March 14, 2013 | Feature
oh the humanity
Although I personally own a copy of the inappropriate party game Cards Against Humanity, I have access to it only a small percentage of the time. Many of my friends borrow it so frequently that it’s become an informal perk of staying in my good graces. Not that I blame them—the game is addictive, hilarious, and immediately makes all the players BFFs, so long as no one gets offended easily.
In case you’ve been missing out, the rules are simple. The majority of the cards are white and carry nouns; the others are black and ask the players questions. Each turn, one player pulls a random black card and all the other players play a white card they think best fits the question posed. The player who pulled the black card picks the white card they think is funniest, and the person who played that card gets a point. It’s very reminiscent of Apples to Apples, but with a significant twist. What sets Cards Against Humanity apart is that all the cards—nouns and questions both—are unbelievably, outrageously, and hilariously offensive.
When I interviewed one of the creators of the game, Brown alumnus Ben Hantoot ’09, he told me that the cards are roughly divided into topics each of the game inventors thinks is funny: “We all have similar senses of humor but we each have individual proclivities.” Apparently, David Munk really likes “whimsical sexual humor, like the card ‘Coughing Into a Vagina,’” while Josh Dillon and Eli Halpern ‘09 like “slightly too politically incorrect historical references” such as “The Trail of Tears” and “The Three-Fifths Compromise.” Ben personally has affection for “food jokes,” like “Hot Cheese” or, one of my personal favorites, “Soup That is Too Hot.” Though only two of the six of the creators are from Brown, the cards like “Classist Undertones”, “The Token Minority,” and “Being Marginalized” are a testament to the influence of our particular institution.
Now that we’re connoisseurs of the game, my friends and I have designated certain nouns as trump cards. These are cards that we’ve singled out to win the round, regardless of the question. When I asked Ben about this, he told me that none were intentionally created as trumps. However, according to the Cards Against Humanity online “Laboratory” that gathers data by seeking input from CAH enthusiasts, “A Big Black Dick” has proved to be the most popular card. Ben disagrees, believing the funniest cards in the deck to be much more understated: “My personal trump card is ‘Emotions.’ It’s an older card but it works really, really well with certain black cards. For example, ‘In Michael Jackson’s final moments, he thought about: emotions.’ Or ‘The class field trip was completely ruined by: emotions.’”
Beyond its search for the game’s most popular card, the CAH “Lab” has unearthed some amusing findings. The creators intentionally changed the game for Canadian players by removing 25 cards that revolved around American history or culture and adding 25 more applicable cards. What the CAH guys didn’t anticipate, however, were the other differences between the two nations. Ben cracked up when he announced that Canadians are 2.5 times more likely than Americans to use the card “Charisma.” There are also certain cultural concepts that don’t translate well: The creators also discovered that Canadians have no idea what “Tripping Balls” means and have subsequently removed it from the deck.
Inevitably, I had to ask Ben about the inappropriateness of the game, though I lost all moral high ground to do so long ago due to my own participation. Does making light of serious issues such as inequality and violence do more harm than good? He was pretty straight to the point about this concern: “That’s nonsense. Everything is a satire. When people take the game out of the context of a group of friends goofing around they’re missing the point.” Ben also feels like the one of the “best ways to deal with horrible things is to laugh at them. To just be like, ‘This is absurd. I can’t believe this is a real thing.’” Still, the other creators have recognized since the game’s first release that there is a difference between cards being considered inappropriate by players and cards capable of triggering traumatic experiences. In upcoming versions of the game, cards involving rape and sexual violence may be reworked to help avoid this issue. Ben explained, “We understand that sensitivity so we’re trying to make small modifications to keep what is funny in the game while reducing the amount of trigger cards.”
As a history concentrator who studies the effect of trauma on societies, I can very much understand where the criticism is coming from. However, I’m reluctant to even begin to try to pick apart where CAH’s inappropriateness begins and comedy ends, as one could write an entire thesis about the subject. The Onion’s recent Quvenzhané Wallis Twitter disaster shows just how conflicted we still are about reaches of comedy’s safety blanket. But the fact that CAH is so popular at Brown is puzzling to me, even as a member of its specific conflicted community of fans. According to Ben’s explanation, CAH is acceptably offensive because it operates on an entirely satirical plane of understanding between friends with similar liberal proclivities. In other words, knowing your friends aren’t homophobic supposedly means that playing the “Praying the Gay Away” card is funny, not detrimentally offensive.
This explanation has its problems, but I almost don’t want to think about it—perhaps that’s one of the ways that the game has become so popular. It’s fun, and maybe we Brown students are all just looking for a break from the constant reflexivity we employ in class, especially in the humanities and social studies. Still, there is a lot of privilege operating when a white, upper-educated, upper-middle-class American woman decides CAH isn’t too offensive to participate in. I’m still trying to piece together how to love this game and simultaneously affirm people who emphatically don’t. My friends have a rule that any player at any time can get rid of any card they feel is particularly repugnant or distressing and place it in the “No” pile.
I also know that my good memories of the game and my feeling of kinship with Ben Hantoot cloud my judgment. He was a CogSci concentrator with a focus in psycholinguistics, but on his own admission mostly “got high with friends” in a house on the corner of Power and Governor Street, a block from where I live now.
There’s something empowering about knowing that Ben was exactly where I am now and found a way to make his ridiculous dream into a reality. When I asked him how he did it, his answer was as plain and unfiltered as you would expect from a CAH creator: “If you want to do something, just do it. Mostly the reason people don’t do the things they want to do is because they don’t just do it.”
Ben and the gang continue to follow the Nike catchphrase, planning even more in the works in the near future. A “reject expansion pack” is going to be released, for which each of the creators “pick three favorite cards that didn’t make it into the final game.” Ben is proud to announce that one of his favorite rejects will be included, a black question card: “You can’t wait forever. It’s time to talk to your doctor about ____.” As a fellow Brown student, CAH enthusiast, and Governor Street hooligan, I am greatly looking forward to this new development. Still, I doubt any new card will allow anyone to top my greatest CAH card match of all time: “What Did Sean Penn Bring To The People Of Haiti?” “Sean Penn.” I know right? I’m hilarious.