On its surface, Among Us allows us to turn on one another without any real consequences, but when we start to dig into what makes the game design so effective, self-determination takes center stage.
Made popular in the ’50s and ’60s, self-determination theory suggests people are more motivated to be engaged in an activity if the activity satisfies three basic psychological needs. First, there must be a sense of mastery or progression—we like to feel like we’re constantly improving. Second, there must be a sense of autonomy or the ability to make our own choices. And then there’s the sense of relatedness—that what we’re doing has an impact on other people and their experiences.
“Even if you’re firing on a couple of those cylinders, then you can have a really engaging experience,” says Madigan.
No matter which side you end up on—as an innocent crewmember or a sly imposter—markers of self-determination are at play every step of the way in Among Us.
Crewmembers perhaps have the most straightforward route to keeping players engaged, as there are built-in, measurable markers for self-determination layered throughout a crewmember’s experience. Completing the tasks you’re given is the quickest surefire way to win, and a bar at the top of the screen keeps track of the collective progress crewmembers are making so that you have immediate feedback on your progression. If each and every crewmember—alive or dead—can finish their tasks, they win in spite of how much progress the imposter has made.
The tasks themselves provide a bit of autonomy, too, in that you can approach any number of tasks in any order you choose. Each task functions as a minigame, with their own markers of progression. One such task has crewmembers shooting up to 20 asteroids, while another has you running all over the ship to reroute electricity by connecting a series of color-coded wires with matching symbols. You get an immediate sense of satisfaction when you complete these tasks, thanks to cute animations and audiovisual cues that signal your job has been done.
But when applying those same markers of self-determination—mastery, autonomy, and relatedness—to the role of the imposter, your level of self-determination falls into the extreme. Your mastery and progression is marked only by the length of time you’re able to stay hidden as the imposter. The longer you go without being caught, the more you believe you’re doing well even when there’s no guarantee you’re winning. You even have full autonomy in how you approach winning the game. Whether you sabotage the ship, plant doubt in your crewmembers’ deliberation meetings or pick off crewmembers one by one, everything you do impacts the entire outcome of everyone’s game. You are, in effect, puppeteering the entire experience and feeding off of high self-determination.
“Everything you say and do affects the other person’s play experience,” says Madigan. “You’re not just doing it in a vacuum. You’re going through and you’re affecting the outcome of that game and the experiences that other people have, and they’re going to be talking about you during the meetings, and after the game, and so forth. It really is like a direct connection to other people.”
Want to Win? Embrace Autonomy and Enjoy the Community
The deliberation meetings themselves function as a microcosm for what makes this game work for all parties: Every member has complete autonomy in how they approach every meeting and how they represent themselves. There is a shared experience of agency in how each deliberation plays out.
“That seems like a real-extreme example of that autonomy principle at work,” says Madigan. “You’re not just choosing responses from a menu, right? You’re speaking into voice chat or typing into chat.”