Culture against humanity

I was playtesting with a couple of other games designers last week, this is always a good experience since you tend to get a different kind of feedback from other designers compared to regular players. It’s not better or worse, but it’s another perspective and if you want a game to be as good as possible you can never have too many points of view. In keeping with the ancient traditions of gamers at some point we wound up talking about every other game and I was surprised by the depth of emotion one of the other designers had in response to Cards against Humanity. A designer against cards against humanity if you will.

throne of games

My attitude to CaH has generally been somewhat lukewarm, I had an alright time for a game or two but found it had no staying power and generally didn’t feel it had enough game to it to be worth any further play. That’s fine, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong wit it, I’m not the target audience. I long ago accepted the difference between “This game is not for me” and “This is a bad game”. My fellow’s attitude came at it from a different angle: That the game was contributing to something harmful culturally that made it viscerally unpleasant for him to play or be in the vicinity of.

I’m on the record of caring about the impact of board games on culture (and particularly on board gaming culture) I think that computer games culture has some of the problems that it does because no thought was given to this sort of thing when perhaps it should have. I’m by no means an authority on the subject (I haven’t studied cultural psychology since masters level) but it’s important to think about this stuff so I’d like to share my thoughts and invite you all to chew over these issues and decide what you think too.


My friend’s issue with the game came down to it being an excuse for people to say things that they wouldn’t normally say and that those things were harmful. The former is definitely true (I hope!), the latter is debatable. The place I find pause is that when I try to envision what harm might possibly be caused, it’s invisible.

The direct harm I can imagine happening comes when someone decides to play … let’s say “A boy scout” + “A strong uppercut” = “Establishing dominance” Some players wince, some laugh, everyone has a good time. One feels that the abuse they suffered as a child that influences their day to day life is treated as a joke, quietly categorises the people around the table as “not to be trusted”, doesn’t want to say anything that would ruin everyone’s evening, fakes a laugh and goes home and cries about it that night. Nobody playing knows that anything’s happened.

I don’t know the odds of that happening with any random group of people, I once adopted a philosophy called “Everyone’s screaming on the inside” when it became apparent to me what a high proportion of people are suffering badly in one form or another and don’t feel that they can talk about it. CaH is irreverent about a broad suite of subjects, a great many that could be of personal importance to a group of random people. I don’t know what the odds of doing harm in this way during a random game are, I do know that it’s happened at least twice with people that I know.


The second method is the more insidious one. Dave, Tom and Phil are playing, Dave throws together a combo of cards about beating women who are out of line. “That’s funny because it’s awful and we’re poking fun at people who believe that” thinks Dave. “That’s funny because it’s awful and we’re poking fun at people who believe that” thinks Tom. “That’s funny because it’s true.” thinks Phil. Everyone laughs. Everyone is sure that everyone else saw it the same way that they did. Phil becomes more confident that his views are typical of and sanctioned by his larger circle. He beast his wife that evening.

This sort of thing is almost impossible to quantify. There are a lot of attitudes in our (broad we) culture that lead to horrendous outcomes, for instance it’s fairly well documented that there’s a relationship between the rape myth (women enjoy being raped) and rape. When a movie/game/newspaper/poster/whatever contributes to one of these attitudes to what extent should they be held accountable for the ultimate consequence? Is contributing 0.01% of the media that creates an attitude that leads to a 0.05% increase in the chance of something terrible happening meaningful? I’m reminded of Going Postal, in which one of the characters is distressed to have his life summerised as being responsible for a handful of murders, though he contributed to no more than a fraction of the circumstances for each death influenced by his actions.


I think that perhaps I’ve put across the argument for why CaH is harmful as eloquently as I am able, so now I’m going to flip and argue as well as I can that it doesn’t matter and that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with these things as designers or players. Or at least that while harm can be delivered by games via an influence on culture CaH is not an example of this. I’m not sure I’ve slept enough nights on this to have properly synthesised my own view yet, so I’m going to leave that off the end. Culture is necessarily collaborative, my view isn’t more important than anyone else’s anyway.

First let’s talk to the apparent character of the creators. Firstly, they’re hilarious, I love the way that they write about things – there’s clearly an excellent sense of humor at work here. Just watching unboxing videos of the boxes of bullshit that they sold to people by saying “This is a box of bullshit” is a treat. Secondly, I get the impression that they care about a lot of the issues that I care about when I write things like that. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, after all if someone were already a Xist Yphobic jerk they wouldn’t need anything to act as an excuse to say terrible things. This post about what they did with the bullshit money is broadly an attack on politicians who are doing a great deal more harm than a game ever could. There’s a danger that acting in haste on subjects like this can do more harm than good, if the chance and magnitude of harm inflicted by the game are both mild is it really justified to attack it? Besides, more often than not constructions are formed in CaH to lampoon harmful views which has a net positive impact, that should apply. While it is sometimes necessary to criticise people who are (broadly) on your side, it’s easy to wind up ruining your causes by doing so.

There is also a freedom of speech argument. Now generally I don’t consider freedom of speech to be of paramount importance: If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time you can get them to kill someone. Or themselves. While I think it’s important that people be able to say what they think, I do not hold it to be more important than any other consideration. Perhaps what I am in favour of could better be termed responsibility of speech – people should be responsible for the consequences of their actions, whether those actions are speaking or detonating explosives. Given that they should broadly be free to do as they wish.

hyperbole internet forever

So coming from this perspective, how important is it that people get to publish whatever games they want? I’d say still pretty damn important, leaving aside the excellent games that we could lose to any form of censorship there’s a whole world of art through board games that has barely been explored. Whether you love it or hate it Train has started enough conversations that it says something profound to at least some portion of the population. I don’t want to be in a world that loses that. Whatever you think of CaH or any other game, it’s important that the reaction never become “This shouldn’t have been made”. However our culture is formed of the aggregate of what designers choose to make and what gamers choose to play – my belief is that designers and gamers should consider games through this lens from time to time with an eye to (very slightly very subtly and in a small way) building a better world.

Finally there’s an issue about how fair the criticism of harm is. Due to the law of really big numbers, someone, somewhere in the world has had a life changing ordeal involving an orange vegetable. To that person the colour of the vegetable counters in Agricola is a horrifying reminder and the existence of the game does them some harm. Clearly it is perverse to blame the creators of the game for this, even should it turn out to be true. How likely are the scenarios I talked about above? Do they fall above or below a reasonable threshold for what a designer should be expected to care about?

Now this post was never really about cards against humanity, that was just the stepping off point that had me considering these things lately (I’m still conflicted about the game as a whole). I can think of games that are much worse. I can think of things in the world that are much worse than the aggregate effect of every negative impact caused by every game ever published. But I can’t really do much about most of those things.

I can decide what I want to put into my games and what sort of impact that might have. So I think it does me good to consider things like this. I hope that whether we agree or not you can find some insight pondering these things too.

1 thought on “Culture against humanity

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