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What Is Among Us? A Primer for Parents on the Game All Your Kids Are Playing

When it comes to the available options on the shelf of metaphors, earthquakes get pulled out quite a lot. Whenever there is any large-scale, disaster-style event happening, reporters and journalists rush headlong to reach for earthquakes. There’s been no shortage of earthquake metaphors deployed in 2020, and quite justifiably so.

The reason earthquakes make for such a great metaphor is down to the way their effects are staggered. The damage done by quakes famously isn’t confined to just the initial seismic upset, but by the aftershocks that follow. Aftershocks, no mere auxiliary, can be immensely damaging themselves. Sometimes, if the quake is an underwater one, the after-effects can take the form of a tsunami that is orders of magnitude more destructive than the initial shake. And the thing about that tsunami is that it can often be hard to see coming. Until it makes land.

The coronavirus earthquake that has shaken the world in 2020 has likely triggered a tsunami the effects of which we will only fully feel over the coming years and perhaps decades to come: A rolling crisis of mental health. Unlike the economic damage, much of which has been felt and remarked upon already, the harm done to our collective mental health will take longer to rise to the surface. The seeds of the mental health crisis being planted right now will only become noticeable once they take terrible root. Both sides of the crisis are, of course, also deeply related and intertwined. From the uncertainty and trauma of mass unemployment and job insecurity, to the hollowing out and in some cases total destruction of our social networks and personal support systems, the coronavirus of 2020 will be felt for a long time even after its most visible, immediate effects have faded. Those most affected will likely be children and young people. More than any other demographic, their developing brains cry out for socialization and in-person interaction.

The coronavirus lockdowns being enacted around the world have been vital components of the efforts at controlling the spread of this deadly pandemic. Nevertheless, the price has been steep. Humans are social creatures. For us to be confined to our homes, away from our friends and family, for months at a time, is punishing indeed. The very nature of interpersonal interaction has been transformed from a casual, benign, happy experience, to a poisoned chalice, a silent killer hitching a ride in your shadow.

It sucks, is what I’m trying to get at.

It sucks and we all know it sucks, but we have to do it anyway. We have to stay indoors as much as possible, for the common good.

It’s no wonder then that in this strange and aberrant context, video games–already the most rapidly ascendant medium–have seen their popularity explode even more. We’re all locked up, trapped indoors with our screens and controllers for company. What better environment for gaming to thrive? The Nintendo Switch, to take just one example, has seen sales go through the roof during the long months of 2020, with figures from March being more than double of the same period a year earlier. Stocks of the console ran dry in multiple places around the world as people turned to the warm, comforting glow of the screen and the reassuring grip of the analogue stick.

One of the games that has seen the biggest surge of all is a little game called Among Us.

You may have heard of Among Us. It has captured the zeitgeist like many entertainment properties hope to, but few manage. Among Us has taken over the internet and bled out into the real world. It has inspired memes, videos, parodies, t-shirts, plushies, and even a sitting United States congresswoman to live stream it in an effort to encourage younger people to vote (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitch, along with Ilhan Omar, and a number of huge names from the gaming world earlier in October for a record-breaking stream).

Put simply, Among Us has been everywhere in 2020. But there’s one demographic who don’t need to be told that. There’s one group of people who already know just how all-encompassing Among Us has been, and they might know that without even having heard of any of the memes or videos or streaming politicians. I’m talking about parents. If you have kids, you’ve heard of Among Us. If that’s the case, you might know Among Us the same way parents have known countless things down the ages: Totally, yet not at all. Through your kids, Among Us might well be a constant presence in your house, yet one about which you know nigh-on nothing at all.

If that’s the case, then consider this the piece for you. What exactly is Among Us? Let’s do a quick primer.

Among Us is, essentially, a paranoia simulator.

Okay I hope that helps! See you later!

No, you want more? Bloody impossible to please, aren’t you? Okay.

So you know that feeling when you’re in the office (ha, remember those?) and you get up from your duties to go into the office kitchen to fetch yourself a coffee or a slice of the office cake? Right, you pause whatever important task you’re doing, and you saunter over to the kitchen. The door slides shut behind you, and you approach the counter where the cake is. You pause, reach for the cake, when suddenly it hits you. The smell! The gas! The knowledge!

There’s only one conclusion.

Some saboteur let off a fart in this kitchen at some point before you got here, and you have stumbled into the scene of their transgression!

Stumbling out of the kitchen in horror and reeling with complete disbelief that this crime could have taken place, you raise the alarm. Somebody has done the unthinkable. Everyone must be gathered, alerted, and the culprit has to be found. Justice must be done. You gather your co-workers and tell them what has transpired, all the time sweeping your eyes over their faces, searching for the tell-tale sign of guilt. The looks that greet you are of course a mixture of wide-eyed shock and baleful reproach. Yet you know that somewhere in that herd of sheep, there sits a wolf. It’s your job to find it, while also averting any suspicion that you might have been the one to do the deed.

This is, in essence, what Among Us is, except instead of the office, it’s a spaceship, and instead of a fart, it’s murder.

Among Us is a free-to-play online multiplayer game that is available on mobile phones on both the Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. It’s got a simple and charming 2D cartoon style, in which you view the spaceship in a sort of cross-section, your colorful little character running around its various sections, from the engine room to the deck, the endless field of unknowable stars occasionally glimpsed when you wander into an area close to the ship’s hull.

When you start the game, the system randomly allocates one player (or more, depending on the overall number of players) as the Impostor. Only the Impostor knows who they are. Their job will be to roam the ship, same as everyone else, except while the rest of the crew work to maintain the ship, the Impostor will be aiming to sabotage it, and to pick off the crew one by one in the claustrophobic and limited visibility corridors and rooms of the ship.

The Impostor’s challenge is to appear just as everyone else: Diligently trudging from task to task, fixing up the engine or heating or whatever else the game allocates. The crew, of course, know there is a killer among them, and so while enacting their chores they will be keeping their eyes peeled for any odd behavior among their glimpsed co-workers. Did Orange loiter in that hallway for a little bit too long? Was Blue actually fixing up that comms equipment or were they just pretending until someone turned their back?

When someone does turn their back on the Impostor, and they judge the coast is clear, that is when they strike. A quick hit and a splash of bright red cartoon blood later, the Impostor scarpers away, putting some distance between the body and them, quickly and smoothly slotting themselves back into the routines of the ship so as to appear as far away from the crime as possible. Eventually, of course, the body is discovered, and the alarm is raised. The game pauses and the action switches from ship maintenance to lively discussion. “Who is the Impostor among us?”

Despite being in many ways the game of 2020, Among Us was first released in mid-2018, and it almost didn’t survive to even reach 2020. Developed by little studio InnerSloth, Among Us didn’t make the biggest impact at the time of release. It was appreciated by some players, but industry commentators noted the somewhat shabby nature of its release, support, and promotion. InnerSloth themselves noted that they almost gave up on Among Us multiple times, only continuing to build on things and develop the game due to a vocal and devoted, if small, fanbase.

Then, in mid-2020, something happened. Among Us was picked up by online video game communities in South Korea and Brazil. The hugely popular video game streaming site Twitch became host to many of its biggest names playing the game, spreading its popularity to millions of the site’s users. The interconnected nature of the internet’s social media ecosystems meant that clips from Among Us would easily go viral on micro-video sharing sites like TikTok. American Twitch streamers soon picked up on the trend and the game’s rise into the stratosphere accelerated even further. As of September this year, Among Us had over 100 million downloads.

That kind of immense popularity wouldn’t be possible without a great gameplay hook. Among Us has that in spades. I remember the rush I felt the first time I played it and the game paused, its screen flashing with the dramatic notification “Dead body reported!” I was playing with five of my best friends. We happened to be playing together, in person, at a responsible socially distanced separation. The instant that screen flashed, we all shot looks at each other, the air between us crackling with tension and mischief. I wasn’t the Impostor that round, so I gave each of these people, who I had known for decades at least, the most searching look I could muster. Every twitch of the mouth, every blink of an eye seemed loaded with meaning.

Somehow, with Among Us, that feeling is replicated even when the players aren’t gathered in person. In fact the atmosphere is perhaps even more charged when you don’t have the option of trying to read a person’s face and body language. Every time the game pauses, the “Who is the Impostor among us” discussion has one of two outcomes. The players all vote on who they think the culprit is, and whoever the plurality votes for gets ejected out of the airlock. This will either be the Impostor, and the game is won by the crew, or it will be an innocent member of the crew, and the Impostor lives to kill another day, rubbing their hands silently in glee at the quickly ratcheting up air of paranoia and tension. With each wrong guess by the crew, the Impostor gets closer and closer to either sabotaging enough of the ship, or killing enough of the rest to win. The discussions can quickly get more insistent yet unsure, accusations flying thick and fast, denials—both sincere and disingenuous—even more so.

This charged atmosphere, in which you try to read closely the actions and words of people, is the key to the game’s appeal. It would be a powerful hook in normal times. During the unprecedented coronavirus crisis of 2020, it has been imbued with even more potency. People are starved of human connection. They are craving personal interaction. Already stretched to breaking point by forty years of neoliberal capitalist individualism, our societies lie fractured and atomized. Adding a global pandemic onto that, with its necessity of reducing in-person human interaction to absolute minimum, means that it is hard to think of another time when we were all quite so reduced to our bare selves, units of one and twos adrift in a heavily populated yet suddenly oh so lonely world.

Among Us gives people the chance to experience that feeling that now seems so distant and surreal: Of a group of friends just getting together and causing mischief among one another. Among Us simulates this incredibly well. You boot the game up and board the spaceship with your friends, and for a few minutes you can forget about the globe-altering pandemic raging outside, how separated you all are, and how much you miss seeing the faces of your friends. No, in Among Us the most deadly thing present in your company is the fundamentally harmless, cheeky lie at the heart of game, and playing it together hearkens back to the feelings conjured up by childhood games of pretend. Of silly untruths and the joyful laughter of getting one over your friends. With the coronavirus pandemic likely hurting young, developing minds more than any other, it’s no wonder that Among Us–with its central mechanic hinging around the application of social intelligence–has caught on like wildfire.

Just, you know, as parents you might want to work on your poker face detection skills.

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Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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