In Defense of Cards Against Humanity

A few weeks back, the team at Shut Up & Sit Down posted a scathing review of Cards Against Humanity, the party game that provides players with tasteless answers to inappropriate questions. It’s worth a read. They raise some excellent points and highlight many of the more problematic elements with the game.

However, it does put me in a slightly awkward position. The entire review is written with a slight air of condescending disbelief, as if no intelligent person could possibly enjoy Cards Against Humanity or articulate a legitimate reason for doing so. While much of the humor is generically vulgar or sexual (i.e. ‘That ass’), the game has published references to Auschwitz, blackface, date rape, and a slew of other subjects that we’re not supposed to be able to laugh at.

But I do enjoy playing Cards Against Humanity, I have for years, and I know I’m not alone. The game is a top seller on Amazon.com with more than 20,0000 5-star reviews and it drew widespread acclaim when it first came out in 2011. I’d guess that much of that praise came from people who likely view themselves as progressive.

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I don’t think we were duped, nor do I think we were hypocrites. Cards Against Humanity captured people’s attention at least in part because it was an efficiently made game experience. If that’s the case, it should be possible to mount a coherent defense for Cards Against Humanity. That’s what I’m going to try to do here.

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I don’t want to refute anything said in that review. My goal is not to convince anyone they’re wrong for disliking Cards Against Humanity. There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to take that stance. There have also been serious allegations made against Max Temkin, one of the creators. If you don’t want to support the game due to such concerns, that’s a reasonable and commendable decision.*

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the game out of hand solely because we think we’re supposed to be better than the subject matter. For a long time we weren’t better than Cards Against Humanity, so it’s useful to understand what made the game so popular, if only so we know what it says about us.

The Humor

Let’s start with the obvious. Yes, much of the content in Cards Against Humanity is problematic.

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The tag line – A party game for horrible people – is important because it frames the way you approach the game. It expects players to recognize that these are things that people do not say in public, which also implies that you should know why these things are not said in public. It’s generally understood that the ideas in Cards Against Humanity are either bad or inappropriate. If you don’t find them so, then it should be cause for reexamination.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone I’ve ever played with has implicitly understood that distinction. With a few exceptions (most of which are sex positions), I have never seen anything in Cards Against Humanity that I hadn’t been previously exposed to elsewhere. The game traffics in stereotypes that people know to be stereotypes with pre-existing context, and then it tells you that those stereotypes are bad.

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Everyone – myself included – has biases that deserved to be questioned, and Cards Against Humanity doesn’t necessarily defuse those biases. But that doesn’t mean it’s doing excessive harm. It might make us uncomfortable, but there is cathartic value in a mechanism that allows people to safely explore boundaries and voice the taboo. Questions of taste and appropriateness are always being negotiated, and conversation with others is one of the ways that learn what is and is not acceptable.

Cards Against Humanity codifies those discussions around a system that engages a wider audience. The game’s documented willingness to remove cards is a part of that negotiation, an acknowledgement that our notions about propriety will change as we reach more people and listen to their concerns. While individual sessions usually take place behind closed doors, the game itself is sold to the public and it is therefore in its best interests to represent a more diverse audience.

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Having said that, I don’t wish to erase the very real problems with the game, and the Shut up and Sit Down piece raises concerns about privilege that are impossible to ignore. That’s ultimately the stickiest and most damning allegation, as well as the one that is most frequently overlooked. The game’s most enthusiastic audience seems to be the white middle class that has never had to live with the issues presented as comedy. People from different backgrounds will quite rightly have different reactions.

That’s why Cards Against Humanity will have to continue to listen and adapt if it hopes to remain relevant. If not, then it is the base, irredeemable thing it that its detractors would make it out to be.
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The Mechanics

Cards Against Humanity is more of a mixer than a test of strategy, but it is well made in the sense that it efficiently delivers that specific social experience.

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More to the point, the game is not a mash-up devoid of structure. Though house rules vary, the consensus is usually that the player that collects the most black cards is the winner. Most players won’t put much stock in that accomplishment, but it does provide a fixed objective during every round of play. The goal is to present the card that the person choosing will find the most amusing.

It shifts the focus from the cards to the people playing, making it a test that determines how well you know the other people at the table. Are they married? What kinds of movies do they like? Where do they work? What kinds of jokes do they find funny? You’re trying to predict how people will react to a given set of circumstances, and then you make choices based on those predictions.

That’s important because it indicates the most offensive play is often not the right one. I once played with someone who would select any card that referenced the British monarchy, regardless of context. Knowing those kinds of quirks mitigates the importance of shock as the primary objective.

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It also alleviates the game’s admittedly severe problem with repetition. You can only go balls deep into a squealing hog once before doing so starts to lose its appeal. That’s where the simpler elements demonstrate the most value. While Paul Dean compares the game to Lego to argue that jokes cannot be modular, I’d argue that’s precisely what makes Cards Against Humanity funny. When played well, it’s not a collection of random non-sequiturs. The challenge is to make a limited number of pieces fit together logically, and the restrictions help drive creativity. The most memorable play I’ve ever made was a cute joke about micropigs eating quiche that landed because it made sense and because it was so unexpected.

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To revisit the Lego comparison, the overt cards are decorative pieces, like trees or plastic flames. When you need them, there’s nothing else that will do the job, but their use is highly specific.

Meanwhile, an astonishing number of the cards are completely innocuous, holding phrases like ‘Science,’ or ‘A really silly hat,’ that work in a much wider set of circumstances. They’re utility cards, the 2×4 bricks that you use to hold the foundation together, and the game wouldn’t be nearly as functional without them.

The Pick 2 cards showcase that particularly well, giving the player the opportunity to craft a complete joke from disparate parts. Doing so takes some skill, or at least an ability to think about the mechanics of performance. I always consider how a card will be read while playing. Longer ones, for instance, are typically excellent setups and poor conclusions because they lack the immediacy of a good punchline and people often stumble over the words. Comedy is all about timing. I think about sentence structure and grammar in Cards Against Humanity, and that syntax has allowed me to enjoy the game long after the novelty has faded. It’s not a game I’d want to play too often, but there is enough strategy to keep my mind occupied beyond the lewdness.

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The Audience

That brings me to my last point of contention. The Shut Up & Sit Down repeatedly attempts to distance Cards Against Humanity from the rest of tabletop gaming, suggesting that the community should be ashamed that such a simple, uncomplicated, and offensive game has become an ambassador for the medium. I have no doubt that there are other games that I would enjoy and that are more accessible.

However, the fact remains that Cards of Humanity is the breakout sensation, and I don’t think it’s entirely an accident. When we cheerlead for games, it’s easy to forget that new games often demand considerable buy-in from participants. There are many people who don’t want (or perhaps don’t think they want) to grapple with a rulebook and a bunch of new game pieces they’ve never seen before. The most imposing barrier is often convincing people to play in the first place, and that has less to do with the quality of the game than psychology.

For all its faults, Cards Against Humanity gets past those reservations faster than almost any other game I’ve played. The rules are extraordinarily simple, allowing those unfamiliar with the game to fully participate within five minutes. Yes, some of that probably has to do with the appeal of the taboo. It’s unlikely that Cards Against Humanity becomes a hit with more mundane subject matter.

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However, the design amplifies the game’s strongest elements, so the fact that audiences have latched onto it is not a mark against it. The simple black-on-white aesthetic focuses your attention on the content of the cards, ensuring that there is nothing to distract you from the obvious brashness. That makes it a much easier sell for those who might be skeptical, and the gameplay is strong enough to keep people hooked beyond that point. Those who like Cards Against Humanity walk away thinking about how much they laughed and that’s often all they remember about the game. That passion builds word of mouth much faster than ambivalence. People go and tell their friends and then the gospel spreads.

The Shut Up & Sit Down review presents a slew of other games as alternatives to Cards Against Humanity, and I can readily believe that Skull and The Metagame are awesome. It’s just not the audience’s job to know about them. They have to market themselves, and that’s a category in which Cards Against Humanity excels.

That’s also why it’s a little condescending to lament the relative obscurity of Skull, as if we’re all stupid morons for playing Cards Against Humanity instead of these other games that many people haven’t heard of. It’s the tabletop equivalent of a movie critic lambasting readers for seeing The Avengers when Super was so much better. For all the talk of outreach, Cards Against Humanity has achieved a higher profile than most tabletop games ever will, including audiences that don’t otherwise read or consume anything related to tabletop gaming.

Popular opinion isn’t always right (and is often wrong), but it is a useful piece of information when it comes to public tastes. Cards Against Humanity used brash humor to grab attention in a deliberate and obvious way. The game’s subsequent success is therefore to its credit. Developers and enthusiasts searching for a more inclusive diplomat will have to find a way to replicate that success instead of waiting for Cards Against Humanity to politely step aside.

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The Rest

Cards Against Humanity undoubtedly raises questions about diversity in gaming. Most of the people I’ve played with have either been family or very close friends in a private setting, and I doubt it would translate well to a public setting with strangers. By design, it’s the kind of game meant to be played behind closed doors, which are often self-selecting, non-representative spaces that reflect our upbringing. Those issues are worth considering when evaluating or recommending the game to others.

It’s also worth noting that almost everything I’ve said in favor of Cards Against Humanity applies equally to Apples to Apples, which is often a much better option in a mixed crowd. I’m sure there are other games I don’t know about that I would enjoy as much as (or more) than Cards Against Humanity.

As for me, I’m more ambivalent about the game now than it was when it first debuted, and my relationship will continue to evolve alongside the game and the discussion that surrounds it. There may come a day when I find that I am unwilling to play, for a wide variety of reasons.

But to suggest that the game is some kind of accident of offensiveness with no intrinsic merits is an overly wishful analysis. You definitely don’t have to like Cards Against Humanity, but it became a phenomenon because it is efficiently designed and resonates extremely well with its intended audience.

That doesn’t inherently make it praiseworthy, but it does set the bar for other designers. Some games may be funnier. Others may have a more finely tuned balance or more interesting mechanics. The point is only that Cards Against Humanity is not deficient, and the unique blend of comedy and design has helped fuel its popularity. If we want a game that supplants Cards Against Humanity, it will have to be a better version of what people already have.

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*I first played Cards Against Humanity and formed my opinions in 2011 and 2012, long before the rape allegations against Max Temkin were made public. This article reflects that earlier experience with the game. I therefore won’t be addressing those allegations here, but they are worth considering as it relates to future support of the game.

 

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