Critical Play: Cards Against Humanity

For this critical play, I played Cards Against Humanity (or at least an online version of it, Pretend You’re Xyzzy). The game was created by a group of Highland Park School Alumni in 2010.

Cards against Humanity is an 18+ party game where players complete fill in the blank statements, using words or phrases often deemed offensive, risqué, or politically incorrect using a deck of cards. Though the original game was a card game meant to be played in person, there are versions of the game hosted online. 

The game consists of (resources) several black cards that contain a prompt, usually a fill-in-the blank card although some are just questions, as well as white cards that contain phrases. Players are dealt a hand of white cards that they then replenish as they play the game.

The game primarily relies on a judging mechanism– each round, one player draws a prompt card and is the “card czar”. All other players submit a card (sometimes more) that fits the prompt for the card czar to judge. The card czar then selects the card that they think best fits, and the person who played that card wins the game. 

The game promises fun primarily in the format of expression and fellowship. In choosing which cards to play, the user expresses their own sense of humor. On the other hand, observing how other players judge cards and how other players decide which cards to play is a way to get a sense of other players’ senses of humor, which would lead to increased social fellowship. In addition, seeing other player’s judging decisions often prompts discussion, as players react to each others’ decisions.

Prior friendship between players can also affect how the game is played– while the card czar is not supposed to know who played what card, sometimes friends can tell which of their friends played certain cards based on prior knowledge of their styles of humor. Similarly, sometimes the relationship between players affects how the card czar selects cards. For example, in one round we played, the card czar said, “Linus, I know which card is yours” and proceeded to not pick the card because he didn’t want to give Linus the satisfaction of winning the round. On the other hand, players can also tailor their cards to the judge’s sense of humor, if they know each other well.

The design of the game is very plain– there are black prompt cards, and white statement cards, and each is just plain text on a black or white background. Because the graphic design is so simple, it really emphasizes that the humor in the game is meant to come from the phrases themselves, which reinforces the theme of adult humor in the game. The emphasis on the statements also reinforces how the fun of expression and fellowship relies on the players’ selection of the card phrases, rather than any graphic design elements on the cards.

However, one of the flaws of the game is that it often devolves into playing the meanest, most shocking card, rather than playing the card that fits the prompt best. During the gameplay, I noticed one player saying along the lines of “this card is strong so I’ll save it for another prompt.” or  “I’m just trying to get rid of these cards because they’re boring.” I also noticed that running jokes would start to form– one joke would be really funny in one round, and people would start to reference it over and over again until eventually everyone was just playing the same thing.

Another flaw of the game was that since it relies heavily on a set deck, there were many times that the players did not recognize the references on both the prompt cards and statement cards. This impeded both player expression but also how players selected cards when judging. In these scenarios, players often just disengaged from the round entirely, saying things like “I’m just gonna dump these cards for this round.” We tried fixing this by playing using custom decks– in the below deck, we’re using someone’s custom deck titled “NYC Rat King,” which was more relevant to the two players in our group who were from New York City. Because of that, more of the group was able to understand the jokes being played.

As a result of the above two issues, the game’s intent of fostering social fellowship is somewhat stifled. Rather than enabling players to explore each other’s sense of humor, the tendency to end up repeating the same joke means that players aren’t really discovering anything new about each other, hurting the feeling of social fellowship. In addition, the tendency to focus on the shock value of the card and not its fit with the prompt stifles player expression. 

Although the format of the game is quite common, Cards Against Humanity differentiates itself from other judging games (Apple to Apples, What do you Meme, Joking Hazard) due the nature of its humor. It relies heavily on dark humor and its very antagonistic marketing. I think people are drawn to that attitude and also the idea of being able to kind of say things you wouldn’t normally say in polite company during a game.

Due to the nature of the content of the game, there aren’t really any safeguards against abuse. There are several prompt cards in the game that poke fun at race, religion, gender, etc. In close friend groups, friends may be able to tell which cards would be too far for their friends’ senses of humor, but this is much harder in groups of strangers. Essentially, the fun of the game relies heavily on poking fun at the expense of other groups.

I think one way to improve the game and avoid the problem of people playing similar jokes over and over again would be to increase the number of “play 2” or “play 3” cards– this would force players to have to come up with unique combinations of cards, which would help differentiate the humor more. In addition, this means that players might end up using the “boring” cards more often (“science”, “hot lettuce”, etc).

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