can also purchase marbles similar to the ones on the show.
How to play: According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture, the most popular way to play guseulchigi (hitting marbles) is quite similar to billiards. It requires two or more players.
1. First, draw a triangle into the ground.
2. Place any number of marbles into the triangle.
3. Position yourself and your opponent equidistant from the triangle. Using your middle finger and thumb, flick one of your marbles into the triangle and try to knock out the placed marbles. Any marbles you knock out are yours.
4. If your marble touches the triangle’s lines or stays in the triangle, then you lose any marbles you’ve won thus far. This is called tohagi (vomiting).
5. A winner is called when there are no more marbles left in the triangle or when only one player is left standing and all other players have lost their marbles.
The objective of most marble games is to collect as many marbles as possible. Winning often meant that you got to keep your opponent’s marbles. Yujin Jeong, 19, said she remembers playing marbles in the small playground in front of her house and, whenever she and her brother were able to win, they “sold” their marbles to other kids in exchange for money or tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), a popular afternoon snack for kids.
Pro-tip: Jeong says when she played against her brother, she almost always lost—no matter which version of the game they were playing. “When playing versions of the game where you flick the marble, it’s important to calculate how hard you hit them, as they’re pretty fragile. For the odd-even version, psychological warfare is important. My brother told me things like ‘try again’ or ‘I’ll give you a chance to rethink your answer.’ I think that’s what made him so good.”Game #5: Glass Bridge
This game is not a typical children’s game, and unless you have millions of dollars to design a lethal glass bridge, there’s no way to play in real life. Online versions of this game are, however, being developed. Try “Squid Game, Glass Game” by @CloudlyCouch on Roblox.Game #6: Squid Game
As seen on the series: The actual “squid game” game appears twice on the show. First, Gi-hun explains the game in the opening scene of the series, flashing back to a memory of himself playing it as a child. Then Sang-woo and Gi-hun face off for the finale in Episode 9. A coin toss decides who will be offense and who will be defense, and Gi-hun, who wins the coin toss, chooses to play offense. The two are led to a mock schoolyard where an announcement of the rules is made: “First, the attacker needs to go into the squid drawing, run past the defense, and tap the squid’s head with his foot to win. Second, the defender must push the attacker out of the drawing to win. Three, should a situation arise in which one of you cannot continue playing, the last one standing wins.” Shortly after the game begins, the final two players take out their knives to fight to the death.
Prep: You need a large space, like a schoolyard, where you can draw the outline of the squid on the ground. The outline typically looks like this.IMAGE BY HAHNA YOON
How to play: Each region calls the game by a different name, and there are a dozen variations of the rules. It’s typically played by elementary-school-aged boys in two groups of four or more and is better known by kids who live in the countryside, as the game takes up a lot of space. Lee theorizes that the game faded in popularity during the early ’90s when it became more common for kids to attend hagwon (private academies for extra study).
- First, the players must divide into two teams.
- Play rock, paper, scissors to see who will play offense and who will play defense.
- The offense starts at the head of the squid (A) while the defense waits inside the body. The area outside the shape is considered offense territory and vice versa.
- The offense must hop on one foot, from point A to the midway point (B). This point can be called secret inspector, river, or bridge, among others, depending on which version of the game you are playing.
The offense wins by:
- escaping past the defense at the midway point (B), then gaining the ability to use both feet, or
- entering the squid’s body at (C) and combating the defense until reaching (D).
The defense wins when each member of the offense team gets disqualified. A player can be disqualified when:
- a player steps on a line, or
- a player uses two feet before being allowed to do so, or
- a player is pushed into the opponent’s territory.
For a step-by-step tutorial of a kid’s version of this game, try this video in Korean.
Pro-tip: Front man (Lee Byung-hun) tells the VIPs that, “of all the games kids played back then, it was the most physical and violent.” As such, Lim says strength is essential to this game: “The best way to win is to have strong players, but a good alternative is to team up with players that are really good at hopping on one foot.”
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