Offensive Play: The Politics of Cards Against Humanity

A joke has two functions. First, it reveals something hidden; even the lowly pun will reveal a connection between two words that wasn’t obvious (what do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator.) Some claim the shock of recognition that a joke provides is what makes us laugh.

The second function is social. When you tell a joke, you tell it to someone. When they laugh (or smile, or groan), it confirms that they saw the hidden aspect of it, that they are on the same page. They “got it.” To be able to understand a joke, two people need to be able to share not only a certain ability for a certain spoken language, but often certain cultural assumptions as well. A common joke in the last few years has been the inappropriate “Thanks, Obama!” echoing the Republican pundit refrain; however, depending on who is speaking and listening, the “joke” of this may mean something completely different. To “get it,” a person has to recognize not only the joke itself, but the conflict between the original spirit and the spirit in which it was told.

Of course, one of the most effective methods for forging “belonging” to a group is to create, or reinforce, an exclusion; this is the realm of the sexist, racist, or demeaning joke. The ubiquitous “blonde” jokes of the 80s, for instance, which suggested that women with yellow hair were idiots, enabled those who told and understood those jokes to feel the thrill of an innate superiority in which they already believed. They reinforced a difference in order to help underscore a similarity: “Haha! Cheese by a computer mouse? Hilarious!”

This function of humour was recently a hot topic, after Daniel Tosh singled out a member of his audience and made an aggressive and tasteless joke against her. This incident became something of a cause célèbre – a strong example of aggression against women in culture at large for those who work to make these structures understood. In some circles, these criticisms were received as an attack on the work of comedians, the demand for a muzzle. These people, some of whom are working stand-ups, suggested that it is a comedian’s job to make people uncomfortable, to point out what they don’t want to admit. Tosh later suggested on Twitter “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.” Of course, he forgets, in this statement, that in this moment he wasn’t just making a joke about something – he was making a joke at someone, above someone.

I have never liked Daniel Tosh. I watched fifteen minutes of his stand-up several years ago, and turned it off in disgust. Everything about his act was solidifying a kinship with rich, white, privileged men. Most of his jokes consisted of the sentiment “I’m just saying – isn’t being us great? Aren’t we just better?” In other words, his act is all about forming a bond with his audience by reveling in excluding everyone else – I just assumed the roots of his success lay beneath American frat-houses, and forgot about him until the recent outrage.

Enter Cards Against Humanity, one of Kickstarter’s breakout hits, the card game that completely sold out in its second day at PAX Prime 2012. The demand for this “party game for horrible people” is all the more remarkable for the volatile culture in which it was published, a time when tensions are high, tempers are hot, and the internet provides a points multiplier to the impact of bad choices.

Being Bad In A Good Way

At its core, CAH is Apples to Apples, but with a change in design that solves one of that game’s fundamental problems: what if you play with boring people? Apples to Apples, when played with a literal-minded group, is worse than a trip to the dentist. The game is only really fun when it is subverted, when the associations made by the game are surprising and, yes, offensive. CAH removes the possibility of a boring game by making almost every single card in its deck a loaded reference; something, like nitroglycerin, marked Handle With Care.

This makes it hilarious. I still chuckle when I think about a combination I made (out of cards from CAH’s recent expansion): “My new porn name is “Joey “_______” McGee” and “Mild Autism.” Is this offensive? Yes. Is it funny? I think so. But perhaps the major question we should ask is “is it exclusionary?” On that front, I think the game offers something that is genuinely remarkable.

Playing Cards Against Humanity means sitting around a table with friends and collaborating in subversive humour. When you play, you face the people whom you are joking with, who are in on the jokes, and you play to their reactions. Winning means predicting what the person across from you will most appreciate – which means that Cards Against Humanity is about learning your friends’ guilty pleasures and surprising them into laughter.

Just as important, the blanket aggression of the game (remember: this is “Cards Against Humanity”) and the random distribution of the cards mean that no particular individual, group, or ideology is targeted for more than a moment. CAH creates an unusual kind of “safe space” where everything taboo is up for grabs, where the illicit thrill of making an offensive joke can be had while suspending participation in the cultures that exclude, marginalize, and target people.

Essentially, CAH offers “offensive play,” a chance to indulge in exposing those aspects of Western culture which have been made hidden, taboo, offensive – and, consequently, made funny – without fear of damage. To play Cards Against Humanity is to enter an instant community based on ridicule, where everyone involved has agreed to participate and everyone is in on the joke. In a sense, these are racist and sexist jokes with the benefit of a safe word, the agreement that nothing on the cards is meant seriously and that no-one will carry the game forward into their day-to-day lives.

The incredible sales for Cards Against Humanity, then, could be understood as something more than just consumer demand; perhaps it shows human need. Humor is a fantastic way to deal the horrifying parts of our day-to-day lives, a way of distancing ourselves from and containing those secret traumas that we keep hidden. CAH offers a way to sincerely and genuinely make the defense “so what? It’s just a joke.” That this is possible is actually a marvel of good design and good writing.

While it is true that you can make a joke out of anything, in the real world it is very difficult to make a good joke out of some things – because it’s not guaranteed that everyone will hear it as a joke. Cards Against Humanity gives us an arena in which everything is a joke and you compete on quality; it’s nice to have the opportunity to try.

About Kyle Carpenter

I'm a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. My research focuses on posthuman studies and Lacanian psychoanalytical theory, exploring how communication technologies shape our sense of self and relations to others. For me, games and games studies still straddle the line between "hobby" and "addiction." I'm the Submissions Editor of Medium Difficulty, and one of its founding members. I'm also a Dave Van Ronk look-alike.
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  • Joshua Meister

    I just played this for the first time very recently, once with a group of good friends and once with mostly new acquaintances, some of which I might have first assumed were maybe a bit stuffy and might not be able to lower their guard enough to have a good time. It was a big hit both times. The second group made some choices that didn’t expect, which looking after the fact is of course perfectly natural, but both groups had plenty of moments of real, doubled-over-in-your-seat laughing fits from everyone at the table. A+, would play again.

  • Kaitlin Tremblay

    The first time I ever played with game was with four other people I had just met in my post-grad program — we only knew each other for a couple of weeks, max. And it was an incredible time. We learned so much about each other, and not only that, we became comfortable with each other. And that translated into some friendships I have come to rely on in hard times: because I know that they’ll accept me, for all my strengths and weaknesses. It’s a virtue that is hard to find in many other mediums, but a card game like this that involves a sort of vulnerability is great.

  • Robyrt

    Interesting analysis. I only played the game once, with a group of coworkers, and it ended up just being an excuse for the strong to prey on and laugh at the weak. There were definitely some good jokes generated though.

    • Kyle Carpenter

      Would you care to expand on that? Are the “weak” in this case groups outside those who were playing, or was there bullying within the game? My experiences have been pretty positive, but I’ve also played with people I trust (at least on some level).

      • @unknown_vector

        I’ve never played, but it seems to me that context is critical to having an enjoyable play experience. I don’t doubt that you can indeed learn a great deal about the people you are playing with, but maybe that’s not great per se.

        The experiences you and Kaitlin described sound healthy, and most importantly fun. I attribute this largely to the character of your fellow players. But imagine if you sat down with a group of relative strangers only to discover that they didn’t “get it” the way you did. For instance, a group of players who, rather than playing as a means to engage taboos in a safe space, instead play for mutual assurance that others in their in-group hold highly exclusionary patterns of thought and speech, as well. A group playing under that misconception sounds like an awful time, I’m sure most (?) would agree. But even if just one person at the table is engaging in that “play style”, the game takes on a wholly different character. In this case, the laughter of other players takes on a very different, insidious character; it’s the subtle reinforcement of some truly malignant ideas. Bummer-sode!

        Of course, better to find out if you are communing with secret bigots sooner rather than later, I suppose.

  • Dan Johnson

    It’s worth noting, though, that there are a couple subjects that are still taboo even in CAH. A perfect example is your original, stage-setting story about Daniel Tosh: from my few (five?) times playing it I don’t think it’s possible – or at least it is very difficult – to assemble a rape reference.

    • Francis Garcia

      The screenshot for this article displays the CAH card “Raping and Pillaging”.

      • IntotheNightSky

        To be fair, “Raping and Pillaging” as a concept is totally different than the concepts of “raping” and “pillaging” by themselves.

    • Francis Garcia

      Also in the CAH list: Roofies, Surprise sex!, Tentacle porn, Date rape, Jerking off into a pool of children’s tears, Copping a feel.

      There are several others that are simply suggestive as well.

  • Stephen Beirne

    In addition to what unknown vector said, I think your assertions that all jokes in CAH are equal and that every group gets subjected to its moment in the sun equally may be false equivalence. Jokes about the holocaust are not even nearly of the same character as blonde jokes or jokes about privileged white males.

    Perhaps what you say is true and there are an equal number of cards that pin the joke on privileged white males as on Jews; however, the meaning of the joke when each targeted group is interchanged similarly changes to suit the context. I don’t think anybody could legitimately argue that the reasons for finding either example humourous are so decontextualized from reality as to be on equal terms – that “haha I’m so sheltered” carries the same connotations and malevolence as “haha all those people died.” You’d need to be very disconnected from the world to make that judgement.

    That’s not even going into the fact that each player can have varying tastes and experiences and is not automatically playing “on equal terms.” A privileged white male may find rape jokes to be the height of comedy, but that group is known to bristle when their privilege becomes the subject. People internalize all manners of different racist, sexist, etc. attitudes in their daily course, but not all instances of sexism and racism outwardly manifest in western cultures and certainly not to the same degrees. Most people don’t exist in bubbles isolated from outside culture; their subconscious racist, sexist, etc. attitudes tend to be reflections of behaviour deemed acceptable in their environment. CAH may bring people’s biases against particular groups to the fore, but that doesn’t mean that the game, the humour, the practice of victimization, or the players themselves are automatically justified.

  • Jesse Miksic

    I would only ever play a game like this with people I already trusted — pretty deeply, in fact — to be conscious of their privilege in the first place. In a lot of social groups… even groups that use “offensive” humor in a supposedly ironic, subversive way… there is a total lack of self-awareness, a blindness to how those “ironic” offensive jokes can affect their targets in a very un-ironic way. Even if there’s only a single truly xenophobic person in a group, they tend to be cushioned by people who write off and normalize their behavior.

    I could never play this game in a social group like that. Or in any social group where I didn’t have at least one close ally who I could trust for some social reinforcement. It would be too easy for the game to turn exclusionary, to reinforce some particular worldview, through selective choices in gameplay. And if that happened, it would be too easy for an artificial consensus to emerge, and for anyone with social sensitivities to be turned into a pariah (i.e. a party-killer, a humorless prude, etc.).

    Just sayin… the game’s liberating potential can only be activated if the group that’s playing is already in a position to be self-aware. It all depends on the players.

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