With a recent release of a new set, the party game Cards Against Humanity is trending on social media again. The new set, by the way, is exactly the same as the existing main game, only it’s pink coloured and 5 dollars more expensive. It’s branded “For Her” and released as a spoof on gendered products. The profits go to Emily’s List, a charitable organisation that helps pro-choice women of the Democratic party to get elected.
With this renewed attention for the game, some people are also finding their time to express their dislike of it and re-publish negative reviews. A good example is this one from Shut Up & Sit Down, a tabletop game review website. It got my attention, because I always enjoyed the game and wanted to know what people’s professional critique of it would come down to. And although I disagree with all of them, they bring up reasonable points and I would like to discuss them. Basically, bad reviews of Cards Against Humanity come down to three major issues. 1. The content is offensive and offensive is not funny, it’s hurtful. 2. Reading jokes from a card is not creative and funny. You have to think of jokes yourself. 3. It’s such simplistic, shallow game, it gives boardgames and people who play them a bad name.
Okay so, again, despite disagreeing with each point, I find them interesting and would like to put my two cents in.
Yes, the content of the cards is highly risqué and not suitable for everyone. A common criticism is that, although the cards only offers the option, it’s obviously enabling you to be politically incorrect and create card combinations that make fun of minorities and things like rape, abuse, violence and racism. Indeed, it offers a variety of offensive possibilities. But it’s worth noting that the outcomes differ highly on the company it’s being played in. I played the game with a relatively diverse group of people, of different nationalities, gender- and sexual orientation and varying standards towards blue humor. But none of them ever had a problem with the game. Because it offers the player the option to tailor the jokes towards your own interest and interpretation. The game doesn’t have strict rules and let’s you improvise according to your company and whatever you prefer. Its main purpose is to have fun with the whole group. If that means that your group of friends will tend to go for more ironic card combos and make jabs at privileged institutions instead of minorities, then you totally can. It can easily be discussed and adjusted if one or more in your group are uncomfortable with some of the rules or a specific card.
Or is the game guilty by default for giving players the option to be hurtful? Personally I think it’s the player’s responsibility to take the feelings in account of friends they’re playing it with. In short: it’s too easy to say that CAH is meant for fratboys and privileged white people. You can make it into whatever you want.
Is CAH a lame game? Yeah, kind of. The most obvious testimony to this, is the alternative rule that my friend group uses a lot. It’s called “Steve” and it adds a ghost player to the game. Every round someone blindly draws a card for Steve, and more often than not Steve actually wins the game. The absurdity and sometimes accidentally meaningful replies from drawing a random card are the funniest. But that’s the point of the game. You don’t always want a game that’s clever and challenging and deeply complicated; sometimes you just want to drink with your friends and stupidly giggle over lame bullcrap. That’s what party games are for. And the argument that jokes should come from your own imagination doesn’t really fly. Jokes are almost always borrowed, recycled and subconsciously or not variations of things we heard before. Plus, as much as CAH might be “Lego for jokes” or “Painting by number humour”, it still makes a huge difference if you play it with people that know how to deliver their lines, spot clever combos and encourage the rest to do the same.
This of course I can’t fully judge. I’m not a tabletop gamer, not a professional critic and not an industry insider. I don’t have data on the sales figures, market share and general popularity of board games and the like, so I can’t judge if it indeed negatively influenced anything. As for the reputation of table top aficionados, that concern sounds a little vain if I may say so. I tend to think that people that like tabletop games or potentially like them, will look past one silly party game and understand that there’s more to it. Folks that wouldn’t care for the hobby anyway, won’t have a change of heart whether CAH exist or not, I feel. If I look at myself, I’m not a huge fan but I like the occasional board game. Both complex ones like Elder Sign and the charming stupidity of Cards Against Humanity.
Dadaism and Philanthropy
Born from a pen and paper game by a group of senior students, Cards Against Humanity grew from a Kickstarter campaign into a small institution of 17 folks that are deeply invested in the community. The team became famous for publicity stunts and parody of consumerism, which often has a Dadaistic tone it. Examples include selling “a box of bullshit” which turned out to literally be a box filled with cow manure. This was explicitly stated in the product description but buyers still filed complaints over it. Another campaign that made the news was an anti-Black Friday sale, where people were given the opportunity to buy absolutely nothing for five dollars. The webshop on the official site was emptied and visitors had the option to pay $5,- for, well, nothing. Surprisingly, or not, almost twelve hundred people did this and landed the team over 70K. In response to this, they posted a list of every team member and a detailed description of what they bought for their share of the money. Most attention went to CAH team member Karlee, who bought a 24-karat gold vibrator for three thousand and donated the rest of her share to Planned Parenthood. The other staff members showed similar combinations of luxury products and donations to charity.
When I see Cards Against Humanity, I see a group of millennials, perhaps borderline generation X, with that odd but familiar mixture of cynicism and idealism that you see a lot these days. A game and a group of people firmly rooted in contemporary culture; aiming to sort of pinch society in the butt and have fun and do good at the same time. Whether if that’s idealism, privilege or just pure boredom is an interesting point of debate.