It’s a fight in the realm of public opinion, which has been poisoned by bad-faith actors whose lies are threatening to overcome the truth. That sure sounds like the political environment we inhabit, but I’m talking about Among Us, the hugely popular indie video game where disguised killers stalk a crew of astronauts as they try to repair their broken ship and escape with their lives.
Among Us has become a favorite of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has now live-streamed herself playing the game twice. The most recent stream, the day after Thanksgiving, brought in an audience of more than 2 million viewers. Her youthful, relatable communication style and commitment to bringing her message into the digital realms where many conservatives have been thriving for years makes it a savvy choice. (It isn’t “authentic” but authentic: Ocasio-Cortez really is a gamer.) But the gameplay of Among Us itself offers a fascinating reflection of the politics of our time, not to mention the specific public relations battle AOC is waging online.
In Among Us, crewmates are assigned tasks to fix their vessel while imposters sabotage the work and seek to kill as many crewmates as they can. Crucially, the game is never really won on tasks; instead, victory turns on the periodic rounds where players discuss who the imposters might be and vote to eject suspected imposters from the ship. Here, perception is everything and lies are inescapable. Like President Donald Trump having his signature printed on pandemic-relief checks that Democrats proposed and fought for over Republican objections, an imposter who successfully claims to have completed a task may gain more credibility than a crewmate who really did one. Achievements are therefore worthless unless you succeed in getting the credit for them, and the liars create, then benefit from, a pervasive atmosphere of confusion and mistrust.
Public discussion and voting interfered with by liars seeking only to sabotage the process and sow paranoia and doubt? Yeah, that’s politics as we’ve come to know it in 2020. The Trump presidency has made it clear, at least for the current moment, that truth has nowhere near as big an advantage over lies as we would like. It took a worldwide pandemic and more than 200,000 American deaths for a message about Trump’s incompetence and indifference to American lives to stand a chance against Trump and his allies’ repeated, barefaced lies and multiyear campaign to undermine the public trust in government, media, science, and expertise.
Taking the metaphor a bit further, many ordinary Republican voters have functioned like “marinated” players in Among Us. When an imposter marinates a player, they stay near them without killing them for an extended period of time, hoping the other player will then vouch for them as not being an imposter, because they had a chance to kill and did not. Right-wing figures in media and politics function similarly when they engage in constant, low-level criticism of the mainstream press and their political opponents: The point is to make people distrust those targets and trust them, implicitly, instead. If they’ll swallow the little lies now, maybe they’ll accept a big lie later.
By streaming Among Us, Ocasio-Cortez is putting into practice her stated ideas about bringing progressive values into online spaces that have been dominated by far-right figures. Twitch is one of those spaces, due to the excess influence over gamer culture by far-right racism and sexism, along with YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and many more. Just as in the gameplay itself, her tactics must be persuasive, relational, and reputational, contending all the while with smears and lies intended to make people doubt her intelligence, competence, and sincerity. As in Among Us, the stakes are life and death, particularly for poor Americans facing food insecurity, unemployment, and evictions in the midst of a pandemic that has changed how everyone lives. During the first stream, when Ocasio-Cortez caught on to the possibility that the streamer Toast was marinating her, her relative newness to the game allowed Toast to overcome her objections and undermine her word to the other players—Toast prevailed, and the imposters won that round.
As outreach, streaming Among Us works for Ocasio-Cortez because she seems to be having a blast, entering the fiction of the game wholeheartedly and giving it her best, but remaining light-hearted and friendly throughout. During her first stream of the game, her fellow representative Ilhan Omar posted the specs of the PC she used, accomplishing something similar.* By entering gaming culture as enthusiastic participants, both politicians showed the gaming community that they can meet them where they are.
Among Us has managed to distill everything unsettling and wrong about American public life into a cheery, cartoonish setting, one which is so accessible and easy to play that my 9-year-old niece and I enjoy it together in easy, digestible chunks of 20 minutes or less. Sadly, the same cannot be said about American political life, however cartoonish it may be, which has become grating in just about any increment, and also doesn’t come with an option to log off.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2020: This post originally misspelled Ilhan Omar’s first name.