‘Among Us’ game symbolism hits too close to home

If you’re a parent, the past year may have felt like the longest of your childcare life. There have been hassles and complications in setting up distance learning and ensuring that children actually log into their lessons and submit their assignments. Then there is the need to keep them busy outside of school hours, at a time when sports and many of their favorite in-person activities are off limits.

Commentator Joe Mathews knows how it feels. He and his wife have three boys in primary school. In this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California,” he says he became concerned about how one of his sons spent a lot of time during the pandemic playing the video game called “Among Us.”

Read Mathews’ column below:

A recent night, I told my 10-year-old junior to take out his iPad. A few minutes later, he handed me and each of his two brothers a different little piece of paper. “It’s who you are,” he said.

“The impostor”, said my diary.

My son did not question his paternity. He was trying to replicate, with paper and pencil, an internet game he and millions of others are playing during the pandemic. It’s called “Among Us”.

I learned to fear this game, and not just because he’s playing it when he should be doing his homework. “Among Us” is far too close an approximation of California horror, in this time of COVID and recall.

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

Occasionally, often after someone is dead, players call meetings to determine who the imposters are. These gatherings are filled with accusations, denials, and deceptions. Misinformation and bad faith are so widespread that no one can discern what information is reliable (just like Twitter). Identity politics — who is good, who is bad? — are so captivating that no one has time to think about where the ship is going (just like the California government).

As in real life, the truth does not govern. The crowd does. At the end of each meeting, players vote to throw someone out of the ship, into the void of space. It’s only after the vote that players learn if they’ve killed an impostor or sent in a loyal teammate. Fear and Paranoia build up until teammates win – by completing their tasks – or Imposters win by killing all teammates.

Watching my son play and artfully deceive others, I 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 in 2020, spreading even faster than the coronavirus – hitting 60 million players a day last fall (compared to 30 million COVID cases in the US) .

“Among Us” also reminds me of the recall debate in California. Is Gavin Newsom an impostor, for himself instead of representing the state? Are the Trumpy Republicans behind the recall posing as loyal California teammates? Who should Californians vote for the ship? And leading Democrats sound like fearmonger actors in “Among Us” when they claim that losing the governorship to a Republican for just one year (until the 2022 election) will mean losing power in California – a state where they hold all other statewide positions and huge legislative supermajorities

I have previously written that the recall vote could inspire new thinking about how to fix the state’s dysfunctional system of government. But systemic change may be impossible in a world “among us”. It is terribly difficult to build the future when you are questioning the motivations of others and re-challenging the past.

My son tells me he likes to be the impostor and outsmart people. And that night, when he recreated the game with scraps of paper, he and his brothers quickly identified me as the impostor.

I didn’t deny it, but I suggested that they too could be imposters. I noted that in the Christian tradition we are all broken, all sinners, and therefore somehow all imposters. So why waste precious time voting to jump ship?

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

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

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