Wednesday, November 18, 2020

"Among Us" and Family

Screenshot of the game
The multiplayer online game “Among Us” has become a hit with my adult children and their cousins. In this time of pandemic, when nobody can go out (at least those who understand the risk and those who do not want to spread the virus don’t go out), they are meeting up online to play a game that requires bluffing and arguing. Basically, the game has up to 10 players, and one or two of the players are randomly assigned by the computer to be “imposters,” meaning saboteurs and assassins who murder “crewmates” on a spaceship. Crewmates do not know who the “imposters” are; they have to guess and vote them off the spaceship before being killed in order to win. At any time, any player can call a meeting to vote on identifying the imposters. Players move about the spaceship completing tasks (like repairing the spaceship) in silence and only discuss who they think is an imposter during timed meetings. The original game only has texting, but my children use the VoIP Discord, and only unmute when there is a meeting. (This is to prevent a crewmate revealing the murderer when they are killed, by exclaiming something like, “Oh Anna, how could you!?”) 

Here is a 4-minute video introduction to the game.  When I first watched this, I was totally confused. But the game is very popular now, and even got additional attention because AOC has been playing (see here). 

The 2000 New Year t-shirt
What is interesting about the game is not only that my children have been playing two or three times per week for the last month or so, but that they play with their cousins who are spread coast to coast and did not grow up together, and not with other high school or college friends. They play with cousins related through my wife’s parents. My mother-in-law’s sister happened to marry my father-in-law’s brother, so the “cousins” are actually all the grandchildren of two Yang brothers who married two Hsu sisters. They are called the South Bend Yangs and Urbana Yangs, in reference to where they grew up. This is the original “Yang Gang,” a term the family has been using at least since we had a reunion for the turn of the millenium in December 1999. 

These “cousins” (which includes both first cousins and second cousins) range in age from 36 to 16 and are spread out across the country, from Maine to Seattle, San Francisco to Columbus, OH, and in Omaha, Chicago and Kalamazoo. All of us in my generation are amazed that these cousins, who really only get together about once a year, are choosing to play this game together, and not just once, but regularly.

To understand how this has happened, and why we are so happy to see this, we need to step back and talk about “family.”

When I was doing my first fieldwork in Taiwan in the mid-1980s, many Taiwanese would say to me, “We Chinese value family, not like you Americans.” This used to irk me, because not only did I think family was important in the US, but conservative politicians had been claiming that Americans needed to return to “family values,” which seemed like something no one could be opposed to. I think pretty much every culture claims to value “the family,” though what they mean by “family” will vary by culture. In my father’s Italian-American family in Detroit, the eight siblings met at a lake where they owned 13 acres with some cabins. In the 1950s and ‘60s, my uncles and aunts brought all their families to the lake every weekend during summers. After my grandmother died in 1959 and the next generation started having children of their own and moving to different suburbs, the lake was used less often, but clearly family was important for them too.

There are certainly differences between cultures, and even within one culture, there are differences between families. In part, this depends on individual personalities, but it also depends on peoples’ expectations of what a family should be like. Still, these individuals’ expectations are themselves shaped by culture. I remember a Taiwanese-American student complaining that though her relatives in Taiwan claimed they valued family, they never ate dinner together. Of course, they ran a restaurant, which made eating together rather difficult! And eating together, while valued in the US, is not the only way a family stays together. 

The logo of the 2006 shirt
When I was just starting to date my now-wife back in high school, I phoned her to ask her on a date. I remember hearing her ask her mother, saying, “Mom, can I go to a movie with Joe this Saturday?” And I heard her mother say no, because her older sister was coming back home from college for the weekend. My “potential date” then said to me, “No, I can’t go.” This excuse sounded made-up, the equivalent of “I’ll be busy washing my hair.” If she really wanted to go, I would have expected her to say, “I’ll have to call you back.” Then she could have argued with her mother. I assumed she did not want to go out with me. But to my surprise, my potential date still seemed quite friendly when we met in class the next day, leaving me confused (which is actually the perpetual state of most teenage boys). It turned out that in the Yang family, the kids were expected to be home when older siblings were visiting.

This emphasis on the siblings spending time together with family took many forms. It included eating dinner together and visiting friends as a family, parents and kids together. Another instance I remember is that a few months after we got married, we went to visit my wife’s older sister and her husband in their new home in Maine. My wife’s brother and his wife also went up from Boston, and the younger sister, who was also working in New York City, came up too. That is already fairly remarkable; four siblings making a point of getting together for a long weekend. But more notable was that the parents paid for the 5th and youngest sibling, who was a high school senior, to fly from Indiana to Maine for the mini-reunion. We had fun together, but I don’t think we did anything special (except the food, I imagine; the Yangs always emphasize food); I remember we played “Trivial Pursuits,” which was a new game then. But the point was being together, creating memories and camaraderie together.

The 2002 t-shirt

The Yang family has emphasized getting together and having reunions for a long time. Well before Andrew Yang used the term “Yang Gang,” the South Bend Yang family were making t-shirts for their annual Yang Gang Reunions. It all started with nearly annual weddings in the 80s and early 90s, and once there were children and busy work schedules, more deliberate destination reunions were planned. Many have been in large houses, where groups could go off and have fun during the day and return for a big family dinner and games in the evenings. The entire “Yang Gang” today includes my wife and her four siblings, a spouse or partner for each, plus 15 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren, plus the 17 Urbana Yangs, for a total of 43 people. My in-laws subsidized the reunions to make sure everyone could come.

These reunions are the foundation upon which the players for the “Among Us” games are selected. The reunions created relationships and sympathies that now have a life of their own, and develop further through the game.

Sadly, there has not been a 2020 reunion. Even the memorial for my father-in-law who died (not of Covid) in July had to be held online via Zoom. A full memorial, and reunion, has to wait for the end of the pandemic. But it is heartwarming to see the cousins use the internet to maintain and strengthen their bonds. Yes, it is only a game. But it is from simple things like this that social relationships are made.

Today is my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. Two days ago, we celebrated via a Zoom party with over 100 participants in about 60 Zoom windows. It was organized by her children and grandchildren. This led me to think about how unusual her family is, in solidarity and closeness. Cousins visit and assist each other, and look forward to family reunions. And it comes from decisions she made over the years, from not letting her daughter go on dates when her sister was in town, to sending her youngest son to Maine to be with his older siblings for a weekend, and to subsidizing family reunions. And as a result, her grandchildren play “Among Us,” among family.

1 comment:

Bill Watkins said...

Ask your kids whether this on-line game is basically the same as "Mafia" -- sounds just like it.