There is an Imposter ‘Among Us’: Teaching Truth in a Time of “The Big Lie”: Two Fun Games for Generating Serious Conversations about Contemporary Society


David Seelow, PhD

Truth, Society and Student Learning

Many people passed the time during COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions by playing casual games with a social aspect. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) certainly represents one such popular game, but no game achieved more rapid success than Among Us (Innersloth, 2018). Between mid-2020 and early 2021 virtually every one of my students played the game and many refer to the game as their favorite.1 A game this popular presents an opportunity for teachers to tap into student driven interests in a big way, and a way that touches a critical problem in political life: identifying the truth.

The truth serves the common good even through individual speech or behavior. The truth is not relative, and teachers cannot allow ideology to masquerade as truth, which is why teaching critical thinking amid social media spin, disinformation and opinion mongering has such urgency. No, a teacher should not inject personal beliefs into the classroom, but a teacher/professor cannot neither allow the spread of misinformation nor treat every perspective as some moral equivalent.  Slavery was wrong. Racism is wrong. End of story. Science is not an opinion. The New York Times does not print fake news. If the truth becomes a lie and the imposture a leader then democracy teeters on authoritarianism and that is the dangerous situation of the United States in 2021.

Chaos among the Crew: Playing ‘Among Us’ in Dark Times

Among Us is a perfect casual (social deduction) game. It is easy to learn, fast paced, strategic, social and free. A game can be played in 15 minutes, either online with strangers and/or friends or with friends and/or classmates over a local network. The game requires between four and ten players and customization allows for many variations on the game’s constraints. One person runs the game and players drop into the game as either crew members or imposters on a spaceship.  Crew members go about completing a variety of tasks, some easy, some less easy, necessary to keep the ship moving while imposters try to sabotage the crew members in all manner of nefarious ways. The imposter seeks to kill crew members one by one as the crew works to ferret out the imposter(s), i.e., expose the truth before the entire crew is dead. Crew members cannot speak until a body is found. When the body is found, the crew or collective body, hold a meeting and vote. If the vote is unanimous regarding the suspected imposter the suspect is tossed off the ship into oblivion. Team play takes place through the game’s chat feature. The need to vote and reach consensus combined with the possibility that the wrong person is “discarded” makes for exciting drama. Emergency meetings can be called at any time. Once a player dies, the player becomes a ghost and can aid crew members’ work efforts.

There is inherent value in team play and the use of meetings as a vehicle for instructors to work with students on team decision making. There is also a deeper potential to explore the nature of truth and fabrication, a distinction so hard to discern in this new century. Art, and games are a form of art, bring these universal concerns- like truth and justice- to the forefront of serious discussion allowing us to examine the nature and fabric of the world we inhabit. As an example, let me turn back from a popular video game to some analogies from the popular theater of history’s greatest writer, Shakespeare.

Is Shakespeare’s Iago (Othello) the ultimate imposter? How does one insinuate oneself among the good to wreak havoc on their cohesiveness? How does one detect the imposter or improviser before it is too late, and you have strangled your innocent wife? World affairs? What about Emperor Julius Caesar, the world’s most powerful man? Is Caesar’s closest friend Brutus a friend or an imposter who has masqueraded as a friend? Betrayal speaks to insincerity at the deepest level. The trusted confidante as an imposter. What about the false flattery of Goneril and Regan proffered to their aged father King Lear and the fatal consequence of their lies to innocent Cordelia? Lear’s youngest daughter speaks honestly, but her truth is so buried by the lies saturating the court that honesty cannot be recognized, and the faithful Cordelia dies for truth. How does one tell if one is telling the truth? Is the ghost of Hamlet’s father telling the truth? Justice depends on Hamlet’s skillful discernment of facts. The doubt, the uncertainty, ends with Hamlet’s death (and many other deaths as well) and the collapse of the state of Denmark as a foreign power led by Fortinbras, a strong man, marches, unopposed to occupy his new conquest.

Shakespeare will always be our contemporary, students are much more likely all to have played Among Us then read the whole of Shakespeare and this contemporary game can be a springboard to discuss the nature of impostures, of liars and lying, not just pretty little liars, but big, important liars telling big socially significant lies.  We have had a former president of the United States flat out lie to the American public by claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him, i.e., “Stop the Steal”. Despite no evidence to support the claim, and a plethora of court cases determining that there was no significant voter fraud thus dismissing the president’s claims one after the other the now former president persists in what the media has called “The Big Lie.” Many American’s believe this lie and take it as truth.

Equally incomprehensible, the insurrection that took place on January 6th at the United States’ Capitol has been whitewashed by many Republican members of Congress.  Several elected national leaders claim that there was no actual insurrection despite news cameras having recorded the breach of the Capitol live with the same members of Congress who now deny or downplay the breach hiding as marauders ransacked the building. Facts clear to the senses are denied. The Republican Party refused to allow an independent bi-partisan commission to convene with the purpose of investigating the truth about the January 6th insurrection. Can you imagine never having investigated the Watergate scandal during President Nixon’s tenure? The failure to support the truth or even the attempt to discover the truth of a subversive act against democracy can only serve to weaken that democracy.

As a final example of how Among Us’s mechanic reaches into our current political dilemma take the issue of vaccination. As we emerge on the other end of the pandemic vaccination will be critical to preventing future mass outbreaks and managing a still dangerous virus. Like wearing masks getting vaccinated will be an existential choice for all individuals. Unlike wearing masks, vaccinations will not be subject to government mandates (though organizations may have their own rules regarding vaccination).  We will be, as the CDC indicates, on an honor system.2 An honor system requires integrity, truth telling and a concern for the common good- a need for the utmost civility to protect each of us. Imagine going to a packed baseball stadium or movie cinema and not knowing who is vaccinated and who is not. Assume, as we now must, many people are not. Many of these people will play the imposter among us because they do not believe in science or they believe vaccination is a conspiracy of some sort. We now have a game of Russian Roulette- a game of pure chance. That is the wild chance element of Among Us– the imposter as social saboteur undermining our health as individuals and as a collective body- from within, and, in secret. A game of Among Us can be a metaphor for the game of life of truth or infection. That is a dangerous game to play.

At this juncture another popular fast paced game, this time, a board game, can be instructive.

The Threat of Authoritarianism: Playing ‘Secret Hitler’ in a Time of Paranoia

Like Among Us, Secret Hitler (2016) is a social deduction game, meaning the goal is ferreting out imposters, calling a player’s bluff in poker terminology. Again, like Among Us, ten players are ideal. As the game begins you are anonymously assigned to one of two political teams or parties: Liberals or Fascists.  The setting is 1930s Germany. The fascists can reveal themselves to each other. One person is Hitler. There is a president with term limits. New presidents assume power as play rotates clockwise. There is also a chancellor nominated by the president and voted on- ja or neine, by other players (in Weimer Germany, President Paul von Hidenburg nominated Hitler as Chancellor, i.e., no election). Granted some Jewish groups have legitimately attacked the idea of a game where someone pays Hitler, but the game focuses entirely on his assent to power not his use of that power to commit the atrocities he ended up committing.3 Hitler’s card shows a reptile in a Nazi uniform.

The person with the Hitler card keeps his eyes closed when fascists reveal themselves, but raises a thumb, so the fascists do know who holds the ultimate Hitler card. However, liberals remain in the dark. Without going into more detail, suffice it to say the game requires a great deal of misinformation, or lying. Fascists, like the imposter from Among Us, want to sow chaos. They are entirely Machiavellian. The president receives three policy cards to start round one. The president discards one card, and passes the two remaining cards, face down to the chancellor. The chancellor discards one of the two cards and plays the remaining card, say, for example, she passes a fascist policy and that gets placed on the board. Now, the fun starts, and the value of a board game becomes evident. When everyone is physically close together the conversation becomes heated, frantic, and revelatory.

The conversation vacillates between interrogation, accusation, and self-defense. It is here that lying becomes prominent. Is Kayleigh lying? Is Bill a fascist or a liberal pretending to be fascist? Why did Chancellor Scott enact a fascist policy? You win the game as fascists by naming Hitler chancellor. You accomplish this objective by passing six (6) fascist policies. Liberals, on the other hand, must prevent Hitler from becoming chancellor either by passing liberal policies or assassinating him. There are six liberal cards and eleven fascist cards. A Hitler mode, where the possibility of his coming to power becomes imminent extends the game’s climax and tension to maximum degree (Boxleiter, 2017). Once the game concludes the instructor can led a powerful debriefing that can productively discuss parallels between the 19303 and 2010s.

If Among Us provides a great opportunity to talk about betrayal, the nature of lying and the purpose they serve, Secret Hitler ups the ante by hiding not just an imposter, but a potential threat to democracy itself. The Secret Hitler design team sent copies of the game to members of Congress. Additionally, they released a Trump expansion pact, so the design team clearly see the game as commentary on contemporary American politics. In no way does the game establishes an equivalence between 1930s Germany and 2010s America, but the game does suggest parallels between the two eras and points to the very real danger of an authoritarian or quasi fascist party emerging to challenge American Democracy and the Balance of Powers. This is the moment when games can prompt vital class discussions.

The professor or teaching assistant leading a class debriefing (Secret Hitler would only be appropriate to a 12th grade high school class with its 17+ rating) should remind students that Germany went from a democracy to a dictatorship in only 6 months! Advanced, modern democracies are not immune to authoritarian threats. Donald J. Trump’s presidency clearly established an authoritarian style of governance that broke protocols and precedents for the Office of the President.  The media was treated as the enemy (an echo of President Nixon’s hatred of the press). At the same time, President Trump used social media, especially Twitter, and Fox News, to disseminate misinformation or propaganda, a trademark of authoritarian rule.4 All dissent within the party was squashed. Dissenters, like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, were belittled and isolated. Cabinet members or other high level officials who disagreed with the president were promptly fired rather than listened to. The president hired members of his own family to high level government posts. The slogan “Make America Great Again” echoed fascist slogans from the past with their hyper nationalist calls to a pure nation, and their concomitant scapegoating of minorities. All these strategies are a way of consolidating power. Secret Hitler dramatizes and let us play out the rise of a historic demagogue. We know the history of Germany, and this history needs to inform our decisions today as a demagogic figure has already served in our highest office and continues to work at undermining and circumventing the norms of democracy.5

Games can play a vital role in simulating and/or symbolizing actual social-political problems facing our students. Teachers at all levels of the education spectrum have a responsibility to teach the truth, to clarify facts, expose misinformation, promote research, and encourage critical thinking. This means neither taking a political position nor injecting personal values into the classroom. What matters is open discussion, honest debate, respect for different perspectives, but all within a moral framework that supports honesty, integrity, inquiry, reason, and truth. If as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, the Republican Party has abdicated its position as a democratic alternative to the Democratic Party and continues to rally behind an extremist the weaking of democracy will continue (pp. 53-71). Consequently, games about imposters, lying, and betrayal can help engage students in the play of truth and lead into urgent discussions of the nature of democracy: its institutions, policies, and dynamics and how none of our freedoms, including the right to vote, can be taken for granted.

Notes

1. The game’s popularity catapulted into the political spotlight when New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez streamed her session of Among Us on October 20, 2020 and attracted over 400, 000 viewers.

2. In an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, explains the need for individual responsibility, “I want to emphasize that if unvaccinated people choose to take off their mask, and they have not been vaccinated, then the risk to them is still the same as it was before.

So, we really want to empower people to take these — this responsibility into their own hands. If you are unvaccinated, please get vaccinated to decrease that risk. And if you don’t choose to be vaccinated, then please continue to wear a mask and practice all of the mitigation strategies have said up until now.”

“CDC director on mask guidance for the fully vaccinated, unvaccinated and immunocompromised.” Interview with Dr. Rochelle Walensky by Judy Woodruff, transcript, PBS New Hour, May 13, 2021, retrieved from bs.org/newshour/show/cdc-director-on-mask-guidance-for-the-fully-vaccinated-unvaccinated-and-immunocompromised, 6/2/2021.

The problem with such an honor system naturally resides in the potential high number of dishonorable people if we define honor in this instance as wearing a mask when you are unvaccinated.

3. One of the game’s producers, Matt Temkin, who is Jewish responds to the question regarding a game about Hitler in an interview with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

“JC: Are you Jewish? If so, did that play any factor in you creating a game about Hitler? Do you have any family members who are Holocaust survivors?

MT: I am Jewish, and I do have family that were survivors. Like most Jews of my generation, I grew up steeped in Jewish history and Holocaust education. I was taught to always be suspicious of authoritarians, to always look out for marginalized groups, and to ask myself Rabbi Hillel’s questions: “If not me, who? And if not now, when?”

The rise of authoritarian fascism in America terrifies me, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see a figure like Donald Trump taking power as the generation that experienced World War II and the Holocaust are passing from living memory. Secret Hitler isn’t the answer to Trump, but I do think that this is a time when art needs to be fearless about remembering and teaching history.”

Tabachanuck, Toby. “Secret Hitler, a game of intrigue and deception, but not for everyone,” Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. December 28, 2016, https://jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/secret-hitler-a-game-of-intrigue-and-deception-but-not-for-everyone/

4. President Trump’s use of Twitter as a platform for both making and announcing policy in addition to spreading misinformation has dangerous implications for how the public understands the truth. For instance, MIT researchers discovered that false news or lying, spreads six times as fast as true stories on Twitter. See, Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. “The spread of true and false news online,” Science 09 Mar 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6380, pp. 1146-1151
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap9559

5. The best guide to how former President Trump’s rise to power and apparent control of the Republican Party poses a genuine threat to American democracy would be the recent book by the Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018). I will discuss this important book in a follow up blog on teaching history with games.

Lesson Idea

“To Tell the Truth: Identifying the Imposter”

One of the most popular television game shows has been To Tell the Truth. The show premiered on CBS way back in 1956 with Bud Collyer as host. The shows most recent incarnation on ABC is hosted by comedian Anthony Anderson. The game’s premise is simple. Four celebrity panelists ask questions about 3 contestants. The host reads a short bio of the mystery guest which is all the information the panels must go by. The objective is to identify which of the three contestants is telling the truth about their profession (usually an unusual occupation). The mechanic or rule of this game can be easily adapted to the classroom. Depending upon your discipline present a short bio of an important person from your field. This could be an important but lesser know figure or a figure all students should be aware of. Students then have the challenge of discerning the truth. The three contestant students must learn about the figure they are presenting. The game is fast paced, one class period could involve the entire class, and all grade levels can play this game which teaches a skill in such short supply these days. This game would also allow for diversity and bringing attention to historical people often overlooked by textbooks.

Games

Among Us– Innersloth, 2016. Multiplayer (6-10 online or over a local wireless network).

Secret Hitler- Goat, Wolf, & Cabbage, LLC. 2016. Board Game for 5-10 players, 10 players are ideal.

To Tell the Truth– Bob Stewart, creator; CBS, NBC, ABC (current), 1956. Television Game Show.

The Resistance– Don Eskridge, creator. 2010. An excellent social deduction card game for 5 to 10 players and the model for Secret Hitler. The theme of resistance provides an excellent topic for class discussion about resistance to tyrannical forms of government, especially those of Nazi Germany, dictatorships   in eastern Europe and Vichy France.

Werewolf– Dimitry Davidoff, Creator. 1986.  This social deduction card game has many variations including a new variant Ultimate Werewolf-Ted Alspach designer, published by Bezier Games, 2008. This new version could involve the entire class in a game. Villagers hunt werewolves who feign their innocence with the goal of killing the villagers and so on. A One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a faster paced version of the game. This is the version I play in class.

In addition to the intricacies of truth and lying, the game’s production of paranoia and mistrust has clear application to discussion about contemporary politics and international relationships. The original creator was based in Russia at Moscow State University so there is the paranoia that comes with living in a totalitarian regime. The nature of international spying, and U.S. paranoia over the origin of Covid-19, the Q-Anon paranoia, the historical paranoia of President Nixon’s tenure and the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s are all great topics for discission. Finally, the werewolf theme added to the original 1986 game gives a metaphoric reach to the game play, i.e., the wolf in sheep’s clothing archetype. The theme who is your real enemy? The enemy within? and the entire psychology of the doppelganger, i.e., are you an imposter of your own true self, are at play during the game.

Resource

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok. Pantheon Books: 1978. This book by  the distinguished Swedish philosopher gives a provide a comprehensive, in-depth examination of lying in an moral framework that our leaders and us citizens should be operating from the best of our abilities.

Works Cited

Boxleiter, Mike. “Secret Hitler: Design Choices & High Tension Moments,” GDC Vault, May 17, 2017, retrieved from https://gdcvault.com/play/1024248/Board-Game-Design-Day-Secret

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