These randomly generated jokes are outrageous — and in the case of cards like “the profoundly handicapped” or “this year’s mass shooting,” even taboo. But they are also safe. Because the premise of the game is that you play the cards you’re dealt, players get points for creating shocking combinations but don’t have to take responsibility for them. The genius of Cards Against Humanity, as a party game, is that it encourages intimacy by allowing players to violate norms together without worrying about offending one another.
That may be because Cards Against Humanity isn’t really transgressive at all. It is a game of naughty giggling for people who think the phrase “black people” is inherently funny. That demographic includes nervous parents, people who describe themselves as “politically incorrect,” the pathologically sarcastic, accidental racists — in a word, everybody. Cards Against Humanity recasts popular prejudices and gross-out humor as acts of rebellion for small groups, imparting the thrill of conspiracy to values most people hold in common. (At least among the straight, the able-bodied and especially the white. The game implicitly assumes that no one playing will actually have AIDS or be profoundly handicapped, so that its gags remain only theoretically offensive.)
This premise is perfect for a society in which real, enforced taboos still exist but are outnumbered by the expanding category of utterly safe rebellions for which we congratulate ourselves daily. We pretend to be scandalized by the phrase “coat-hanger abortion,” but in the end it is a punch line in a party game. Once you see through this hypocrisy, it becomes impossible to enjoy Cards Against Humanity again. The frisson evaporates, and the game becomes more like church: a profoundly alienating activity where the suspicion that everyone is faking it vies with the fear that everyone is more into it than you.
The worry that objecting to Cards Against Humanity might make you a jerk deepens with the knowledge that the people who made it are incontrovertibly good — or at least like to act that way while simultaneously extending the brand. They have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity. They bought an island in Lake St. George in Maine, named it Hawaii 2 and gave away 250,000 licenses to use it recreationally. Although boxed versions now retail for $25 to $40, the game began as a free download that people could print at home. Cards Against Humanity proves that something crass and saddening can emerge from a sense of decency and fun.
Since I first encountered the game five years ago, it has become a mainstay in the households of young urban professionals. Because it is an icebreaker, the people trying to get me to play it are invariably friends of friends — the class of person that commands the most deference in social situations. This puts the Cards Against Humanity objector in a difficult position. Because what’s even more awful than bloodless pop rebellion? Refusing to play a party game. The same qualities that make Cards Against Humanity boring and unfunny also make it a reliable crowd-pleaser. People love it. It gets them laughing and talking over each other, which is something every party needs. Only a monster would sit on the couch and flip through back issues of Granta while everyone else selects a card czar, an office the game awards to “the person who most recently pooped.”
Just typing that makes me angry. But other people seem to love it. The ones who have played before cannot conceal their anticipation as the host digs out the cards. They bite their lips, waiting gleefully to break the shackles of convention by admitting that they have pooped.
The awful thing is that it works. The reliability of Cards Against Humanity as an activity most people will enjoy only makes it more depressing to those of us immune to its charms. It is, in the end, a party game for horrible people. But who else is there to party with?