Compared to its fellow, overwhelmingly-successful video games, Among Us followed a somewhat unusual trajectory.
Instead of being an instant success, Among Us stayed culturally dormant for years after its 2018 release. It did not see mainstream popularity until livestreamers picked it up in July of last year. The game exploded from there, becoming a cultural phenomenon and reliable source of content for many of YouTube, Twitch and TikTok’s most popular users.
The premise of Among Us is relatively simple. Each of the approximately 10 players in a game controls a cartoon astronaut working on a huge, labyrinthine space station and completing tasks across the ship.
Some are secretly “impostors” who attempt to sabotage the mission by killing their crewmates, but players cannot see each other’s roles. The only way to rid the ship of impostors is to vote out the most questionable players democratically.
The suspense and mystery of the game made it addictive to watch, and downloads skyrocketed.
It’s difficult to pin down the peak of Among Us’s popularity, but judging by personal experience and the dates on various articles, its zenith seems to have been around September and October of last year.
In those months, almost everyone was playing it. Many of my favorite creators uploaded videos of themselves playing Among Us, and I played quite a few rounds with my peers in the Boston University Gaming Club.
The first memes surrounding the game were completely earnest expressions of players’ frustrations: being dubbed “sus” — suspicious — by teammates without evidence, novices making it painfully obvious they are impostors and so on.
However, Among Us somehow refused to leave our internet culture even as its popularity began to level out. Sincere enjoyment withered away, and people inserted ironic distance between themselves and the game instead.
The meme “When the imposter is sus!” gained traction in November as a parody of earnest memes about the game, juxtaposing its jargon with surreal or unnerving images to deconstruct the saturation of Among Us content across the internet.
In the coming months, more memes continued to use the game’s iconic bean-shaped astronauts for increasingly abstract jokes.
“Among Drip” was a meme from December in which a 3D rendering of Among Us characters wearing expensive sneakers was edited into every context imaginable. In January, it devolved into an even more simplistic drawing of the game captioned with the intentional misspelling “Amogus.”
By February, all of this constant Among Us iconography culminated in a new meme where people simply posted pictures of objects that vaguely resemble the Among Us crewmate design.
These pictures of public trash cans, building fire alarms and Teletubbies without the top halves of their bodies gain thousands of interactions — almost completely without context. On the off-chance that these images have a caption at all, they say things such as “the Great Curse of Knowledge” or “Get Out Of My Head.”
I, too, am a bearer of the curse, recognizing every object that vaguely resembles the little spacemen as I go about my daily life. This latest iteration of the meme is all too fitting for our modern condition of always being hooked up to the internet.
Almost every waking hour is spent staring at a screen now. Video streaming and gaming are our leisure activities, messaging services and social media facilitate communication, schoolwork is done on Blackboard and Google Docs and the pandemic has forced even more in-person meetings to take place on Zoom instead.
We laugh at these complete non-sequiturs, these images of random real-life objects with captions about losing your mind because they are an honest admission of what post-modern life is doing to our brains. If the growing body of literature on “Zoom fatigue” is any indication, it can’t be healthy, and yet we have no alternative.
The degeneration of Among Us memes from relatable jokes about a popular game to unhinged nonsense is a microcosm of our collective experience. The internet is an overwhelming thing, a firehose of information, media and signs constantly pointed at our mouths.
Memes playing off of comically exaggerated anxiety are a refreshingly honest reaction to this deluge of information, much of it trying to sell us something. After all, the overwhelming visibility of Among Us has helped line its developers’ pockets — the mobile version was the most downloaded game last year, and the PC version made the top 100 highest-grossing titles on the online game marketplace Steam, in spite of its modest $5 price point.
The nonstop stimuli of the internet tire us out, bombard us and even hijack our brains with advertising. By posting memes poking fun at our ability to recognize Among Us beans in everything, we finally make light of this phenomenon, finding a moment of joy from the conditions of our year-long cabin fever.