I want to frame this essay with the current furor going on in video game cultures and video game communities, particularly the backlash against women gamers, feminist critiques of games, and any charges of racism, homophobia, ableism, and such in games and gaming communities. Think Anita Sarkeesian, Briana Wu, #GamerGate, Nintendo’s Tomodachi Life scandal, and the recent Pew report that reveals that women are largely unwelcome in gaming. In essence, it is really important to understand that among certain segments of gamers what fuels the backlash is the defense that, “a game is just a game.” Because it is play and not “real,” games are thereby immune to analysis or critique, and players themselves are somehow released from responsibility as well.
With this context in mind, I turn to Cards Against Humanity, which is a card game self-identified as “a party game for horrible people.” The game lets players match phrase cards (white cards) to a prompt card (black cards) and the goal is to produce the funniest, strangest, raunchiest, even most offensive response possible. The game was published and funded by a Kickstarter in January 2011. The Kickstarter video features cameos by the creators and writers of the game (who are predominantly white men), an explanation of how the game works, and also sets up the irreverent ethos of the game. What is interesting about the video is the ostensibly innocent notion that Cards Against Humanity is just about fun, getting together with your buddies to joke about funny things, and that what is funny and what is titillating is often based not just on unusual or strange pairings of prompt and answer but also humor based on things we know to be taboo, impolite, or patently offensive.
In investigating what Cards seemed to produce the most discursive bang for your buck, I found a fan-created list of as many cards as possible (in this case all the cards with the base set and the first three expansions totaling 705 cards). There are now well over 1500 possible cards. Using the list, I wanted to track references to race, gender, sexuality, bodies, and violence. In the 705 cards alone, there were 68 cards that referenced race, 107 that referenced gender, 162 that dealt with sexuality, 225 that invoked bodies or body parts, and 59 that referenced violence. For example:
|A big black dick.||1||1||1||1|
|A sassy black woman.||1||1||1|
|Beating your wives.||1||1||1|
|Pictures of boobs.||1||1|
|Raping and pillaging.||1||1||1||1|
|Taking a man’s eyes and balls out and putting his eyes where his balls go and then his balls in the eye holes.||1||1||1||1|
Though most of the cards are pretty benign—with cards like “Being fabulous” or “Hope” or “Spring Break,” much of the humor in Cards Against Humanity is really about playing with and playing up race, gender, sexuality, stereotypes, and difference. Often cards combine all of these logics and identities together.
The immense fun and pleasure of the game is in this permission, this allowance to be as racist, sexist, phobic, and deliciously awful as you want to be. And this mechanic is dependent on the magic circle of the game, the idea that when you’re playing the game there are no real world consequences. But of course the magic circle is permeable and games do have real world consequences. For example, in June 2014, Jonah Miller, a transgender teen, made headlines by posting a picture to Tumblr of them burning one of the Cards Against Humanity cards, which read “Passable transvestites.” Jonah Miller labeled his post as “Death to Transphobia.” Interestingly enough, Max Temkin, one of the creators of the game, responded soon after with a post to his blog apologizing, saying, “I regret writing this card. It was a mean, cheap joke. We took it out of the game a while ago.” But how do we determine that threshold? What is the line for when something is too mean, too cheap, or too damaging?
In other words, what do we do with this license to be “horrible people?” While I do not think Cards Against Humanity makes people racist, sexist, or phobic, the game does reveal the ways that gamers use games or the defense of games to be awful players, self-appointed gatekeepers, and trolls. I think it is really important to be mindful and critical of games and gaming cultures that rely on the oppression or lampooning of already vulnerable people either in overt, covert, or institutionalized ways. And it is important to be mindful and critical of reactions, vituperations, and backlashes that coopt the language of injury, censorship, ethics, fair play in the service of misogyny, racism, exclusion, fear, and violence.
As media and games scholar Lisa Nakamura says—in this case of video games—“much of the pleasure of videogames comes at the expense of women and people of color, both literally and figuratively”(9). I would add here any non-normative difference and games like Cards Against Humanity works because of this relationship. In fact, it fails to be “funny” without it. But Nakamura and others also recognize that there are interventions to be made, that “it is important to conduct these studies, for if gamers are themselves the source of some of the most virulent racist, sexist, and homophobic messages in videogames, they are also the source of some of the most ingenious and potent campaigns against them” (11).
I offer two quick examples. The first is from Rachel Rayner, a blogger from New Zealand, who has remixed Cards Against Humanity to be The Feminist Cards Against Humanity, replacing both black and white cards with responses that challenge the sort of sexist nature of the original game. Rayner explains, “I made a sanitised deck, removing all the rape jokes and Americanisms, and about half the boners…The jokes are about feminism, and being feminist, the struggle and how far we have to go still and damn if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.”
The second example is a website called “Why I Need Diverse Games?” and the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames, which launched in October 2014. The website features responses, provocations, examples of the how and why games need to be more inclusive, need to have different storylines, content, playable characters, and so forth. The creator of the site says, “So, I created this hashtag, #INeedDiverseGames. I did it because I am tired of not seeing myself in the games I have spent many years playing…There is more to do in a game, there is more to tell in a game than the same recycled, boring stories over and over.”
Both Feminist Cards Against Humanity and #INeedDiverseGames imagine and realize the need and imperative for games and gaming to do more for women, underrepresented identities, and diversity. Moreover, games and gaming must also take a hard look in the mirror to identify and address the ways game worlds, mechanics, and players themselves perpetuate and participate in racism, misogyny, and heternormativity.
All in all, Cards Against Humanity is a fun game, but we must critique and challenge where that fun comes from and to maybe to think about how a game should not be against humanity but perhaps for humanity, to think about more compassionate games and compassionate gameplay.
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Campbell, Colin. “Sarkeesian Driven Out of Home by Online Abuse and Death Threats.” Polygon. 27 Aug. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.polygon.com/2014/8/27/6075679/sarkeesian-driven-out-of-home-by-online-abuse-and-death-threats. Web.
Collins, Sean T. “Anita Sarkeesian on GamerGate: ‘We Have a Problem and We’re Going to Fix This.'” Rolling Stone. 17 Oct. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017. Web.
Day, Felicia. “The Only Thing I Have To Say About Gamer Gate.” Felicia’s Melange. 23 Oct. 27 Jan. 2015. http://thisfeliciaday.tumblr.com/post/100700417809/the-only-thing-i-have-to-say-about-gamer-gate. Web.
Hu, Elise. “Pew: Gaming is Least Welcoming Online Space for Women.” NPR. 22 Oct. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/10/22/357826882/pew-gaming-is-least-welcoming-online-space-for-women. Web.
Kluwe, Chris. “Why #Gamergaters Piss Me the F*** Off.” The Cauldron. 21 Oct. 2014. 27. Jan. 2015. https://medium.com/the-cauldron/why-gamergaters-piss-me-the-f-off-a7e4c7f6d8a6. Web.
Molloy, Parker Marie. “Cards Against Humanity Cocreator Apologizes for ‘Transphobic’ Card.” Advocate.com. 24 Jun. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2014/06/24/cards-against-humanity-cocreator-apologizes-transphobic-card. Web.
Nakamura, Lisa. “‘It’s a Nigger in Here! Kill the Nigger!’: User-Generated Media Campaigns Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in Digital Games.” The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies: Media Studies Futures. Ed. Kelly Gates. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing, 2013. 1-15.
Rayner, Rachel. “Feminist Cards Against Humanity.” Sep. 2013. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.rachelrayner.co.nz/2013/09/feminist-cards-against-humanity.html. Web.
Sottek, T.C. “Stop supporting Gamergate.” The Verge. 8 Oct. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.theverge.com/2014/10/8/6919179/stop-supporting-gamergate. Web.
Why I Need Diverse Games. 27 Jan. 2015. http://why-i-need-diverse-games.tumblr.com/. Web.
Wu, Brianna. “It Happened to Me: I’ve Been Forced Out Of My Home And Am Living In Constant Fear Because Of Relentless Death Threats From Gamergate.” XOJane. 16 Oct. 2014. 27 Jan. 2015. http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/brianna-wu-gamergate. Web.