jokes and judgment

Game Design / Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

What is a joke? What makes something funny? Typically, jokes come in two parts: a premise followed by an unexpected conclusion. The contrast between two seemingly disparate yet connected parts of a joke tricks our brain, and makes us laugh. Consequently, jokes aren’t as funny the second time because we know exactly what to expect, and are prepared for it.


This should be a problem for games that rely on the unexpected, on the “turn”, like Cards Against Humanity. And yet, we are still playing them. I witnessed a group of friends play Cards Against Humanity for six hours straight, until almost all the cards were used up. And they had all played it before. Surely the combinations of question and unexpected response have been exhausted once you’ve seen many of the cards, even though the permutations are vast. So what is the reason for the longevity of this game?


It turns out we like something as much as we like jokes: judgment.

On the surface, games like Cards Against Humanity and Joking Hazard are about being witty, funny and clever. Each turn, a player decides which of the other players’ cards is the best match for the starting card, and awards the winner a point. But these games must rely on more than a finite set of humorous cards, or they’d stop being fun after a single playthrough. After all, on close inspection, all the cards are variations on the same thing: there’s the crude, the offensive, and the sexual, and not much else. In fact, these games rely more heavily on our enjoyment in judging others. Judgment happens on many levels:

  1. The person picking the winner for each round judges the other players’ cards and chooses the best
  2. The other players judge the person picking the winner on his or her choice for the best card
  3. All players judge each other for what card they chose to play

When it comes down to it, social card games of this ilk are not about being funny, they are about playing a card that displays what you think others will find funny. We naturally seek approval and friendship, and this layer of judgment provides a game framework that forces us to make choices under the pressure of your watching (and judging) friends.


Is this sort of social judgment in games a good thing? I think it depends on the group of people playing the game.

1. Among friends: Good
These games are meant to be played with a group of friends, and are most effective in these social situations. Friendships are largely based on sharing the same humour, and if everyone in the group is comfortable around each other, the fear of judgment is minimal, and everyone is able to participate equally. This is why this group of friends could play Cards Against Humanity for six hours straight, and enjoy it.


2. With co-workers: Mediocre
I played Joking Hazard with some co-workers, and while it was fun, it lacked the uproarious camaraderie of playing Cards Against Humanity amongst friends. We definitely hold ourselves back in the workplace, and while we may be friends with co-workers, there’s a sense of propriety and a level of respect that goes into those relationships. It also surprised me when one of the players told me privately later, “That whole game was painful for me, I didn’t find any of it funny.” He hadn’t mentioned anything of that sort during the game, and was participating and engaging in our banter. It reinforced the idea that these type of games affect how we choose to present ourselves in social situations for the benefit of others.


3. Meeting new people: Bad
Around new people, we tend to act more cautiously, and we are quick to form opinions and first impressions. These games are not great for getting to know someone you just met, and make things uncomfortable especially when there are cultural, political or social differences that may not be present in a group of friends that all know each other fairly well. Players are thus hesitant and prevent themselves from being fully immersed in the game due to the worry of what everyone else would think of them for playing a certain card, choosing a certain card, laughing or not laughing. Again, it’s less about choosing what you find funny but trying to guess what other players would find funny, because we crave that social validation that makes us feel like one of the crowd.


It is interesting to think of judgment as a mechanic in social card games, because judgment is so ubiquitous in our daily lives. These games play on the human fear and social pressure of what others think of us, and when wielded correctly, judgment and humour can be a powerful combination. It is important for us, as players of these games, to consider the audience we bring them to and notice the dynamic between players. While games like Cards Against Humanity and Joking Hazard can be a good starting point for social situations, being aware of our fellow players’ thoughts and emotions will help us become better friends, and better game designers.