Who needs friends anyway? The psychology of Among Us, Mario Kart, and other games

It’s been an interesting year. As we have now past the one year anniversary of COVID-19 lockdown, it’s worth a look back how we as human beings stayed connected, six feet apart. Online video games boomed, to no one’s surprise, as we used apps like Zoom and Discord to laugh and create new memories over the internet. One game that became vastly popular was Among Us, a game where you and up to 9 friends attempt to complete tasks before two imposters kill enough members or the wrong people are voted out. I have fond memories of meeting people through a weekly Campus Ministry game night, where we would make wild accusations, flee in terror from the killer, or otherwise attempt to win amongst utter chaos. However, for every good memory I have of playing Among Us, I recognize there are many experiences other players have had, where friendships and/or relationships are tested due to playing this game together. Furthermore, party games in general provide the foundation for fun game nights to devolve into screaming matches, temper tantrums, and broken bonds. So…why the hell do we play these kinds of games?

While there can be enjoyment from tricking your friends into trusting you, without any serious intention of malice, Among Us can be risky. If you are an Imposter, you have the role of not only convincing your crewmates that you are trustworthy, but also someone else is an Imposter. As such, players will swear on their graves or argue to save themselves from being voted out. Insults are thrown, arguments become heated, and vocal cords are shredded. To worsen the situation, some players become so convinced of their intelligence that they pressure everyone else into choosing whomever they think is Imposter. Combining each ingredient, Among Us has the potential to emotionally and mentally destroy relationships, leaving players red in the face, crying, or throwing up many middle fingers.

One set of games that has developed a longstanding reputation for testing friendships is Nintendo’s Mario Party series. With eleven installments in the main series, Mario Party features characters from the Mario franchise in which up to four local players or computer-controlled characters compete in a board game interspersed with minigames and attempt to collect as many stars as possible. For many players, this is where immense stress and anger can come from: no one is 100% sure that they will win, despite assurances of their victory. In addition, the game’s features can switch players’ fortunes, including the chance for the player in last to switch places with the player in first. With elements such as these, plus difficult minigames, vocal outbursts can become increasingly common, as well as awkward pauses until the next display of anger.

My third and final example is another game from the Mario franchise: Mario Kart, where characters from Nintendo series, such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Animal Crossing, compete in go-kart races while using various items to gain advantage. While these items can grant speed boosts, create hazards, or attack opponents, one particular item has gained notoriety: the Blue Shell. This item’s purpose is to target the racer in first place and explode, slowing them down and often costing whomever it hits the race. However, the Blue Shell often comes to people farther behind, e.g. 5th-9th place. While this arguably gives the other players a better chance to catch up, the action of throwing this shell can demonstrate a person’s pettiness. Despite their almost-certain loss, a player could choose to cause misery, unafraid of the consequences, for the satisfaction of meddling with someone’s happiness. Presenting the chance to improve one’s placement in the race, the Blue Shell can turn a test of skill and luck into a every-man-for-himself type deal.

So why do we continue to play these types of games? This kind of anger and spiteful actions could be linked back to something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where lower-skilled individuals are likely to overestimate how good they are at something, like a video game. Often, players can “rage quit” when by themselves, but in a group setting, that anger can be a result of players’ behaviors during the game. One example could include where one player succeeds and is close to victory, so the other players choose to work together and prevent that outcome. Ganging up on another player can also happen if the others find enjoyment out of causing them angst. This cycle of allying against a fellow player can repeat endlessly and could eventually cause the recipient to lash out.

However, people still play party games. If I had to speculate as to why, my personal experience tells me that it’s through this cycle of suffering and causing suffering that the strongest friendships are created. When players recognize that there will be a chance for them to return the favor of embarrassment, they can mellow out and laugh at their own expense for their time being. The point of games, apart from being fun, is to bring people together, regardless of any labels we attach to each other. Whether it’s a video game, cards, or physical activity, bonds are created when we choose to use these games as a chance to relax and let down their walls. Furthermore, party games especially succeed at giving players an opportunity to vent their stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, we can develop a competitive streak, but, at the end of the day, we can just shake it off and keep playing. As a graduating senior, I’ve raged, laughed, cried, and slapped my head when playing any sort of game. I’ll probably forget what game I was playing when, but I’ll never forget the good times spent and the better people I played with.

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