Village Life: “Among Us,” but Not Us — video game brings up painful American truths

By Vivian Kao

My older son is eight years old, and like most eight-year-olds, he goes through phases in which he gets obsessed with certain things.

About a year ago, it was professional wrestling. He had a group of friends at school who watched WWE, and through them, he learned the names of all the wrestlers, their signature moves, their costumes, their backstories. He checked out biographies of wrestlers from the library and created an impressive mental catalogue of WWE information. Most notably, he tried out all the moves on his 2-year-old brother. To this day, the little one will pull down the front collar of his shirt and yell, “Big Shooooow!”

He finally outgrew that phase about six months ago, with no broken bones suffered by the toddler and most of our furniture still intact, so we considered ourselves lucky.

Then there was a soccer phase, a Disney phase, a magic phase, a shoe phase. Currently, he’s into video games. We allow him to play a handful of select games—MarioKart, Minecraft, 2K- Something-or-Other that allows you to play with real NBA players—no blood, gore, language, violence, or weapons. Lately, he’s been asking to play Fortnite, which, after a little research, I’ve vetoed until he hits double digits in age.

But there’s also this game called “Among Us” that he really, really, really wants to play. He nags and begs, begs and nags, reminding us constantly that he’s the only kid in his class who doesn’t play it—even his teacher’s kids play it—so it couldn’t be that bad.

In December, “Among Us Day” was part of his school’s pre-winter-break Spirit Week. I’m not kidding. It was a day devoted to the video game. All the kids were invited to dress up as one of the game’s characters. He told me that his teacher showed them how to play the game on Zoom during their virtual class meeting, though I did not witness this myself. I believe him, though.

It’s an incredibly popular game. Its Wikipedia page says that YouTube videos about “Among Us”  were viewed 4 billion times and downloaded 100 million times in September 2020 alone, and TikTok videos about the game had over 13 billion views in October 2020.

After hearing about this game nonstop for two months, I decided to find out more about it. It’s a multiplayer game that takes place on a spaceship. Players take on one of two roles: Crewmates or Imposters. The Crewmates need to identify the Imposters and eliminate them while also managing to accomplish various mundane tasks aboard the ship. Imposters, meanwhile, try to pass as Crewmates in order to sabotage their tasks and eventually kill them.
Imposters can either be killed outright or ejected from the ship by being voted off by the Crewmates, which, I imagine, amounts to being killed as well, but with less on-screen homicide.

The object of the game, then, if you’re a Crewmate, is to figure out who really is like you, and who truly belongs in your group. Those who aren’t really like you, and are just pretending to be like you, need to be at least banished if not outright murdered.

I don’t think it’s outrageous of me to find the concept of this game objectionable. Is this not xenophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and plenty of other types of exclusion-ism, packaged in non-bloody graphics for pre-tweens? The object of the game is to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t, and then to get rid of those who don’t.

Haven’t we lived through four years of just this kind of us-versus-them mentality? Build a wall between the Crewmates and the Imposters, once you figure out which Imposters are coming into your country, taking your jobs, violating your women, leading your children astray, and living off the fat of your land. Keep them out and lock them up! Root out the traitors and fire them! It’s them, or it’s us: of course their intentions are nefarious and their presence is harmful.

Is there any other interpretation of who they are and what they mean to do to us?

I don’t know, maybe the Imposters had to leave their own spaceship because of climate change, political persecution, sectarian violence, or religious extremism. Or perhaps the Crewmates are part of a universal capitalist system that has created staggering inequality on the Imposters’ ship and unlivable conditions for the poor Imposter masses.

Vivian Kao with her two sons, Flynn and Julian. (Photo by Vivian Kao),

Perhaps the Imposters have handed over their families and life savings to intergalactic pirates to take them across the vast reaches of space to arrive on the Crewmates’ ship, utilizing illegal means of migration because they’re the only means available to them (the Crewmates being ever so stingy about giving out visas).

What if there are simply no jobs in Imposter-land, and the Imposters have to figure out a way to feed their aging parents without the help of food assistance programs or affordable elder care because their social safety net has been gutted?

The kind of anti-immigrant, anti-foreign, anti-difference, anti-ecumenical mindset that this game represents and reproduces has been around a long time in this country. Beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century, Chinese men were recruited to come to the US to build the railroads that made possible western expansion and American industrial prowess.

They did the jobs that white workers would not do—dangerous ones, like setting dynamite in the mines, and “womanly” ones, like cooking and cleaning. When the depression of 1876 hit, they were targeted as foreigners who were taking away much-needed American jobs and subjected to violence and hatred.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration to the US for the next sixty years. With the Chinese excluded, a labor shortage opened the way for a wave of Japanese immigrants to come and take their places on the railroads, on farms, and in the fishing industry, until there were too many of them as well, and they were excluded.

Koreans then took their turn, and then South Asian Indians; both groups were likewise subsequently excluded. By 1924, all Asians were excluded from immigrating to the US (except for Filipinos, who were technically Americans by colonial annexation), and if they were already here, they were denied citizenship or naturalization and prevented from owning land and marrying white people.

Even those who happened to be born in the US were trespassers in their own country: among us, but not us. Aliens. Saboteurs. Imposter-Americans.

I have lived in shadow of this exclusion my whole life. As a kindergartener in Houston, Texas, kids on the bus would make chinky eyes at me. I started missing the bus on purpose. After my parents and I moved to rural Washington State, a group of young white men speeding past our house in a very loud, very large truck yelled at my mother to “go home, Chink!” while she was out for a walk. My uncle, who was with her, ran inside the house and grabbed the cordless phone, ready to call 911 if they returned. He was afraid they’d come back and do more than yell.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if I speak English or received the obligatory “So, what are you?” question. Going to restaurants, the bank, or anywhere they felt their accents would be judged was so stressful for my parents that I learned to speak on their behalf by the time I was as old as my son is now. My mother was told to her face by her supervisor at the accounting firm where she worked that she should be grateful he hired her
because “no one else would hire a Chinese.” She was grateful. She took me to work with her on Sundays when she worked overtime, by herself, while her colleagues spent time with their real American families.

My parents lived here thirty years and never felt at home. Among Americans, but never American. They stuck it out, in part, because they had nowhere else to go. Their own parents fled China for Taiwan during the communist revolution in 1949 but never felt at ease on an island where they were seen as imperialists.

They also stuck it out, I think, because they thought it would be different for me. In many ways, it has been. The opportunities I have been afforded in this country have far exceeded anything available to, or even imagined by, my parents.

But a year ago, when COVID was still seen as a Chinese problem, when it was called “the Chinese
coronavirus” and the “kung flu,” and people who looked like me were spat on in subway cars, openly harassed in the streets, and shunned as carriers of the virus by virtue of our birth and heritage—as if we bred it in our bodies, our blood, our genes—I felt what it was to be among us, but not us. When a significant segment of the American population believed that Asians brought the plague to its shores, we became not just imposter-Americans, but traitors out to sabotage the health of the nation.

Last February, when the stylist at Supercuts asked me, mid-snip, if I was born in America, I got mad, and then I panicked. Was this the beginning of another wave of Asian exclusion? Would I be interned, as Japanese- and other Asian-Americans were, during World War Two? These things are not far-fetched fictions for me. They’ve happened in this country in my parents’ lifetimes. They’ve happened many times, to many Asian-American communities,
and they could easily happen again.

Plus, she was pointing scissors at me, half an inch from my ear. If I had said no, what would she have used those scissors to do? I said yes, that I was born in Texas, which happens to be true; but also, it doesn’t get more American than Texas. I entertained a fleeting thought of getting an image of my birth certificate silk-screened onto a T-shirt. And what if I had? What if I had gone around with an “I was born in Texas” sign taped to my forehead? It wouldn’t have mattered.

Among us, but not us. Never us.

I live “Among Us,” and I perpetually play only one of the two roles. With my eyes, my face, my hair, and my skin; with my ancestors and their stinky tofu, and bok choy, and chicken feet, and 5000-year-old culture that will never really be mine, but which others will never allow me to forget I’ve inherited—what other role is there for me to inhabit in this country than that of Imposter-American?

The thing that breaks me, though, is that my son has yet to learn that this is his role, too. He thinks that once in a while, when it’s his turn, he will be accepted as a Crewmate. And maybe he will, sometimes, depending on where he is and how the light hits him, depending on what his hair looks like that day, or who he resembles more—me, or his white American dad—according to the person looking at him.

But he has already been asked if he’s Chinese or Japanese. He has already been outed as “that Chinese kid” when his mom came to pick him up from school for the first time. He has seen his mom gawked at by his classmates and listened while one of them asked her if her people rode on dragons. He has asked his mom not to pick him up from school anymore.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that “Among Us” is the game he wants to play, a fantasy universe where he gets to roam around as someone who belongs. But xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, nativism and ethnocentrism, racial and cultural supremacy and willed ignorance of others, and the notion that any of us has the right to determine who is beneficial and who is harmful, who is worthy and who is expendable—these ideas are not fun and games. Crewmates and Imposters are locked in a battle that is deeply rooted in this country’s history.

If we can’t even pretend not to think this way in our virtual worlds, there is little reason to believe we will ever view each other differently.

Contributing writer: Vivian Kao teaches English at Lawrence Technological University. Her book, Postcolonial Screen Adaptation and the British Novel, was published by Palgrave in 2020. She lives in Flint with her husband Ben Pauli and two small humans, Julian and Flynn.

Author: Tom Travis

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