On Tuesday night, October 20, representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar played Among Us over Twitch, in one of the streaming platform's most-watched streams, just behind a collaboration between Drake and Ninja, and, if you can believe it, shroud's return.
Over on Fox News, commenters were flinging bon mots right and right.
I love that other French expression for wit, l'esprit de l'escalier, or "the staircase mind", to describe that phenomenon where you find the perfect reply to that jerk who made fun of your haircut, but only after you've left the party, at the bottom of the staircase. Trump, of course, appeared on the political stage descending a gold-plated escalator, and he took the whole political discourse down with him, where it arguably belongs. That Trump is mostly incapable of wit, but can be very funny, is a source of rage and bitterness for many neoliberals who believe that the modern politician's tongue must speak decently, even wittily, in order to distract you from what his hands are actually doing, which is making the jerking-off symbol. And at The New Yorker, which seems to be celebrating Cock Week, even the symbol is dissolving.
There is an elite class of technocrats, pundits, and journalists who are trying to rescue Jeffrey Toobin's career while they smear Trump for his awful rhetoric. The circle jerk is coming from inside the house.
We should naturally be wary when politicians like AOC and Omar court us on platforms like Twitch, when they ascend high into the cheap, squinty seats. That an American politician has to convince you he's one of you, even if you have no health insurance yourself (a precondition that defined 27.5 million Americans in 2018, according to data from the Census Bureau), but your taxes contribute to his top of the line coverage, is just one of the many dissonances of American politics. In what capitalist's worst nightmare do the employees have better care than their bosses?
In what capitalist's worst nightmare do the employees have better care than their bosses?
Among Us, for those who don't know, is an online multiplayer game where you control a cute humanoid figure who squishes around a spaceship with up to 9 other cute humanoid figures, played by actual humanoid figures. One or more of your fellow humanoids is a secret "impostor", meaning they are trying to sabotage the spaceship--fucking up the O2 dispenser; fucking up the garbage compactor; fucking up the lights--while they are murdering folks left and right. At crucial points in the game, you and your fellow humanoids can call meetings to discuss who you think the impostor is. "Sus", short for "suspicious" folks, can be voted out, to be ejected from the ship's airlock. The voting is a true direct democracy, unlike America's representative democracy, so the will of the people goes, even if that will has gotten it wrong. Watching innocents tumble helplessly through the airless void of space is both a hilarious and horrifying reflection of the power of electoral politics in a system where every vote actually counts.
I don't want to relitigate discussions of the electoral college, and the claims of how it was put in place to prevent an authoritarian like Trump from rising to power. I mention it only to point us in the direction of the 1 vote, 1 person system, the immediacy and simplicity of which has become an American impossibility. In America land and capital matter more than people, and to argue otherwise is to be barraged by distortions about the founder's intentions and the wisdom of, quite literally, space and geography, the pathetic fallacy turned strong and alpha, the bro in the machine.
In America land and capital matter more than people, and to argue otherwise is to be barraged by distortions about the founder's intentions and the wisdom of, quite literally, space and geography, the pathetic fallacy turned strong and alpha, the bro in the machine.
Among Us brings the power back to the people, and the people are a fucking terror. Having an "impostor" or a traitor in a game can do so much to introduce an exhausting social reality to play. Cooperative games where you chat with your buddies on mic are indeed social, but they are rarely exhaustingly social. As we attempt to know our friends, we sketch and outline them in order to contain the great stranger inside. We know our sketches and outlines are imperfect, just as we know the great stranger is incapable of being contained, that its form changes so much that it is functionally formless. Exhaustingly social games like Among Us let you weigh what you know of your friends with what you do not want to know. When you discover that your friend is actually quite gifted at deception, the moment can hit you deeply, maybe deep enough to touch that other great stranger, the one inside you. I love exhaustingly social games like Among Us, even as I recognize that they balance dangerously on the play/reality brain/blood barrier. It is a thin rope, this barrier. When you lie to your friend in a game like Among Us, you have also lied to your friend outside the game. A playful lie, but still a lie. A spell is cast at the end of a session of Among Us, especially one where the impostor has managed to turn non-impostors against each other, the good guys airlocking the good guys, and this is the kind of spell that can linger. Played with strangers, these games can be diverting but ultimately hollow: the spell of discovering someone you don't know has done something unknowable can't last long. But played with friends, the spell of discovering someone you know doing something unknowable sustains. We tumble through the vacuum of what we'll never know, our friend whipping across our seeing every few seconds, getting smaller, there, not, there, not.
I love games like Among Us, even as I recognize that they balance dangerously on the play/reality brain/blood barrier. It is a thin rope, this barrier. When you lie to your friend in a game like Among Us, you have also lied to your friend outside the game.
One of the delights of watching AOC and Omar play Among Us was to witness Omar turning into a stone-cold killer. She ravaged the night. AOC, true to the AOC we think we know, charmingly bumbled her way through the evening, repeatedly saying how much she hated it when she was assigned the role of the impostor. AOC's persona leans heavily on a couple of dissonant tropes, of the bumbler and the tactician, the beauty and the beast. Omar is another kind of politician altogether, forged in the fires of America's oppressive anti-muslim sentiment, and to watch her ruthless, slash and mangle approach was to watch a very different story of American survival.
But people turn. The great stranger turns. They shift and change, and the great stranger shifts and changes underneath those shifts and changes. In Thomas Bernhard's great novel Woodcutters, which takes place entirely in the head of a man sitting in a wing-backed chair at a dinner party, Bernhard writes ruthlessly, and beautifully, about what keeps us together and apart from each other:
"We attach ourselves to certain people, then suddenly we hate them and let go. We run after them for years, begging for their affection, I thought, and when once we have their affection we no longer want it. We flee from them and they catch up with us and seize hold of us, and we submit to them and all their dictates, I thought, surrendering to them until we either die or break loose. We flee from them and they catch up with us and crush us to death. We run after them and implore them to accept us, and they accept us and do us to death. [...] For years we are on terms of friendship with them, then suddenly we no longer are, and we don’t know why. We love them so fervently that we become positively lovesick, and they reject us and hate us for our love, I thought. We’re nothing, and they make something of us, and we hate them for it.”
That you can despise someone for saving you, and love them for leaving you to your despair feels like a button mashing of the great stranger, a phenomenon that games might be quite good at exploring. What keeps us together is so dissonant, so inexplicable, that it begins to look like something as illusory as play. Why do I call this lying asshole my friend? What keeps me rushing after him, pursuing him to his death and beyond? The answer is among us, inside and outside, in the thrill and recklessness of one more round, if we're so lucky.