If you aren’t familiar with the trending game Among Us, I think it’s worth finding out more about, because I think its viral-ity comes at this particular time (summer 2020) for specific reasons in the collective unconscious. It is an indie game made by a small creator, not a big gaming company. It has been around for a few years, but only now went super viral. I wanna look at why it exploded so huge they cancelled a sequel.
In Among Us, you play in a self-explanatory group game of ten people. You are astronauts arriving at an abandoned space ship and fixing it back up. Each of you has a set of trivial tasks to do. They’re tiny minigames like connecting 4 pairs of dots or swiping a card through a reader. If you do, you win. But there’s a catch: one of you is an Imposter, an assassin bent on killing everyone. Each time a dead body is found or an emergency button is pressed, a meeting is called and somebody is voted off the ship and thrown into space.
Simple enough? It’s a digital variant of a game many of us played when we were young called something like “assassin”, where heads would go down, an assassin would pick somebody to die, and the group had to identify who it was.
Why now? The game has been around but few played it. Suspend your disbelief and assume for a moment my frame of reference: I like to think there are almost no coincidences like this in the world, only complex patterns we fail to identify. I tend to think at least most viral things go viral for a reason, and that reason has to do with the online humanity at the time, even if we never do discover why a thing gets popular.
Right now Americans are roped in the drama of another political election, a massive high stakes game of deciding who to trust. We’ve had a terrible year, with members of society reporting each other and covering their faces with masks. We have had violent riots and a breakdown in many formerly-civil public discourses. After a rough summer, many people are looking for something to settle down and tune out even while paying attention to the news. Perhaps they’ve already decided who they’ll vote for and put it out of mind. 2020 has been a long year filled with looking for who to blame, and it has torn down our ability to trust each other and anything, and we have been desperate for a way to cope with it.
Enter Among Us. Twitch streamers started playing it in the early phase of 2020 but critical mass was hit right as the summer was ending and all of a sudden almost everybody I know online is playing this little 5 dollar game. It’s FUN, but so are a lot of games. Seriously go play it some. If you like, you can try playing with friends! It’s a barrel full of laughs. Go look up YouTubers playing it if you’re coming totally from the outside.
I think Among Us is what we needed. We needed a childhood game to serve as a simulator of being betrayed or literally back-stabbed. Those worth their salt in the psychological professions will tell you that exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways at helping people overcome their mental challenges – their fears and phobias. We’re SO TIRED of 2020 we don’t want to think about it anymore. And yet, we’re looking for a “new normal”, a new way to look at the world that isn’t discouraging and can help us move forward in spite of the fears. Having a videogame where you do it is a good way to practice.
Maybe I’m optimistic, but I like to think Among Us is going to have a massive positive dampening effect on the culture. I think in time there will be less incentive to protest in the streets. Maybe we can’t ignore the challenges of trusting other people in news and media any longer, and need an easy way to start doing it. Maybe we need to practice working together in spite of things we fear. Maybe we need to bond with friends or even total strangers as we take turns in a group being a devious monster and then laughing about it.