All’s Fair in Space and War
The Appeal of Deception in Among Us
Among Us is a space-based deception game that is brilliant in its simplicity. In any given round, there are a number of crewmates (typically 8 in a full game) and a number of impostors (typically 2 in a full game, for 10 total). The crewmates have to perform simple tasks such as taking care of various aspects of a spaceship, sorting artifacts, and so on. The impostors have to sabotage them and kill them all before they can finish their tasks. When a body is found and reported (both crewmates and impostors can report bodies), a debate starts, reminiscent of games like Mafia or Town of Salem. At the end of the debate, both sides vote on who they think is an impostor (or to skip the vote, if they aren’t sure). If a player gets the majority of the votes (without tying), they are ejected to their death. If the crewmates manage to finish all their tasks or eject all of the impostors, they win. If the impostors manage to tie the number of crewmates, they win. (For example, the game would end if there were 2 crewmates and 2 impostors, because the impostors could force a tie on the voting until they manage to kill everyone).
Among Us had relatively little success when it came out in 2018, but after a couple of famous twitch streamers tried it out, the game exploded in popularity in mid-2020. So why did a game with such (relatively) simple gameplay become such a phenomenon? The answer is deception. We appreciate impressive acts of deception—they can be both beautiful and horrifying. Consider the popularity of documentaries about serial killers and shows like How to Get Away with Murder.
Despite our fascination, most people don’t participate in major acts of deception because we regard them as immoral. Something like a prank (a minor case of deception) is usually harmless, but deceiving someone to take their money, property, or life causes real harm—and seems inherently much more wrong.
Among Us fills a unique niche, by providing a toy domain where we can deceive with malicious intent to our heart’s content with the reassurance that we aren’t actually harming anyone. When playing or watching Among Us, we know that nobody is really getting hurt, freeing us up to perform an alluring but typically immoral act of major deception.
In fact, our desire for the forbidden beauty of deception is so strong that occasionally players will play “third impostor,” a process where a crewmate doesn’t report bodies, sows distrust, or otherwise deceives their own team, with the goal of making themselves lose the game. The urge for deception is therefore so strong in these cases that it overrides the player’s innate need to win.
In many cases, video games are popular because they allow us to escape to another world for a while. In the case of Among Us, it is a world that lets us live out our desire for deception with the comfort that no one is really being hurt.
However, is it true that no one is hurt? Perhaps we hurt ourselves by acting deceptively, and perhaps we risk hurting others by becoming deceitful. Virtues are desirable qualities, the kind of qualities, like honesty, that make a person a good person. Virtue ethics stresses the cultivation of virtues and the development of good character through repeated actions. And obviously, we don’t want to become deceptive, immoral people.
The question, then, becomes: If we behave deceptively when playing Among Us, will that make us behave deceptively outside the game? In other words, if we foster the bad habit of lying to deceive others inside the game, will that bad habit leak into our “real” lives as well?
It’s undeniable that media in general has an effect on us. Music pumps us up or helps us relax, television makes us happy or sad, and so on. In fact, our mood is influenced a great deal from media. Video games affect us as well. Some games are made to be incredibly relaxing (AER – Memories of Old), while others are made to be completely infuriating (Getting Over It). However, these are short-term effects. What we are really interested in are the long-term effects–are we eroding our virtue over time by encouraging bad habits of deception in Among Us? I would argue that we are not.
We play games such as Among Us because they are games. That is to say, games such as Among Us provide a toy domain where we can “maliciously” deceive to our heart’s content, but we know that it is all in good fun and we aren’t actually hurting anyone! As such, there is a big difference between carrying out acts of deception in real life and carrying out acts of deception in a video game. Rational adults can tell the difference between these actions, and would not let their deception carry over into the real world.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Some people are more susceptible to having their real-life actions influenced by media. However, video games are not alone in this regard. Violent acts have been inspired by all forms of media, including:
- 15 cases of crimes inspired by the robbery in the movie Dhoom
- More than 15 crimes inspired by the movie Special 26
- Many copycat murders inspired by the movie Scream
- The first Twilight movie inspired a teenage male to bite 10 other students
- Multiple real-life murders were inspired by the show Dexter
- Multiple violent acts, including school shootings, inspired by the book Rage
- Multiple sexual assaults and murders inspired by the book The Collector
- A man killing at least 15 people and citing his inspiration as the song “Night Prowler”
- Charles Manson being inspired by the song “Helter Skelter” (unlike the others on this list, the song itself wasn’t violent)
Clearly, violence has been inspired by all different types of media: books, music, tv shows, and movies. However, we wouldn’t say that these types of media are “corrupting” in the general sense. I believe we should treat video games in the same manner. There are always going to be undesirable acts inspired by video games, but that doesn’t make the games themselves responsible for the acts.
Acts of deception in Among Us will not erode our honesty. We can indulge without fear that we are corrupting ourselves or potentially putting others in harm’s way.
Once the next major type of media comes out, people will stop claiming that video games corrupt us and start claiming that the new media does. In the words of the legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll.”
Dr. Brandon Packard is an assistant professor at Clarion University, where he coordinates the Video Game Programming Concentration and runs an online Game Creation Camp in the summer. His research interests are video games, AI, and machine learning, and the ethical implications thereof. In his spare time, he enjoys playing video games and working on programming projects.