A charming social game

Molly Ghinn asks what’s behind the popularity of the game Among Us.

Among Us is a multiplayer social deduction game that has boomed in popularity since August 2020, over two years after its initial release. Its sudden success is in large part due to our increased socialising over screens due to the pandemic. But what sets it apart from other forms of escapism and ways to kill time? 

One obvious appeal of the game, which is similar to the party game Mafia (also known as Werewolf), is the element of nostalgia because of its familiar format. It has attractive graphics, is easy to play with minimal technological skill, and is free on a smartphone or computer. The hardest part is probably downloading it from the app store.

Although Among Us can be played anonymously, the chat function, which is essential to the game, encourages communication between players as they decide who to vote out as the suspected ‘imposter’ among the crewmates. It’s a highly social game with a novel way of connecting people. Players can remain in the same ‘lobby’ for multiple games, or invite friends to join. The social side of Among Us extends outside of the app onto various social media platforms, most notably YouTube, Instagram and the streaming platform Twitch. An online culture has developed among fans, prompting the creation of niche memes and the use of Among Us lingo, creating an in-group and reinforcing a sense of belonging. The involvement of famous figures has made the game even more appealing – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, live-streamed a game from her Instagram.

Among Us is easy, attractive, social and timely – the four components of the ‘EAST’ framework to encourage behaviour, developed by the Behavioural Insights Team. The combination of these four simple principles has no doubt led to the success of the game. Unlike many of the game’s competitors, the developers, Innersloth, chose not to incentivise gameplay through rewards. This may be another reason for the game’s success, in preventing failure or fatigue. Within each short game, the completion of simple tasks provides small bursts of immediate satisfaction, achieved through minimal cognitive engagement. The app avoids spamming users with notifications or reminders to play, and games are completed on average within ten minutes, requiring minimal commitment.

Among Us was in the right place at the right time – an innovative way to socialise from a distance. I think it unlikely that the fad will stand the test of time. Screen fatigue, the release of new socialising platforms and the gradual easing of social distancing rules will eventually contribute to the app’s decline in popularity, leaving it in a graveyard of games alongside Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. But for now, there seems to be great charm in the unobtrusive, easy-going nature of this social game. Among Us allows a brief untaxing escape from perpetually gloomy news, a chance to connect with others.

-       Molly Ghinn is a Psychological and Behavioural Sciences student at the University of Cambridge

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