In 2018, Bijan Stephen described Fortnite in The Verge as a “global living room”. He argued that the game is primarily notable not for its battle royale gameplay, its reliance on micro-transactions or the candy-bright colour scheme that came to define several years of online aesthetics, but as a medium through which social interactions play out. Fortnite heralded the beginning of games as social media, providing a kind of lingua franca composed of references, jokes and dances that extended into the offline world of more than 200 million players.
Play of all kinds has always been a proxy for social learning and connection. Inside and outside the classroom, games are used to teach children complex lessons about communication, boundaries and navigating invisible social dynamics. In the era of global living rooms, these social dynamics play out on a wide variety of virtual backdrops. From the rise of Zoom drinks to gamified social media platforms such as Houseparty, 2020 saw platforms fight to provide social spaces to accommodate socially distanced relationships.
In March 2020, just as the World Health Organization announced a pandemic, Animal Crossing: New Horizons stepped neatly into this space.
In New Horizons, you are a resident of a small island-based community. You can choose from a number of peaceful activities that unfold in real time, from decorating to relaxing with your fellow island residents, from growing flowers to collecting bugs. For an additional yearly fee, Nintendo Switch Online allows players to access network features, including visiting others’ islands and hosting guests in return.
Soon friends were hosting movie nights, birthday parties and treasure hunts on their islands. Alongside informal Discord communities, unofficial websites such as Nookazon or The Bell Tree Forums – where players could discuss strategies, or organise the trading of recipes, items, villagers and in-game currency – quickly sprang up around the game, as the creative possibilities that island design offered bred a new kind of passive social competition. The sudden popularity of New Horizons triggered a global shortage of Switch consoles; 26 million copies of the game were sold in 2020, as people rushed to create islands of their own.
But a living room – virtual, global or otherwise – is a responsibility, as anyone with Zoom fatigue (or New Horizons performance anxiety) can attest. It is a curated, intentional space, and sharing that space with others requires time, care, attention and responsibility. Online social platforms, including video games, are designed to keep you engaged; within a system of social features that relies on consistent, active communication, the nuances of a truly social space are lost.
These platforms fail to reproduce the contours of social experience, where gesture, silence and simple proximity contribute to a feeling of intimacy as much as conscious actions and words.
In November 2020, the four-person development team InnerSloth reported that their 2018 sleeper hit, Among Us, was hosting an average of half a billion players each month. Standing in stark contrast to the highly curated, gentle spaces of New Horizons, Among Us is a fast-paced, chaotic, social strategy game of suspicion, murder and infighting.
The central loop is simple: you are a cosmonaut in a small crew who are completing maintenance tasks around a ship, knowing that at least one crew member is a murderous impostor. The crew wins by identifying the impostor (or impostors) and voting to eject them from the airlock, or by having every crew member complete their tasks. The impostor can win by murdering – or persuading the crew to eject – each crew member, or sabotaging enough tasks to end the game.
It is free to play, with a massive multiplatform reach, and offers the option to play on public or completely private servers. With the exception of some modified private servers, players are only able to message each other in the pre-game lobby, or during brief meetings before they vote on who to eject from the airlock. The character design feels pointedly anonymous: players choose from one of 12 standard character colours before each game, and then from a small range of accessories, with an even smaller range of extra accessories available for $2 a pop.
Rather than cultivating a welcoming sense of place, as New Horizons does through its offering of gentle domestic ministrations, or individuality – which Fortnite achieves through its slew of victory dances and costumes – Among Us feels kind of feral. It plays like a Flash game that somehow escaped Adobe’s 2020 purge; you lurk around the ship in silence, waiting for the first murder. When a body is found, an emergency meeting hosts a flurry of accusations and a swift vote on who to eject. There are only three possible maps, which never change, and your tasks are randomly assigned. The brief playtime alleviates any sense of performance anxiety the player might experience in another strategy game, and it is easy to opt out of messaging entirely.
It gives a player huge control over the extent to which they engage directly with other players, while still maintaining a presence in a social sphere. Sending one message doesn’t suggest a commitment to sending another; saying nothing doesn’t create a silence that needs to be filled. Any player can quit at any time, and each game is so short it barely makes a ripple. Spontaneous pranks, spooks and jokes, both physical and verbal, are common as the games play out.
The appeal of Among Us lies in this sense of the indifferent, the uncurated and the incidental. Rather than a global living room, it might be more pertinent to think of Among Us as a public place. With its brevity, impersonal character design, lack of customisation and conspiratorial tone, it’s a game that re-creates not the centre of your party, but the periphery of someone else’s. In addition to the liberatingly casual nature of the game, its celebration of harmless, joyful suspicion is a balm.
The speculation that accompanies each death naturally encourages the surreptitious pleasure of gossip. In a crisis, it’s easy to forget that these more savage pleasures are critical bonding experiences, too – they are natural ways to process stress, reinforce social bonds and let off steam. On a social platform that relies on direct communication, gossiping can seem cruel or negative. Among Us provides a virtual space that allows for the processing of less wholesome forms of sociability, without the emotional responsibility of a sustained Zoom call or New Horizons visit.
Among Us recalls the less intentional, less domesticated internet of decades past. It’s rare to see the need for this kind of incidental, undirected socialising accommodated in contemporary digital spaces. The game’s indifference to its players’ presence, absence or choices allows real social interactions that stem from spontaneity rather than engagement-driven design. For those of us who are starting to tire of life in the living room, it’s a welcome departure from the highly curated approachability of other popular social video games.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Proximity chat".
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