When I introduced myself to the creators of Cards Against Humanity and explained that I was from a website called GameChurch (“we look at games from a Christian perspective,” I told them) and was interested in talking to them about their game, they hesitated nervously. “I’m not sure this is the sort of thing you want on your web site.”
I was way ahead of them. I had become familiar with Cards Against Humanity as it was being talked about for months beforehand on Twitter, game sites, and other outlets. I knew the idea behind the game, and I was more than willing to risk exposing my virgin eyes to a few dirty words for the sake of taking the game on a test-drive. I knew the game could be disturbing, but I wasn’t convinced that it was wrong in and of itself.
The game plays like a more specific version of Apples to Apples: the “Card Czar” plays a black card, which asks a question or has a blank to fill in. Something like: “___________. That’s how I want to die.” Then, each player chooses one white card from the ten in their hand to answer the question or fill in the blank. Those cards might say things like: “Winking at old people,” “Hurricane Katrina,” “A Bitch Slap,” “Doing the Right Thing,” or something much much much worse that I simply can’t (okay, won’t) reprint here.
The result is an unending series of hilariously shocking answers to seemingly benign questions. The first time I played the game was at a boardgame convention with several other writers and staff members from Gamechurch. In fact, it was the first time any of us had played the game.
The truth is, it’s an art finding the right crowd to play a game that contains cards that would make the most hardened sailor blush. Playing with a group of people that know one another well and that understand one another is essential, and at times you may understand a prospective player well enough to know they should probably abstain altogether, for the sake of keeping the peace and avoiding potentially awkard situations. To be honest, before playing with one group of friends, I decided to do a bit of modding, removing some of the more sexually explicit cards from the deck.
But why even bother? Browsing through the cards is a whiplash-inducing endeavor, forcing you to face the existence of some of the most unpleasant and unholy acts, events, and items you can imagine. What’s the point of making a game that spotlights the things we ought to hate?
Cards Against Humanity is unique in that it is wholly about ideas and their implicit power. Its stark black and white design gives the game a decidedly neutral stance toward any of the ideas that may exist on its cards. White privilege, Harry Potter erotica, Kanye West, and God are all given equal treatment, which is to say that the players are given complete control over their treatment. It’s as if we were given a list of everything in the world and instructed to sort through them, casting judgment or offering praises respectively.
But the questions we answer with those items frame these judgments for us. More often than not, those questions setup opportunities for honest and unabashed reflection on our humanity: “What would grandma find disturbing, yet oddly charming?” “What did the U.S. airdrop to the children of Afghanistan?” “Daddy, why is mommy crying?” These are brutal questions with even more brutal possible answers: “Rehab,” or “Brown People,” or “The Glass Ceiling.”
The game causes us to sit back and think about that for a moment. All of a sudden we’re thinking about the timeless nature of gender discrimination or racism. We’re acknowledging the genuine life-altering pain that comes as a result of drug abuse or broken families. Oh, and we’re laughing a lot too.
That last part there, that’s the part that really makes us uncomfortable, right? That we’d be considering such deeply serious and tragic things while laughing and having a good time seems wrong.
“I’m going to hell for laughing at that,” someone says.
Cards Against Humanity, a self-dubbed “party game for horrible people,” appeals to those who are honest with themselves about the nature of their own world and their own soul. We are horrifically imperfect people, and the problems are so big and seemingly insurmountable that when placed before us in unavoidable black and white letters, the only response that makes any practical sense is to laugh at the absurdity of it all. At least, for tonight.
Still, tomorrow we won’t be laughing. Then what, I wonder?