Game Design

the problem with cards against humanity

Cards Against Humanity is a social card game that was released in 2011, and became very popular as a staple party game.  This is how the game developers describe it on their website:

Description of Cards Against Humanity by the developers on the game’s official website.

Basically, the person who asks the question gets to determine who wins a point from their answer.  The game is decidedly R-rated, with topics purposely as crude and despicable as possible, including racism, anti-semitism, sexism, graphic violence, ableism, and many others.

The Social Pressure of Playing Games

I don’t like Cards Against Humanity.  First and foremost, I don’t find Cards Against Humanity funny, or clever; I actually find the game reprehensible.  Also, I view it as a bad game — to me it’s just a game of chance to see who manages to draw the most offensive set of cards in a game, and the worse the cards are, the more likely you are to “win”.  If a group of my friends at a party wanted to play the game, I’d be over on the couch on my phone.

But the thing is, I’ve never spoken up about it before or told my friends not to play it, which now I’ve realised means that I was a part of the problem.  I’ve just passively gone over to sit on the couch because “Cards Against Humanity is not my thing, but you guys go ahead.”  All this for fear of social retribution, I suppose, not wanting to be the wet blanket or be seen as “uncool” for not liking the “edgy, adult humour” that Cards Against Humanity seems to sell.

I’m sorry for my inaction.  That ends today.

In this post, I will discuss the problems of Cards Against Humanity, and the social responsibilities we have as gamers and game designers when playing and making games.

Cards Against Humanity and the “Just Joking” Justification

Let’s start with the developers’ description of Cards Against Humanity.  Here it is again:

Cards Against Humanity is a party game for horrible people. Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.

The game is simple. Each round, one player asks a question from a black card, and everyone else answers with their funniest white card.

First, the developers call the players “horrible people”, and say that their game is “as despicable and awkward as” anyone who chooses to play it.  The problem with this is that it’s said in a way that’s meant to appear funny, when in fact, the statement is true.

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Then, they say that the aim of the game is to answer with the “funniest” card.  By doing this, it validates players’ awkward laughter at a response, no matter how funny, offensive or plain wrong it is.  It also tells players that the text on the cards (anything from “gay conversion therapy” to “only dating Asian women” and everything in between — and those aren’t even close to the worst ones) are meant to be funny with these questions.

As an example, here’s a screenshot from the Cards Against Humanity website.  (There’s a scrolling header that goes through example gameplay at the top of the page, and there were many, many examples I could choose from.  Some of these screenshots are scattered through this post.)

Example gameplay: “That’s right, I killed __black people__. How, you ask? __Police brutality__.” Image from: Cards Against Humanity official website.

Again, this is on the game’s official website.  How is this okay?

In any other other context, saying something like this would be considered deeply offensive, but in Cards Against Humanity, developers give players the license in their actual rules to read statements like this out loud and have a laugh about it.  This is called the “just joking justification” trope, which occurs again and again in rounds of Cards Against Humanity, justifying awful things by claiming them to be “just a joke”, or in this case, “just a game”.

Games are Abstractions of Systems

“Just a game”, of course, does not come without its share of baggage.  For many years, the games industry (particularly video games) has grappled with the criticism that games incite violence1,2.  There are popular games that have you steal cars, kill innocent people, and trade drugs, not to mention the ongoing criticisms of female tropes, colonialism and a host of other problems in games.

The difference between these criticisms and what is going on in Cards Against Humanity can be boiled down to the level of abstraction in these games.  Raph Koster describes games as “abstract simulations” in A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Games are largely about getting people to see past the variations and look instead at the underlying patterns.  Because of this, gamers are very good at seeing past fiction.  This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games — they don’t see “get a blowjob from a hooker, then run her over.”  They see a power-up.

— Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design3

I’m not saying that the fictional worlds and stories game designers choose to layer over game mechanics don’t matter — they do, and we need to do better.  I’m simply pointing out that in most games there is a level of abstraction that turns, say, a power-up into a few pixels resembling the shape of a mushroom on a screen, or using a weapon into an interaction you have by pushing a button.

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Even in board games, when you say “I’m going to buy Park Place,” you’re not actually spending real money and buying real property.  Similarly, you’re not actually harming a player when you “damage them for 3 health”.

But in Cards Against Humanity, the words on the cards mean what they say.  You’re reading these cards out loud to your real friends, who are real people.

The problem with Cards Against Humanity is that there is no real abstraction.  There are no rules about what combination of cards scores higher than another.  There is no set criteria for judging the outcomes of each round; it’s totally up to the player.  The game is fully based on the players’ personal tastes, opinions, biases and social interactions.

You’re not playing as a fictional character in the game.  You’re playing as you.

Cards Against Humanity is about as close to being real as you can get.

Example gameplay: “My plan for world domination begins with __the Jews__.” Image from: Cards Against Humanity official website.

Games, Especially Social/Party Games, Affect Players in the Real World

Games don’t exist in silos.  They are a part of the real world that we live in, and therefore can affect it in large and small ways.  The fewer layers of abstraction, the bigger the visible connections between the game world and our own, and thus the bigger impact on our perceptions of the real world.  I propose that:

The closer a game is to reality, the more important it is to design the game with reality in mind.

To explain this further, consider Pac-Man (Namco, 1980).  As the player, you’re a yellow blob running away from cute ghosts and eating circles.  If we reduce the level of abstraction, and now use a hyper-realistic art style so that you’re an African American man running away from the cops while picking up food stamps, the game needs to be treated with more caution because it directly says more about the world we live in.

Or think about the PC/console first-person shooter game Overwatch (Blizzard, 2016), which uses cartoon graphics in a fictional world which is somewhat like Earth.  In this case, the developers need to handle the responsibilities of representation of ethnicities, voice acting, cultural costumes and locations, but their abstractions of violence are limited to the computer keys or a game console’s buttons.  The VR game Bullet Train (Epic Games, 2016), however, has you standing in a realistic train station while holding the gun-like VR controllers that control your guns in the game, which makes it feel completely different and unsettlingly closer to reality.

The abstraction of game mechanics in games gives developers a lot of power, and we have to use that power responsibly.

Example gameplay: “I am become __AIDS__, destroyer of __poor people__.” Image from: Cards Against Humanity official website.

Like all Artists, Game Designers have Social Responsibilities

Cards Against Humanity’s design is lazy (it’s a copy of Apples to Apples but with awful content) and very blatantly preys on shock value.  Despite what anyone says, playing Cards Against Humanity isn’t about being the “funniest” or the smartest, or the best player.  Games like Cards Against Humanity pit players against each other by using social judgment as their main mechanic.  These games are not about being funny, but about judging other people and gaining social capital.

On the game’s webpage are one-word quotes with no context (much like the game’s one-note cards with no context) from reviews that call it “horrible” and “unforgivable” alongside “edgy” and “hilarious”.  It’s like the bad reviews are something Cards Against Humanity developers are proud of.

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The game design of Cards Against Humanity is not only bad, but it’s also irresponsible.  It’s incomprehensible to me that any art that specifically states some of the things that you are allowed, nay encouraged, to spell out in this game would be considered atrocious, while Cards Against Humanity is considered fine and is persistently available everywhere, from friends’ houses to board game cafés.

We hold artists responsible for the art they make, and filmmakers for the films that they produce.  Public figures are under the scrutiny of social media more than ever with every tweet, post, picture and comment.  We should hold game designers accountable to the same standards with their games.

Example gameplay: “The secret to a lasting marriage is communication, communication, and __a bitch slap__.” Image from: Cards Against Humanity official website.

Statements Against the Cards Against Humanity Studio

For additional context, I want to include the statements that have come to light about the Cards Against Humanity studio.  In June 2020, a number of people spoke up online using the hashtag #CAHisOver about the abusive practices at Card Against Humanity’s working environment, especially against women and women of colour.  Anita Sarkeesian’s piece on Medium gives a good description of the situation and contains relevant links, and other voices include Theresa, Nico, Ayla, Amy, Kortney and Elaine.

Back in 2014, an allegation of rape surfaced against co-founder and face of the Cards Against Humanity brand Max Temkin, and he was banned from the XOXO games festival as a result.  The initial allegation, and Temkin’s response to it, have since been removed from their respective Tumblr blogs.

Players have a Responsibility, Too

The buck does not stop with game designers.  As players, we must begin thinking critically about the games we play in the same way we analyse a piece of literature, or talk about a movie.  We must choose the games we purchase, play and support with more awareness and consciousness because games, especially party games, form the narrative of our social experiences.  And we must take action to speak out against games that promote injustice or exclusion, whether in practice or in mindset.

Example gameplay: “During high school, I never really fit in until I found __Racism__ Club.” Image from: Cards Against Humanity official website.

There’s an argument for art (and therefore games, which are art) to make statements, be subversive and bring up uncomfortable topics in order to encourage discourse, provide commentary or increase awareness, but Cards Against Humanity does nothing in these veins.  There are no design elements that teach players about “white privilege” or “being marginalized”, which are on two cards in the set.  There are numerous terms that not everyone might know, so people might be playing cards on a turn without being conscious of what they are saying.  There is no critical discourse on the topics whatsoever.

To play Cards Against Humanity is to exercise a level of privilege, to be with a group of similar-minded friends who think, or who are socially pressured into thinking, that it’s okay to laugh about what would be considered serious social issues outside of the “just a game” justification.  The game reinforces harmful stereotypes and systemic injustice, and quite literally makes a laughingstock of them, by dressing them up as jokes.

The developers were right about one thing.  Cards Against Humanity is a game for horrible people, and I will not be one of them.

References Cited

  1. Anderson, Craig. “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions.” Psychological Science Agenda 16(5) (2003). Web. 19 June 2020.
  2. American Psychological Association. “Resolution on Violent Video Games.” Council Policy Manual. American Psychological Association, 2015. Web. 19 June 2020.
  3. Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Arizona, Paraglyph Press, Inc., 2005.

Additional Resources

  1. Strmic-Pawl, Hephzibah and Rai-ya Wilson. “Equal Opportunity Racism? Review of Cards Against Humanity, created by Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, Max Temkin, and Eliot Weinstein, distributed by Cards Against Humanity LLC.” Humanity & Society 40(3) (2016): 361-364. Web. 19 June 2020.