If summer 2020 in Brooklyn had been anything like summer 2019, my 13-year-old son would have been at camp, sleeping in a tent, sending me monosyllabic postcards and, in moments of downtime, playing a game called Mafia. The role-playing game, created by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986, splits a cabin full of campers into two groups, the mafia and the villagers. During the “night” — eyes closed — the members of the mafia pick off one of the villagers. During the “day”— eyes open — the remaining players try to figure out where evil lurks among them.
Instead, this summer, my son was at home, sleeping in a bed, learning how to be a Dungeon Master, sending me monosyllabic texts from another room and playing an online game called Among Us. The online role-playing game created by developer InnerSloth in 2018, splits a spaceship full of astronauts into two groups, “impostors” and “crewmates.” Impostors pick off the crew and sabotage the ship’s systems. Crewmates try to do their jobs and figure out where evil lurks among them.
Among Us is one of a number of unexpected beneficiaries of the global pandemic. In 2018, as Quartz reported, only 30 users were playing the game at any given time. In September 2020, 3.8 million players were playing the game at once. Many of the first people to bolster that trend were teens, who spotted it on the streams of several Twitch celebrities.
Screen time, often demonized as destructive to interpersonal relationships, has come to resemble a life raft (or escape pod) for families that have found there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Platforms including Discord, Roblox and Minecraft have transformed in response to users’ needs — and adults are starting to take notice.