Cards Against Humanity is a game that is fiercely popular, constantly requested, and perpetually sold out. In tabletop gaming, it is a cultural phenomenon. It’s also deeply problematic.
Over and over at conventions and parties I hear people say that the game is “like Apples to Apples for horrible people.” The comparison to Apples to Apples certainly helps set the expectation for how the game is played; a card comes out (“What ruined my last relationship?), everyone plays a card that seems to fit it, the person with the current turn (the Card Czar) judges the cards everyone has played. The winning card (“Being a motherfucking sorcerer”) nets the player who won an Awesome Point and the black card from that round. Play passes, everybody draws back up to ten white cards, the next person with a turn becomes the new Card Czar. Repeat till everyone runs out of cards, gets bored or invents a house rule (a player made rule) about how to end the game.
CAH is at every con and every party I’ve been to in 2012. It was released in 2011, and the original run sold out in three days. The holiday expansion that came out this month brought in more than $70,000, which the game’s creators donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.
CAH is a card game written deliberately for a maximum amount of awkwardness. Though it’s capable of clever, satirical moments, it’s really an arms race among players for how dark, sick, or weird things can get. If you’re a strong believer that our humor should be used with care, that sexism and racism aren’t funny—CAH has the potential for being offensive, nauseating, and emotionally upsetting. There are a number of cards related to sexual violence in the deck, for instance, as well as domestic and child abuse, genocide, and a cornucopia of racism. It also has an assortment of cards related to terrible things happening to conservatives, so if you prefer your entertainment to be potentially offensive in every way possible, Cards Against Humanity is your game.
I’m often torn about offensive media and games, especially when a game like CAH can make an incredibly powerful statement about humor, prejudice, and our society at large. Controversial media sparks conversation, debate, sometimes even positive dialogue and change. But when it’s a card game people play at parties, it has the very real possibility of being an upsetting experience that people feel peer-pressured into, and which they leave feeling ill and upset.
So what’s a woman got to do to play a game her friends love, without walking through a sea of rape jokes?
In my social group—and plenty of others—there has been the very real need to somehow make CAH safe for people emotionally. What people have done is “sanitize” their copies of Cards Against Humanity. That word’s usually used derisively, like when someone writes off cleaned-up fairytales books that lack an earlier version’s grimness.
Sanitizing a CAH deck doesn’t make it magically all-ages and all-people appropriate. But it does demonstrate the power game players have to remix their games, into forms that are sharable and enjoyable for each other. Sexism, racism, and other isms in tabletop games are not purely flat and static.
Communities can react to problematic content in ways that maturely handle volatile and emotional issues. I can’t play with an unsanitized deck of CAH. It is emotionally fraught, and that’s not what I look for in a good time. Making me cry also isn’t on my friends’ to-do lists (unless it’s awesome crying, like what results when they send me cute octopus videos).
If one of my friends hands me their sanitized Cards Against Humanity deck at a party, I can play and know I’m in a safe space. I don’t have to listen to rape jokes or cracks about domestic violence. I am still horrified, sometimes extremely, by things I see played, even in a sanitized deck. But the things that hurt me, that reinforce a violent kind of humor against women, aren’t ever on the table.