My Son’s Favorite Internet Game Replicates the Paranoia Playing Out in California

Among Us Captures This Awful Moment of COVID-19 and Gubernatorial Recall

My Son's Favorite Internet Game Replicates the Paranoia Playing Out in California | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Among Us fosters an atmosphere of fear that hits a little too close to home for columnist Joe Mathews. Courtesy of InnerSloth.

One recent night, I told my middle child, 10, to get his off iPad. Screen time was over. A few minutes later, he handed me and each of his brothers a different small piece of paper, folded over to obscure what he had written on it.

“This is who you are,” he told me.

“The Impostor,” my paper read.

My son was not questioning my sincerity or his paternity. He was trying to reproduce, with paper and pencil, an internet game that he and millions of others started playing obsessively during the pandemic. It’s called Among Us.

I’ve grown to fear this game, and not just because he plays it when he should be in Zoom class or doing homework. The more my kids play it, the more I realize Among Us is far too close an approximation of the awfulness of California, in this moment of COVID-19 and gubernatorial recall.

Among Us reproduces the paranoia that’s become rampant in our state, and in our society—our current sense that nothing is for real and no one is to be trusted.

It’s a multi-player game: 10 people are on a spaceship heading to an unknown destination. At the start of every round, each player is told, separately and secretly, of their role on ship. Eight of the 10 are “crewmates,” who must maintain the ship. But two are informed they are “impostors,” who must sabotage the ship and kill the crewmates—and try to get away with it.

Every so often, and typically after someone turns up dead, players call a meeting so they can try to vote out the impostor. If you work in media, universities, politics, or high-profile organizations with bitter internal divisions, you may have been in conversations like this. It’s full of rapid-fire accusations, calling people out, specious flattery, blame-shifting, deceptive claims of innocence, and outright lies.

In Among Us, as in real life, truth does not govern. The mob does. At each meeting’s end, the players vote to throw someone out of the ship, into death in the vacuum of space. The deliberation takes less time than California’s legislature requires to rubber-stamp new laws in the frantic last hours of session. Only after the vote do the players learn whether they’ve gotten it right and killed an impostor, or if they’ve dispatched a loyal crewmate.

As the game continues, the fear, paranoia and accusations ramp up. Players use security cameras to surveil each other. The game continues until either the crewmates win—by finishing their tasks before everyone is dead—or the impostors win by killing all the crewmates.

The identity politics—Who is good, and who is bad? Who is for real and who is not?—are so engrossing that no one has time to step back and think about where the ship should be going (just like in matters of California’s government).

When I’ve played with my son, I’ve annoyed him, and other players, by asking questions about the spaceship’s overall mission for humanity. My interest in the larger purposes of all this conflict is seen as pointless; the conflict is the point. In the Among Us meetings, the disinformation and bad faith are so prevalent that no one can discern what information is reliable (just like on Twitter). And the identity politics—Who is good, and who is bad? Who is for real and who is not?—are so engrossing that no one has time to step back and think about where the ship should be going (just like in matters of California’s government).

Watching my son play cunningly, with real skill at deceiving others, I’ve found myself wondering what the late French philosopher René Girard, who taught at Stanford, would make of Among Us. Girard theorized that conflict is the result of human beings imitating each other; societies overcome such conflict by identifying and destroying scapegoats. The game reminds me of his work, and his observation: “When we judge, we are always in a psychic space which is circular.”

A clever Vice essay described the game (which debuted in 2018), as reproducing the COVID conundrum and 2020 itself: “ever-cascading crises, and people trapped in a sense of isolation while they try to solve problems for which they are woefully unequipped.” But Among Us actually spread faster than coronavirus—reaching 60 million players a day last fall, while COVID-19 cases in the U.S. just crossed 30 million.

Among Us is made by a company called InnerSloth, based in Redmond, Washington, but the game, in requiring so much play-acting, fits California, where 160,000 people are members of the union representing actors.

Among Us also reproduces the recall debate. Is Gavin Newsom an impostor, out for himself instead of representing the state? Or is it the Trumpers and Republicans behind the recall who are posing as loyal California crewmates? Who should Californians cast off the ship? And leading Democrats sound like fear-mongering kids in an Among Us game when they claim that losing the governorship to a Republican for just one year (until the 2022 elections) will mean they lose power over California—a state where, regardless of the recall outcome, they will control three-quarters supermajorities in the legislature, every other statewide office, and every significant public institution.

I’ve written previously, and hopefully, that the recall vote might be the occasion for a real public discussion about how to remake the governance system and constitution of the state. I think our young people have the energy and ideas for this. I marvel, for instance, at the new worlds my kids build when they play another game—Minecraft—that encourages constructive thinking and imaginative designs. (In recent years, my kids’ teachers have had them re-create California missions on Minecraft for their 4th grade reports.)

But thinking systemically may not be possible in an Among Us world. It is awfully hard to build the future when you’re spending all your time obsessing about authenticity, interrogating other people’s loyalty and motives, and re-litigating the past.

My son tells me he loves being the Impostor—he likes the feeling of outsmarting people. And on that recent night, when he recreated the game by assigning family members Among Us identities with slips of paper, he and his two brothers quickly identified me as the Impostor.

I did not deny it—one shouldn’t lie to the children, even in games—but I suggested that they, too, might be impostors. I told them about the impostor syndrome, the psychological term for the people who doubt their own accomplishments and fear being exposed of the fraud. And I pointed out that, in the Christian tradition, none of us is truly innocent, that we are all broken, all sinners, and thus in some sense all impostors. So, I asked, why waste precious time voting people off the ship?

At that, my son rolled his eyes, and told me that I don’t know how to play the game.


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