Joe Mathews: The symbolism of the game ‘Among Us’ hits too close to home

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"Among Us" Photo by Pixabay.

If you’re a parent, the past year may have felt like the longest in your childcare life. There have been hassles and complications of setting up remote education, and making sure the kids are actually logging in for their classes and submitting homework. Then there’s keeping them occupied outside of school hours, at a time when sports and many of their favorite in-person activities have been off-limits.

Commentator Joe Mathews knows how that feels. He and his wife have three boys in grade school. In this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California,” he says he’s become concerned with how one of his sons has been spending a lot of time during the pandemic playing the video game called “Among Us.”

Read Mathews’ column below:

One recent night, I told my middle child, 10, to get his off iPad. Minutes later, he handed me and each of his two brothers a different small piece of paper. “This is who you are,” he said.

“The Impostor,” my paper read.

My son was not questioning his paternity. He was trying to reproduce, with paper and pencil, an internet game that he and millions of others are playing 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 doing homework. “Among Us” is far too close an approximation of the awfulness of California, in this moment of COVID and recall.

“Among Us” is a multi-player game: 10 people are on a spaceship heading somewhere. Eight of the 10 are informed, at the start of each round, that they are “crewmates,” who maintain the ship. But two are “impostors,” who sabotage the ship, kill crewmates — and try to get away with it.

Every so often, often after someone turns up dead, players call meetings to determine who the impostors are. These gatherings are full of accusations, blame-shifting, and deception. Disinformation and bad faith are so prevalent that no one can discern what information is reliable (just like Twitter). The identity politics — who is good, who is bad? — are so engrossing that no one has time to think about where the ship should be going (just like California government).

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 the vacuum of space. Only after the vote do the players learn whether they’ve killed an impostor, or if they’ve dispatched a loyal crewmate.  The fear and paranoia build until either the crewmates win — by finishing their tasks — or the impostors win by killing all the crewmates. 

Watching my son play and cunningly deceive others, I’ve found myself thinking of the late French philosopher René Girard, who taught at Stanford, and his theory that human societies respond to conflict by identifying and destroying scapegoats. The game reminds me of his observation: “When we judge, we are always in a psychic space which is circular.”

“Among Us” launched in obscurity in 2018, took off during 2020, spreading even faster than coronavirus — reaching 60 million players a day last fall (versus 30 million U.S. COVID cases). 

“Among Us” also reminds me of the California recall debate. Is Gavin Newsom an impostor, out for himself instead of representing the state? Are the Trumpy Republicans behind the recall posing as loyal California crewmates? Who should Californians vote off the ship? And leading Democrats sound like fear-mongering players in “Among Us” when they claim that losing the governorship to a Republican for just one year (until the 2022 elections) will mean losing power in California — a state where they hold every other statewide office and huge legislative supermajorities

I’ve written previously that the recall vote might inspire new thinking about how to fix the state’s dysfunctional governing system.  But systemic change may be impossible in an “Among Us” world. It is awfully hard to build the future when you’re interrogating other people’s motives, and re-litigating the past.

My son tells me he loves being the Impostor and outsmarting people. And on that night when he recreated the game with slips of paper, he and his brothers quickly identified me as the Impostor.

I did not deny it, but I suggested that they, too, might be impostors. I noted that, in the Christian tradition, we are all broken, all sinners, and thus in some sense all impostors. So 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.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews