What’s behind the game’s startling rise in popularity?
Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about why Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the perfect escapist fantasy for people during the pandemic. A digital Eden. A tranquil island to chill out on while the world is on fire.
Among Us is a very different sort of vibe.
As Taylor Lorenz explains in The New York Times:
Among Us is a multiplayer game where between four and 10 players are dropped onto an alien spaceship. Each player is designated a private role as a “crewmate” or “impostor.”
Crewmates must run around the ship and try to complete a set of tasks while trying to root out and avoid getting killed by the one or several impostors. Players can be voted off the ship, so each game becomes one of survival: successfully vote off the impostors, or complete all your tasks to win.
It’s basically the Gen Z version of Cluedo.
The game originally launched back in June 2018. Not much noise was made about it at the time. We were all too busy going places and living in pre-pandemic bliss, I guess.
Flashforward two years, and the game is suddenly everywhere: YouTube, Twitch, TikTok. Influencers across different platforms started playing and livestreaming the game, sharing it with a much wider audience. In November, Among Us was the most downloaded mobile game WORLDWIDE with over 50 million users installing the app.
So why has the game, two years after its launch, suddenly struck such a chord with people?
Ever considered ejecting one of your family members into space?
Look, eight months is a long time to be stuck at home with your nearest and dearest. People get on each other’s nerves: messy work stations, forgotten tea cups, missed bin days. Domestic dramas that used to be easily bypassed are a lot harder to ignore when you can’t escape the other person’s company.
The setting of Among Us (a creepy, seemingly endlessly defect-ridden space ship) and the key aims of the game (kill everyone else or eject the person trying to kill everyone else) really seems to have captured something of the mood of 2020.
Lockdowns and social distancing have left a lot of us trapped in our houses for prolonged periods of time: it’s pretty claustrophobic. I think people can relate to the rickety confines of an alien space ship a lot more now than they could in 2018. Sure, the inside is kinda grim and there’s a serial killer on the lose, but at least its not the oblivion and guaranteed death of deep space!
On top of this, the murderous nature of the game and ensuing suspicion that falls on every player also speaks to our current cultural moment. The thing about viruses is that anyone could potentially be a carrier. Sure they look fine. They look healthy. But they could be infectious. We’ve all become, I think, a little more wary and suspicious of other people in social settings these days. The imposters of Among Us are almost accidental virtual avatars for our frustrations with corona; like a stowaway killer on a spaceship, coronavirus has wrecked and completely altered how view traditional social gatherings and etiquette.
I’m aware that these seems like dark reasons for enjoying Among Us. Potentially I’m making it seem like everyone is secretly a psychopath who hates the people they live with. I honestly don’t think it’s quite that dire; rather, I think people are frustrated right now (economic disaster and global health crises can do that to a person), and Among Us captures that sense of being trapped, suspicious and frustrated perfectly.
But that’s not all the game does.
A more optimistic interpretation of the game’s surge in popularity is the social nature of its multi-player format.
Haven’t seen your friends in months? Invite them to a murder space ship and hang out! Sure, some of you are going to be virtually slaughtered and potentially hurt by your friends’ ruthless decision to chuck you into space in an attempt to save themselves, but at least you won’t catch corona in the process!
Since school closures were announced way back in March 2020, there has been a lot of discussion around the toll that continued social isolation can have on people – especially children and teenagers. With anxiety and mental illness already at alarming rates pre-pandemic, the ongoing reality of limited social contact is definitely exacerbating such issues.
What Among Us can offer is a safe, digital space for people to meet up and connect with their friends, or even random strangers. It’s an accessible and safer alternative to meeting up in person. The game creates a virtual social space and a means of alleviation some of the potential loneliness of lockdown. Which is actually pretty sweet.