Cards Against Humanity, before it became go-to entertainment for a generation raised on the Internet and saddled with a backward idea of political correctness, began as a crowdsourced, printable game created by a group of old high school friends. A 2011 Kickstarter campaign produced the actual cards. In the promotional video, we’re introduced to half a dozen white guys who explain that it’s for “horrible people,” or at least the type of people who like to jokingly describe themselves as such. Recently, for a Black Friday promotion, they sent 30,000 people boxes of actual bullshit. It’s that sort of thing.
The concept is simple: One person throws out a fill-in-the-blank prompt card, and the rest of the players have to supply the missing words with cards bearing phrases like “pooping back and forth forever” and “not giving a shit about the Third World.” The founders promise that the game is “as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”
Their success is startling: Cards Against Humanity is the No. 1 bestseller in Amazon Toys & Games, with five expansion sets to date, three holiday packs, and bundles with themes like “nostalgia” and “science.” There are more than 14,000 five-star reviews on Amazon. “That’s a level of devotion that can’t be explained by shock value alone,” wrote Nick Summers in Business Insider, as “the humor is calibrated to startle without being outright offensive.”
Well, that’s not exactly true.
The first time I played Cards Against Humanity, I couldn’t remember having ever laughed so hard. It was at a friend’s engagement party, with 10 people I knew better than just about anyone, our faces turning red and streaming with tears as we envisioned a mopey zoo lion, a frolicking gassy antelope, and Micropenises: The Musical. The hilarity lived in the shock, and each card had us doubled over almost before we could read it.
You’re the “horrible person” who played the cards in the first place. It’s not the game’s fault.
The second time I played, I still laughed a lot, though I started recognizing all the cards. The third time, I realized that some made me uncomfortable. The fifth time I played, I was thankful that my friend had brought an expansion pack, because there are only so many times I can cackle at the idea of Glenn Beck balls-deep in a squealing hog. I’ve played it about a dozen times, and now I’m starting to make a conscious effort to avoid it.
The problems with the game are obvious and two-pronged. On the innocuous side, shock value is a large part of the draw, and it gets old fast—hence all the expansion packs you’re encouraged to buy, each promising further blows to the “easily offended.” The white cards are designed as punchlines to the black cards’ setups. What may be a straightforward concept on its own (“The Trail of Tears”) only transforms into something questionable when paired with “Instead of coal, Santa now gives bad children _______.”
This folds into the other issue: the bar for acceptable crudeness is set by college-educated white guys. “A big dick” would be a funny enough response card, but CAH opts for “a big, black dick” (and, in the expansion pack, “a bigger, blacker dick”). Blackness is what’s supposed to send it over the top. Other white cards considered hilarious include “roofies,” “a sassy black woman,” “praying the gay away,” and “two midgets shitting into a bucket.” The plausibly deniable punchlines of rape culture, anti-blackness, homophobia, and ableism are visible just below the gauze, but hey, you’re the “horrible person” who played them in the first place. It’s not the game’s fault.
“I think the game perpetuates a pretty nasty culture: ‘Hey, look how enlightened I am because I’m beyond race/religion and can make nasty jokes about it!’” said Adrienne Ciskey, a game designer. “It comes across as a game for overly privileged hipsters who believe they are entitled to this lifestyle where everyone worships them to feel ‘in’ on the joke.” She also introduced me to the phrase “Real Wheaton’s Law”: “Don’t be a dick, unless it’s being a dick in certain pre-sanctioned-by-us situations.”
The line about comedy is that no topic should be taboo, and I agree with that. But the more “controversial” the subject, the more carefully it needs to be handled. A good comedian can make a joke about a celebrity, but a great comedian is the one who can gracefully craft a joke about something darker without making the subject the butt of the joke. CAH lets us become the comedians, giving us the setups and the punchlines to mix and match. The trouble is that we’re not great comedians.
The game relies on the concept of the equal-opportunity offender, someone who makes fun of all religions, races, sexes, and anything else. Instead of punching up, they’re ready to just punch. It also relies on a bit of bullying over the idea of being “easily offended.” It is “not for the easily offended.” It is a “political-correctness-free zone.” If you’re the easily offended type, you shouldn’t even look at the cards. And you wouldn’t want to be one of those, would you?
A quick look at the illustrations of the Cards Against Humanity team still shows a primarily male, primarily white group.
According to David Munk, one of the game’s designers, the team is aware of the cultural power they hold, and their own privileged viewpoints. “When we find that our game has bullied or marginalized people in a way that we didn’t expect, we apologize and amend the game,” he told the Daily Dot. “We do our best to make jokes about people and institutions in positions of cultural power, and not to bully people.” Which is a good thing, for sure, but spot-fixing things only gets you so far.
“It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life [when] that was funny.”
That policy also differs from what “core team member” Ben Hantoot said in 2011: “Several times, [in testing the game], people have left the room crying. But we’re OK with that. That means the game works!” He suggested removing cards if they’re upsetting, placing the burden on those playing, as if anticipating possible outrage is a waste of the CAH cabal’s time. It’s the sorry if you were offended of card games. It’s entirely possible that in the three years since Hantoot was interviewed, the designers have internalized that fewer people should leave the room crying when playing the game, but the plan still seems to be to see what they can “get away with” before enough people speak up.
So what makes the cut? This year’s holiday pack, titled “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa,” was a sort of advent calendar where people were mailed daily CAH-themed gifts (including that line mentioned above) for 10 days. I admit it gave me pause, as Kwanzaa is certainly not in the position of cultural power that Christmas occupies. “The joke to us is that we (the white authors of the game) didn’t bother to research that there are actually seven days of Kwanzaa,” said Munk. “It’s a joke that we meant to poke fun at white privilege, ignorance, and laziness.” CAH has also done its part to use the campaign for good. The profits from that box of bullshit were donated to Heifer International, and last year they gave more than $100,000 to DonorsChoose to fund public schools.
But what was meant as a commentary on the type of person who would dismiss Kwanzaa can simply turn into yet another way to dismiss Kwanzaa, as evidenced by the number of people who rephrased the title as “Kwanzaa or Whatever” on Twitter. Are the jokes too smart for their target audience, or are the CAH boys just too cavalier with material that can be quickly misconstrued?
I get why Cards Against Humanity can 'get away' with a joke like this. None of them & a lot of us, don't know anyone who celebrates Kwanzaa.— Isaiah (@Bboy_Izilla) November 12, 2014
CAH does seem to understand that comedy still requires social responsibility, especially as people speak out more about the cards they find disturbing. In June, Max Temkin said he had pulled the “passable transvestites” card after Jonah Miller, a transgender player, posted a photo of himself burning it—with the caption “DEATH TO TRANSPHOBIA”—on his Tumblr. Temkin admitted that he regretted the card and called it a “mean, cheap joke.” “It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life [when] that was funny,” he wrote.
White cards still include “copping a feel” and “surprise sex!”
Meanwhile, Miller faced backlash from around the Web. Many criticized his choice to burn a transphobic card but continue playing with other cards that are arguably racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive. Miller eventually wrote a follow-up post, admitting, “I was only looking at the issues which affected me personally, and I was allowing myself to find everything else funny because I wasn’t the person to whom it’s directed.”
Presumably, Cards Against Humanity should be thinking like Miller, anticipating the pain of seeing a card directed at you and empathizing with that, parsing which cards provide a light tease and which are actually hurtful, instead of waiting for fans to force their removal. The list of changes to the lineup is extensive, and includes many justified deletions. But an equal number of harmless cards fall by the wayside, and for every “dwarf tossing” we’ve lost, there’s a “robust mongoloid” or “chunks of dead prostitute” that stays or gets added.
Complicating matters further is an accusation of sexual harassment against co-creator Max Temkin. In a blog post addressing the topic, Temkin writes like a considerate, understanding person about sexual assault and rape culture. He said his lawyer told him he’d have a strong libel case, but he won’t take legal action because he’s “not wild about the precedent that sets for other women to come forward in cases of actual sexual assault.” It’s hard to tell if he’s a legitimate ally or just looking for feminist brownie points. Most women I know lose the ability to distinguish, having been burned too many times.
In the end, he vowed to keep being a “feminist” and hiring women, and reminded us that “We removed all of the ‘rape’ jokes from Cards Against Humanity years ago. We’ll continue to use the game as best we can to ‘punch up’ and not ‘punch down.’”
As of this writing, white cards still include “copping a feel” and “surprise sex!”
When I first began to notice the issues with the game’s humor, I remember purposefully, smugly not playing the “my black ass” card. I figured I wouldn’t play it in front of a black person, so there was no reason for me to play it in a room full of white people. Later that summer, a black friend told me how much she loved the game, and how she always picked the “sassy black woman” card as a winner. I was reminded that I should never make assumptions—that she wouldn’t like that card, or that any other black person would. I was also reminded that it’s as easy to ignore sexism and racism as it is to overzealously take up a controversy on behalf of people who don’t need you to speak for them.
In an essay about the rise of the “Not All Men” meme, Time‘s Jess Zimmerman wrote of the stages men must go through to overcome sexism. Her insights can be applied to other forms of discrimination by those in privileged positions. Once you’ve acknowledged that these power structures exist, you can learn how you’ve been socialized to accept them and benefit from them, and then take active steps to work against them.
The Cards Against Humanity team is stalled in the middle of that narrative: understanding that there is a cultural hierarchy that disenfranchises people, making it clear they’re aware of the privilege they hold, attempting to use their humor to separate themselves from those who don’t get it, and apologizing for their mistakes when they’re called out. And they’ve faced minimal criticism, because, well, those steps are where most fail.
People will apologize once they know they’ve done something wrong, but many won’t try to avoid wronging in the first place—by actively seeking diverse viewpoints and hires, for example. We’ve accepted the offense, as long as the apologies are good enough. Dismantling privilege doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve checked yours.
The hardest I ever laughed in that first Cards Against Humanity game was when a friend answered “What ruined the school trip?” with “soup that is too hot.” It’s perfectly absurdist, first-world-problem humor, evoking images of finicky fourth graders trying to send their bowls back to their teacher, asking to speak to the chef. Those are the golden moments when the game becomes transcendent, when a joke can be understood across contexts, and nobody has to scan friends’ faces for potential blowback over the card they’re about to play. Great comedy doesn’t rely on a laugh that happens in spite of itself.