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Cards Against Humanity

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TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Cards Against Humanity is a card game that promotes racism, misogyny, ableism, rape culture, and transmisogyny, among other forms of oppression.

Its creator, Max Temkin, is a rapist.

Further reading

Drawing your first few white cards, you already know the direction this game wants you to go. While the cards you look at might well answer the question “What is Batman’s guilty pleasure?” with “Puppies,” you could just as easily offer “Child abuse.”

But we all know the direction the game wants people to go in because it subtitles itself “A party game for horrible people.” It openly, plainly, even joyfully acknowledges its content, with things like “The profoundly handicapped,” “Black people,” “Auschwitz,” “Homeless people,” and “Surprise sex” which, if you’re not versed in the term, is a euphemism for rape.

These are just a small sample of the subjects which Cards Against Humanity suggests as punchlines. You don’t need to use them, it implies; whatever you come up with was your choice. You’re the one who put those pieces together. But Cards Against Humanity still gives you the tools with which you can construct these calls and responses. It still frames and controls what happens. There’s a word for this, and that word is “enabling.”

“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.

Every time I play “Surprise sex” as a punchline in Cards Against Humanity I have no way of actually knowing why anyone in particular is laughing. I have no way of knowing if I’m making a rape joke with an actual rapist. But if I play enough pickup games of Cards Against Humanity, someday eventually I will. Hell, even if I only ever play with close friends that I trust, that’s no guarantee—I really, really don’t want to think any of my friends are rapists, but how would I know? Just like I want to believe that we’re all laughing at jokes about “black people” or “The Third World” purely because they’re horrible and not because some tiny part of us enjoys the schadenfreude of being able to make the joke and not be the one joked about. I want to believe games that devolve into crudely insulting each other based on our sore spots are truly meant “in fun” and not a socially approved way to get away with bullying. I want to believe everyone’s motives are pure, even though I honestly don’t even know that about my own motives. I want to believe that I can have absolute confidence that neither I nor any other people around me are horrible. Cards Against Humanity is built on that wishful thinking.

The genius of Cards Against Humanity, as a party game, is that it encourages intimacy by allowing players to violate norms together without worrying about offending one another.

That may be because Cards Against Humanity isn’t really transgressive at all. It is a game of naughty giggling for people who think the phrase “black people” is inherently funny. That demographic includes nervous parents, people who describe themselves as “politically incorrect,” the pathologically sarcastic, accidental racists — in a word, everybody. Cards Against Humanity recasts popular prejudices and gross-out humor as acts of rebellion for small groups, imparting the thrill of conspiracy to values most people hold in common.

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