The Psychology Behind the Unusual Virality of Among Us
Going viral may be a little more complicated than you think. The history of viral marketing is filled with odd stories of strange products achieving sudden fame. In some cases, it’s the result of some bold strategist miscalculating a key factor in marketing and resulting in an accidental marketing coup. Other times, it can just be the result of brilliant marketing.
Either way, to identify why a product went viral, understanding how people responded, in the way they do, and how the product was promoted can be paramount. In the story behind the recent unusual virality behind Among Us, these qualities are all you need.
Among Us is a multiplayer game developed and published by the American game studio InnerSloth. Released in June 2018, the game eventually got featured on the front page of the largest indie game hosting marketplace (itch.io).
By October last year, the game has crawled its way to become the most downloaded smartphone game of the year 2020 and surpassing timeless games like Subway Surfers. It caught on like wildfire, racking up over 200 million installs globally.
A lot has happened in two years since the game was published, aiding its onward surge and especially in 2020: A popular YouTuber/gamer named Kevin giving it a boost and another famous Twitch streamer with a large audience going by the name Sodapoppin streaming it to mention a few.
Performing surgery on how the game was developed, however, will show that while these events helped massively in the game picking up, to the bone of it all, they weren't everything. The mind and behavior of the average gamer (especially those in the targeted audience) and how the game was shipped to them were significantly taken into account.
Let’s dive into the details.
Research published in Frontiers in Psychology, a journal claimed to be the largest in psychology, revealed that competition is one of the main reasons for gaming among males. It is especially true for younger gamers as the trait motivates social interaction.
Unlike playing in a team, which has its grace, playing against friends and directly clashing them, provides more thrill and thereby makes such games more fun to play. This has been the driving force in the success of games like Monopoly and Chess.
Among Us is a social deduction game, which is to say the players in each game session are either the good guys (Crewmates) or the bad guys (Imposters). The goal of Crewmates is to identify and eliminates Imposters, and the bad guys’ goal is to sabotage and kill Crewmates in turn, all before the completion of the tasks in a mission.
The created tension was meant to keep a gamer hooked to their screen, and it did. After all, our desire to compete is not only a psychological trait but a biological one.
The MAYA Principle
The MAYA Principle stands for: “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”
As it easier for people to adopt what they are accustomed to, companies (tech or otherwise) have since learned to embed familiarity in each of their products and then perfect it along the way. Apple’s Newton only proved how adhering to the MAYA principle is often the only way a product can be advanced, yet acceptable (ha!)
This is precisely what InnerSloth leveraged in the Among Us game. They structured it to mimic well-known party games like Mafia, a game created in 1986 and models a conflict between two groups: an informed minority (the werewolves), and an uninformed majority (the villagers).
Notice a pattern? It is no wonder the video game appealed to both teenagers and adults alike.
This phenomenon is the tendency to adopt a certain behavior, lifestyle, or attitude for the sole reason that others are doing it. Think of it as the closest practical definition to the phrase “monkey see, monkey do.”
It is no surprise that the success of Among Us got propelled by the buzz it generated from the online community.
This buzz came from very widespread relatable memes and often exclusive to only the active players of the game. Twitter handles like Among Us Struggles and No Context Among Us alone (dedicated to posting such memes), combined to reach more than half a million followers daily. The impressions these tweets made on Twitter can only be estimated considering the thousands of retweets on each.
Videos on TikTok with hashtags #AmongUs amassed more than 41.9 billion views and rising, and do not get me started on Reddit.
These memes are hilarious; it is no wonder that many more continually want to be a part of them. It became much easier for people, avid gamers and non-alike, to download and join the game as everyone else seems to be doing the same.
For a long time, we have been told that going viral is by chance. While that is the truth, what it means is underexplained.
Sure, one can do everything to make a product (a video game in this case) to catch on and it still might not. Others might do the bare minimum and still go viral, recording more downloads than they can handle, and perhaps eventually leading to their death. But this doesn’t mean that every hit product is by an unpredicted chance.
Viral is about numbers, and while that hardly equals success, it always does in the gaming industry. It took InnerSloth two years and a pandemic to go viral — in the most real sense of the word anyway. But chance isn’t the most plausible explanation for achieving this milestone. It never was.
Psychology is at the heart of virality, and understanding it well can set you far ahead anywhere.