Cards Against Humanity

“Cards Against Humanity” is a pun, of sorts, on “crimes against humanity” — which isn’t really funny. But if you got a half-dozen people to vote on it, they’d probably say it was. Individual taste becomes awful in groups, and nothing demonstrates this phenomenon better than Cards Against Humanity, a party game for horrible people. That’s not even my opinion; it says so right on the box: “A party game for horrible people.” The website elaborates: “Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”

It’s a seductive pitch, inviting the reader to join a conspiracy at once self-deprecating and proud. Who doesn’t think of themselves and their friends as secret degenerates? No one — and therein lies the problem. Like America’s most successful brands, Cards Against Humanity positions itself against the masses, when in fact it is mass taste distilled. It is the product of a culture in which transgressing social norms has become an agreed-on social norm.

Cards Against Humanity plays in the same way as Apples to Apples, a game for 5-year-olds, and it promises the same idiotic freedom that small children enjoy. The whole architecture of the game is designed to provide the thrill of transgression with none of the responsibility — to let players feel horrible, if you will, without feeling bad. There are two sets of cards: black cards with questions or fill-in-the-blank statements, and white cards with noun phrases that fill those blanks and answer those questions. At the beginning of each round, one player, called the “card czar,” deals a black card from the deck. The other players choose white cards from their hands to answer it. The card czar then chooses the funniest answer and awards a point to the person who played it.

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?