It’s easy to understand why the Parisian surrealists were so taken with the Exquisite Corpse parlor game. The game could be played with text or drawings. It involved each participant adding a word, line or doodle until what’s left was a drawing or piece of a verse that made no kind of rational sense. It was always absurdly comic. No wonder this appealed to the surrealists and their worldview, which so embraced chaos and nihilism.
But those were insane French artists. It’s harder to explain why just about everyone on earth loves Cards Against Humanity.
The cheeky, self-described “party game for horrible people” was introduced to the world via a Kickstarter campaign in 2010 and has gone on to sell gangbusters (the company does not release exact figures) six expansions and a plethora of theme packs (e.g., 90s Nostalgia Pack, Geek Pack).
The game’s white and black box is ubiquitous, from bars in Marfa to mansions in Malibu. If you’ve somehow not played yourself here’s how it goes: players draw a hand of white cards that all bear noun phrases on them (e.g., "Two midgets shitting in a bucket," "Hot Pockets," "Mecha-Hitler"). These are then played in accordance with the black card placed in the middle of the table, which describes a situation or sentiment into which this white card’s scenario might fit (e.g., “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s ___,” “Life was difficult for cavemen before _____”). The group playing votes on the person who has completed the sentence most amusingly and the winner gets a point.
All this is making it seem much drier than it sounds, but it’s important to understand how unremarkable this game is on the surface. Its rules are in fact almost exactly the same as those of Apples to Apples, a card game geared toward children that debuted in 1999. This is a game, then, carried almost exclusively by the strength of its writing.
“Cards Against Humanity is still written by the original eight of us who started the game,” cocreator Max Temkin said in an interview. The crew meets for four hours once a week over Google Hangouts to pitch card ideas from a giant shared long list called the Hopper, which narrows down to the Shortlist. There are a few in-person, weeklong writing retreats each year. “We’re a group of eight Jewish comedy writers, so the amount of Talmudic debate that goes into each card (how to word it, comma placement, whether people will get the reference, etc.) is pretty crazy.”
There is a brand and ethos to the Cards Against Humanity absurdity that begins with trying to contact them at the phone number listed on the site. “For English press one,” says a female voice. Then: “Para español, oprima numero dos,” says a husky man with a slightly Speedy Gonzales vibe. All of the phone tree options essentially direct you to the company’s single email address, though one of the better ones stems from “If you would like us to send you something for free, please press 4”: “Thanks for letting us know that you want our game for free. As you probably know Cards Against Humanity is a business. Typically, people give us money, which we use to buy ourselves potatoes, video games, creams, ointments, gold futures, crystal balls, gum balls, gobstoppers, candy corn . . .”
Temkin said his own sense of humor was influenced by Penn & Teller, George Carlin, and Jon Stewart, but doesn’t think of himself as a humorist, or even as a game designer.
“I have a background as a graphic designer, and that’s still the main thing I do at Cards Against Humanity,” he said. “I’m passionate about philosophy (my degree) and design, and games and comedy scratch that same itch. They’re also these complicated, human-centered systems that require orderly thought to be expressed well. Now that I wrote it out that sounds really weird and pretentious, but I guess everybody needs a hobby.”
These particular systems are human-centered in the extreme: Cards Against Humanity would likely not be as popular, and would definitely not be as profitable, if it did not consist of beautifully designed, printed cards. It takes the Internet’s sense of humor and puts it on a table, and in many ways each hand could be thought of as a proto-meme, were you to remix it and apply it to other circumstances.
The game mixes well with booze, and because of the slightly taboo ideas that result from a game, this too is an important aspect of its in person success. Nobody could feel the sense of amusement and embarrassment that comes from a great combination while playing this game, somehow, online. Picture if you will that time Grandma edged out Uncle Frank's “drinking alone” response to the prompt “______ only gets better with age” by playing a card that reads, simply, “Men.”
The game's original name was Cardenfreude, but as meanness and offensiveness goes it’s actually fairly tame.
“We don’t really care if cards are offensive or not, and we definitely don’t care if they’re popular,” Temkin said. “We only care that our joke comes across clearly, and it’s something that makes people laugh. If a joke makes us feel uncomfortable vs. making us laugh, we don’t put it in the game. We also don't want to feel like we're bullying anyone with a card in the game, so we play-test each card extensively, which helps us figure out if anything crosses that line.”
The cards sometimes cross a line. Temkin has said he regrets writing one white card, “passable transvestites,” after a transgender 19-year-old posted a video of himself burning the card online. But it’s a fairly equal offender, and comes down especially hard on the Jews, since all eight of its writers are Jewish.
“My personal belief is that no word alone is antisemitic, it’s how you use it in context that counts. History has shown that there will always be cruel and stupid people who think that banning words will ban ideas, but I have always believed that the opposite is true,” Temkin said. “If we thought that banning Hitler’s name from our game would undo the historical atrocities of the Holocaust, we would do it. But it won't. It will only contribute to a state of affairs where people don’t understand their history and nominate a fascist for president.”
There is something very personal about Cards Against Humanity. Even though it’s hugely popular, whenever someone proposes playing it at a party it’s not “Let’s play Scrabble” or “Let’s play monopoly.” It’s always more along the lines of “Have you heard about this game Cards Against Humanity?” When a game is 6 years old and hugely popular, it’s odd for people to have such a personal connection to it.
And though the game advertises itself as “for horrible people,” it is certainly not made by anyone who fits that description. The game’ holiday expansions always go to a variety of charities. Even these philanthropic efforts have come with Cards Against Humanity flair to them: in 2014 the company licensed 250,000 one-square-foot plots of land on an island in Maine to customers for a “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa” campaign. The company also renamed the island Hawaii 2, but it was essentially just a land preservation effort, since it wasn’t like anyone could sell, or really even use, a one square-foot plot.
To date, Temkin estimates that they’ve raised $4 million for partner nonprofit organizations. “It’s certainly the best thing that we’ve done with the company,” he said.
“We all have lives and jobs outside of Cards Against Humanity—the success of a dirty card game was not really part of any of our life plans,” he added. “I work on Democratic political campaigns, so the idea of using our money and pop-culture influence to support political causes that we care about (like the Sunlight Foundation, the Wikimedia Foundation, DonorsChoose.org and Heifer International) has always been the motivating factor for me to keep pushing the game forward. Some of the other cocreators have (or are getting) PhDs, and they’ve seen firsthand that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. This led us to create the Science Ambassador Scholarship, which gives full-ride scholarships to women getting degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.
Perhaps that's the secret to Cards Against Humanity's success: that these cards aren’t really against humanity at all, but rather for it and all its hilarious and disgusting nuances.
Illustrations by Gary Hovland