Considering that Grand Theft Auto, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory have all received their public nerd backlashes, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen one against the game Cards Against Humanity yet. It’s super popular, it sells itself on being transgressive and breaking barriers of good taste; what’s the hold up?
In fact, the only indication of whether it was safe for me to say publicly how much I hate Cards Against Humanity came at the end of a Shut Up & Sit Down video review of something else a while back (which is impossible for me to find a link to at the moment, so just take my word for it). They were talking about gateway games and introducing people to the hobby, and in regards to CAH, just gave the diplomatic and tactful “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
That’s the healthiest and most mature response. Usually, whenever something I hate becomes popular, my natural tendency is to combine the endings of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, running through the streets screaming about a world gone mad, pointing in accusatory horror at anyone who would dare enjoy something that I don’t. But that simple acknowledgement in a review video was enough to calm me down and pull me back into the land of the well-adjusted. It’s a filler game that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. What’s the problem?
The problem is that it does affect me, because I keep finding myself in situations where I’m in a group that wants to play Cards Against Humanity, and I end up having to grit my teeth and play along, or decline and end up looking like an over-sensitive wet blanket, or even worse, looking like I’m casting judgment on the people who want to play. I can’t think of any other game — at least one that doesn’t involve drinking or stripping — that has so much defensive social awkwardness baked in.
So I was relieved when Shut Up and Sit Down posted a three-part review of Cards Against Humanity, finally lifting the embargo and giving me permission to announce how much I hate the game and never want to play it.
For the record, I agree 99% with Matt Lees’s take, especially this:
I despise the implication that those who complain about the tone of Cards Against Humanity are approaching the topic with the mindset of a prude… I don’t need a card game to grant me permission, but I also don’t need one to absolve me from guilt.
It’s a system designed to reliably dose players with an intoxicating sense of naughtiness. Breaking social rules gives people a buzz, but frankly there are better rules to be breaking. One of the great pleasures of games is allowing yourself to briefly play a role that’s different to your own, but I can’t help but cringe when faced with the glee of people using a deck of cards to pretend they’re the square root of Jeremy Clarkson.
But there’s more to it than that, as there always is whenever something that’s frankly lazy tries to pass itself off as transgressive satire. It pulls in all these layers of defensiveness and offensiveness which isn’t actual depth, but just the typical Hipster Spiral of Irony. So here’s my attempt to unpack everything wrong with it, in convenient list form:
The makers of the game actually seem kind of cool.
For as long as I’ve been aware, the game was released in the Creative Commons, which includes an option to print your own copy. And they still have managed to make millions and millions of dollars from it. On top of that, they seem to be genuinely interested in supporting and promoting board and card games as a hobby and a “community,” instead of just swooping in for a sudden cash grab.
There shouldn’t be any resentment over how much money the game has made.
Although I’ve never watched an actual episode, I’m especially impressed with the premise of Tabletop Deathmatch, which borrows the reality show format for a series that supports and promotes aspiring game designers. Of course, it promotes Cards Against Humanity as well, which is a perfect example of the combination of marketing and “giving back” that is understood by the kind of people who make lots and lots of money.
A ton of the backlash against Penny Arcade, for instance, was obviously motivated not just by anything they were actually saying, but because they’d become wealthy enough that they became a safe target. It’s a stupid and self-destructive tendency that we (meaning nerd fans) have to try and tear down anyone who becomes successful doing something they love. We should cut it out.
That said, the game still sucks.
When they released Cards Against Humanity, they chose the tagline “A Party Game for Horrible People” as opposed to the more accurate “We Took Apples to Apples and Added AIDS Jokes.” But really, by adding cards about the Holocaust and sharts, they removed the only element of Apples to Apples that’s at all interesting. Opportunities to make any kind of interesting connection or observation in CAH is an accident at best; 99% of the game is just picking whichever card is going to result in the biggest shock value. It’s pretty much entirely passive.
A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to play, we included my friend’s toddler as one of the players. Each round, she’d randomly pick a card to get added into the mix. She “scored” as well as anyone else did. That’s a clear sign of a terrible non-game.
I think the game sucks, not the people who play it.
A surprising number of my friends still like using it as a filler game or a time-waster, and in fact a couple of them are some of the funniest and most clever people I’ve ever met. But because of the tagline and the premise, there’s an element of defensiveness baked in: you’re saying I should feel bad for enjoying this. Or even worse: I’m playing this with a level of ironic detachment that you clearly don’t understand because you have a simplistic sense of humor.
Believe me: we get it. There are certainly people who play Cards Against Humanity the same way my friends and I tittered over a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes when we were in middle school. You don’t sell millions of dollars worth of something without catering to everyone. But I’m fortunate enough never to have to play with those people. The groups I’ve ever had to play with are all approaching it as SF Bay Area Liberals: it’s a kind of meta-commentary on the type of asshole who thinks jokes about AIDS, child abuse, and Michael Jackson are genuinely funny.
It’s not a subtle game; the premise is right there on the box. It presents a kind of “safe space” where you can say stuff you’d never say otherwise.
I might still be silently judging you, but that’s okay.
Again, though, if you can charitably describe it as a role-playing game, the role you’re choosing to play is Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Dice Clay. I’m the guy who’s saying things that other people can’t. It’s all juvenile stuff that just depends on trying to shock the easily offended and then passing it off as transgressive humor.
What annoys me the most when playing it isn’t when someone picks a card that hits one of my hot-button topics. It’s when somebody, before revealing their cards, gives that half-groan and says something like, “Oh, this is sooo bad,” or “Sorry about this!” with a nervous giggle. It takes all of my willpower not to just shout out Yes that’s the entire point of the game we all get that you score points by being offensive you don’t need to qualify it every single turn!
Which ends up making me feel bad, and it’s the kind of hassle I’d rather not have to deal with. I don’t have to feel bad whenever I say I don’t want to play Notre Dame or Smash Up or various other games that I don’t enjoy, so why’s there all this extra baggage around a stupid card game?
I’ve got a juvenile, “there’s no such thing as too lowbrow” sense of humor, and I still giggle when I hear the word “duty.” There have been billions of times I’ve made a joke and gotten a reaction from friends as if I’d just farted directly onto their face. I don’t take it personally, so nobody should take it personally when I announce that their game is stupid and I hate it.
It’s not about genuine offense, or political correctness.
Part of the reason I think my objection to a simple filler card game warrants a blog post is because there are so many different interpretations of why it sucks. There are three in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, all of which I agree (and disagree) with to some degree. There’s also this brief write-up on Offworld, which I don’t agree with.
I’m not particularly concerned with the type of player who’d start talking about political correctness or free speech or being “edgy” with this game, because as I said, I’m lucky enough never to have to play with that type of person. The problem isn’t that it’s offensive, the problem is that it’s lazy. There’s nothing there.
It’s not about “punching down.”
I’ve already seen plenty of condemnations of the game and apologia for the game that both talk about “punching up” and “punching down.” I’ve got zero patience for this; I think it’s some of the worst fallout from the modern trend towards pop-progressivism on the Internet. Simply because if you’re talking about treating people well and fairly, it shouldn’t involve any talk of “punching.” If you’re truly interested in equality, diversity, and all the other things that progressives are supposed to concern about, then acceptable treatment of people should have nothing to do with their race, gender, sexuality, or wealth.
Removing cards is kind of gross.
The only thing that I do find genuinely offensive about Cards Against Humanity is when I hear about people who remove certain cards before they play. To each his own, of course, but I think this is just downright horrible.
It introduces a kind of ghoulish Calculus of Appropriate Speech. It defies the whole premise of the game (flimsy as it is), which insists that everything is fair game because none of this is real. As soon as you start removing cards because they hit on taboo subjects, then you’re saying that some of it is real. That you are actually making jokes at someone’s expense, instead of mocking the horribleness of the whole concept. Which raises the question of where these players are drawing the line. How can it be unacceptable to make light of child abuse and sexual assault, but acceptable to keep cracks about AIDS or the Holocaust?
I do understand the concept of triggers and post-traumatic stress, and how something that seems perfectly innocuous to me can cause an actual physiological reaction in people who’ve had to go through with it. And believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to that. But I insist that it’s not at all crass or insensitive to suggest that if someone is harmed by the content of a card game that’s designed to be offensive, you’d be better off playing Dixit. Otherwise, you’re suggesting that some of the content is to be taken seriously, and you really are engaged in the activity of making fun of other people’s horror or misfortune for fun.
Stop trying to define what’s acceptable in stuff that’s intended to be offensive.
It goes back, yet again, to one of the worst things I’ve read on the internet, the Jezebel article that tried to delineate exactly how and when it’s acceptable to make light of sexual assault, using discussions of positions of power, CDC statistics, and a counter-example of being horribly mangled by an industrial thresher. It’s a clumsy (no matter how well-intentioned) attempt to codify something for which there’s a simple, straightforward answer: it’s never okay to make light of sexual assault. The reason comedians like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman seem to get away with it isn’t complicated; it’s simply because they’re not making light of it.
And the reason it’s worth pointing out over and over again is because I honestly believe it’s lowering the level of discourse. We keep having cyclical flare-ups when people just fail to get how not to be awful, and the response doesn’t help, but instead perpetuates it. Simple-minded people already talk as if there’s some rulebook somewhere of Arbitrary Rules That The Liberals Have Imposed On Our Society, and they’re not sharing it with the conservatives. Whenever someone suggests that it’s okay for somebody to make offensive jokes because of some arbitrary social status, you’re just perpetuating the idea that it really is arbitrary.
If you think it’s arbitrary, you don’t get it. There’s no simple rulebook or actuarial table of how age or economic background factor into what you’re allowed to say. You’ve got to think about what’s actually being said, not just the words that are being used, or who’s talking. And if you don’t get that, then please, for the love of Pete, stop trying to explain it.
Cards Against Humanity isn’t representative of board and card games.
If I’m being honest: of all the objections raised in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, I think Paul’s are the weakest. CAH has been embraced by the “post-Catan wave” of board and card game enthusiasts, but it remains its own thing. Even the aforementioned Dixit or Apples to Apples are more likely to be “gateway” games for new players, simply because they’re actually games. (However simple they might be). I don’t believe Cards Against Humanity has any real aspirations to “game-ness,” because of all its built-in ironic disclaimers and presenting itself as more of a social activity than an actual game.
Frankly, I think that claiming to be concerned about the impression it gives to new gamers is just a crutch to make it “okay” to say how much you hate it. (And I mention it because I’ve been tempted to do exactly that). I can justify hating on Grand Theft Auto because each release of the series is such a huge event that it becomes shorthand for “This Is What Video Games Are.” Even the people who love Cards Against Humanity would acknowledge that it’s a filler, and that it doesn’t represent the game industry any more than Family Guy represents animation.
And I really do think it’s worth repeating that the makers of Cards Against Humanity are frequently sponsoring gaming events and evangelizing the hobby. I do wish they were doing it with an actual game, but that just brings us back full circle to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.
For my part, I’m just happy that now that I’ll never again have to explain to anyone why I don’t want to play it.