Cards Against Humanity and Invisible Ropes

by Gil Hova

I wanted to speak up for a moment about Cards Against Humanity, and all the recent chatter about it. First, some context.

This week, Shut Up & Sit Down wrote a review of CAH, in which three different reviewers discussed why they disliked it. They took it to task for enabling people to make jokes about marginalized people. Good humor punches up at figures of status and authority, but CAH punches down and makes fun of people who are hurt. It’s a bully. They also point out that making fun of minorities is not fresh or new, but an old relic of cheap comedy, and that the game feels lazy – “Cards Against Humanity opens and closes the joke for you. It’s limp, passive, inert.”

This review got a huge amount of support on social media (1874 shares on Twitter, 20,030 on Facebook at the time of this writing), but also some pushback. Bruno Faidutti was the most notable dissenter. He wrote an article called A Case for Cards Against Humanity (all his articles are in French and English, so scroll down if you need to). He wrote that the game is vulgar, yes, but so vulgar that no one could possibly take offense to its humor.

It’s offensive, it’s crass, it’s vulgar but all this is deliberate and obviously to be taken with a good pinch of salt. I even think that such a game could not have been designed, and probably could not really be played, by people susceptible to take at face value any one of the sexist, racist or just plain stupid jokes on the cards. I’ve played a dozen games of Cards against Humanity, I’ve bought all expansions, I’ve had fun just browsing through the cards, and I never felt uneasy in the slightest way. It was obvious for me first that this was just a game (something that ought to be reminded more often about many games, especially war games), and it was obvious for me and for all the people I played with (among which blacks, gays, jews and women) that the game is not mocking blacks, gays, Jews or women – to name a few – but the stereotypes about them. I think it’s socially important that humor could target everything, including the worse aspects of our society. Refusing to do this is not defending the victims of sexism or racism, it is preventing us to see (and laugh at) our social problems.

I am a fan of the writings of both Shut Up and Sit Down and Bruno Faidutti. But I think Faidutti missed the mark here, and I think the reason why is related to something I’ve been talking about on the site already: invisible ropes.

Faiduitti falls into a trap a lot of well-meaning straight white men fall into when discussing this stuff. They hear that some people don’t like the game because it makes fun of minorities and horrible crimes. But when they play the game with minorities and victims of horrible crimes, they see the “victims” laughing along. Therefore the game must not be offensive, therefore the people who are stressing about the game being offensive must be wrong.

When I discussed invisible ropes a couple of months ago, I wrote about how this:

…a lot of people usually take this kind of thing to mean offensiveness. They think there’s a line between “offensive” and “inoffensive”. If you’re on the “inoffensive” side, everything’s fine and peachy, but if you’re on the “offensive” side, then you’ve just insulted every single woman (or whatever non-straight-white-male demographic you’d like), without exception.

Same thing here. I don’t think the problem here is offensiveness. I think it more a vague discomfort. It’s not an angry exclusion; it’s not a wall. It’s a rope. But enough ropes make a barrier. Sometimes all it takes is one.

So let’s say you’re playing a game of CAH with someone who is missing a limb. The “amputee” card gets played. Maybe it was even the person missing a limb herself.

The attention now swings over to her. All the attention is focused on her reaction. Will she be okay with it? Will she laugh?

I’d say that 10 times out of 10, she will laugh, and everyone else will relax, and say that the game isn’t offensive. But let’s look deeper at the choice she had to make.

Here’s a woman programmer, @SaraJChipps on Twitter, talking about dealing with unpleasant jokes in the workplace. Twitter’s threading functionality is half-baked, so I’ll take the liberty of editing her tweets into a paragraph:

I’d like to talk for a second about sexual and racial jokes at the workplace and junior developers. Something happens quite often when you are a new developer on a team and the only woman/minority. Someone on the team tells a sexual or racial joke (something they deem innocuous) and the entire team looks to you for your reaction to see if you are “cool or not”.

Something that is lost on these people is that you actually have no choice. If you react to the offensive joke you are at high risk of losing your job and killing your career. You will be dubbed as “uptight” and “not a fun person to work with”, your work will be scrutinized and every mistake will be magnified by the fact that you “aren’t a team player”. So, you do what you have to, you laugh along. Maybe joke back, if you really want to endear yourself.

But the consequences of this are long lasting, the jokes get worse, you lose a little of your soul each time, and you are driven to either leave or draw an arbitrary line somewhere and complain. Once that happens, your job is over (see above).

I’m in management now, one thing I appreciate is the fact that you can set a culture of that not being okay early on. I say this because even if the person on your team laughs along or “seems cool”, the reality is they have no other choice.

I experienced this on every engineering team I was ever apart of. I laughed along each time, and though it helped my career it ultimately hurt me as a person. I’d like a world where this doesn’t have to be an issue.

(Emphasis mine.)

Gaming is certainly a lower-stakes arena than the workplace, but I’m convinced this no-win decision exists and is something a lot of women have to put up with. I’m know there are many women gamers who grit their teeth and endure uncomfortable situations just because it’s their only shot at gaming. Could be tasteless jokes or gendered insults; could be inadvertently condescending strategy advice; could be a lot of things.

And in gaming, people don’t just have to laugh and accept it, or stand up and risk making a scene. There’s a third possibility; the person involved may just leave gaming entirely. They just really didn’t feel comfortable. Gaming just isn’t for people like them.

Let’s get back to that game of CAH. The woman missing a limb is laughing along. Is she comfortable? Is she just trying to fit in and get along? How many times today has she had to make this choice, even if the people forcing her to make it have had the best of intentions?

Look, I don’t want to be The Fun Police, and it’s not up to me to tell you what games to enjoy and what not to enjoy. But do you ever wonder why are there so many more male gamers than female gamers? It’s because of stuff like this. One of the reasons women don’t stick to the gaming scene is because they see people laughing at a “Date Rape” card. They may not be outrightly offended; they may even laugh along. But the scene doesn’t feel comfortable. They’re excluded, even if everyone they’re playing with thinks they’re being inclusive.

As I said in my previous article, the technical term for this is “microagression”. It usually comes from people who mean well – mostly straight white guys who don’t have the perspective to see the problem.

This takes us back to Faidutti’s response. Again, I respect him greatly, but any time a straight white guy tells you that something isn’t racist or sexist when women and minorities say it is, it’s a red flag. I think Faidutti has the best of intentions, but people aren’t saying they dislike CAH because that’s how they get their rocks off. They say they dislike CAH because they dislike it.

How can we get more women to play games? By listening to them. When a woman says she’s uncomfortable with something, don’t tell her that she shouldn’t be. Listen. Try to see things from her point of view. Figure out what’s making her uncomfortable. It’s possible that it’s something that’s invisible to you.

And of course, this applies to minorities and the marginalized as well. When they say they’re not comfortable, let them speak, and consider their perspective. Your perspective is not the be-all end-all. No single perspective is.

* * *

I wanted to take this opportunity to make a few other points about CAH’s legacy that I find interesting.

First, I should tell you how I feel about the game. As a straight white guy, the edginess of the humor doesn’t make me uneasy. But it’s not a game I own or ask to play. I find the game lazy. It’s like people on the internet who think humor is just a matter of applying an existing meme to any situation. It doesn’t take many Condescending Wonkas to stop being funny and start being annoying.

This is where CAH fails for me. And that’s what SU&SD summarized so well:

Jokes aren’t Lego. Cards Against Humanity gives you two or sometimes three pieces to snap together, and it tells you you’re done. That’s it. And you know what? Often, many of these combinations aren’t very good. They aren’t very good whether you find their subjects funny or not, offensive or not. They aren’t very good because they’re sometimes nonsensical or just weird… There’s very little creativity in combining cards into a joke, because the work and the structuring is done for you. It’s almost like copying someone else’s homework. There’s no life in there.

I think good humor is creative. It shocks you, not with “edginess”, but by coming from a place you didn’t expect. CAH isn’t that funny to me because it’s just a bunch of stock, set, meme-like options. I want more control; I want to tell the joke, not pick it from a multiple-choice menu of sorta-funny options.

The interesting thing is that, for most folks, this is a feature, not a bug. My friend Dave Chalker summarized this well on Twitter (edited into paragraphs for easy reading again):

Part of the reason CAH is mega-popular (as Apples to Apples, its clear predecessor) is that it DOESN’T require any work for the humor. There have been plenty of other games I adore that run into the wall of asking people to be funny on the spot, which can be hard. My friend Kory [Heath] made “Why Did the Chicken…?” about writing punchlines from prompts, and it wasn’t nearly the success, because it required work.

So while I think WDTC is a much better experience (that auto-tailors to group), it’s never going to be the breakout hit of a CAH. (And to be clear, you’re not a worse/less interesting/etc. person if it’s easier to play a game that writes the jokes for you – it’s hard!) …While I think the content of CAH is absolutely fair game, making the jokes self-contained is part of its success in selling.

This is a great point. CAH isn’t funny to me because it’s too easy, but a lot of folks (non-gamers especially) enjoy it specifically because of that.

I also want to point out two big positives that CAH’s has provided in its legacy. First, its creators have consistently paid forward to the game community, with its Tabletop Deathmatch program and charity work. It’s a little like how Alfred Nobel set up humanitarian prizes in his name because he didn’t want to be remembered solely as the person who invented dynamite (albeit on a much smaller scale).

Second, if someone had pitched a party game with off-color humor to a publisher in 2010, they would have been laughed away from the table. Before CAH broke out, the conventional wisdom was that gaming was entirely pure with no room for adult humor, because successful games had to appeal to families. Games that didn’t were on the fringe; they were consistently poor sellers.

CAH proved that a myth. It exposed a market of high-school, college, and post-college players who enjoy edgy themes and risqué, off-color humor in their games. And as a designer and publisher of a game with a good amount of scatalogical humor, I have to be thankful for that.

Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of game designers to look at CAH’s faults and limitations, and try to improve on it. As anyone who’s been exposed to Justin Bieber or Twilight knows, just because something sells well doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I’ll leave the last word to my friends at GamesByPlayDate: