At the second meeting of the sOUgame circle two discussion games were on the agenda: Cards Against Humanity and the Metagame. As with all discussion games, my belief is that a couple of drinks never harms the proceedings (and in fact, actually makes for more nuanced answers and hilarity), so this time the location was the OU’s local of the Cellar Bar.
The first game on the cards, so to speak, was Cards Against Humanity (CaH), is a fill-in-the-blank game using pre-determined phrases on cards, and is a game “for horrible people”, according to its box text. So what exactly makes people horrible – is it the intent to play it, the playing of it, or how we play it?
There’s a lot of criticism of CaH arising from it’s content, in that it actively includes on it’s cards subjects that are typically considered taboo in polite conversation, or at least in seeing these subjects as fodder for laughter, fun and play. It includes subjects that are controversial, i.e. often derogatory terms relating to sex, race, abuse, sexual violence, religion and political satire.
This is something that CaH gets away with that other games (especially digital ones) struggle with, also known as “The Limits of Play”, a concept developed by Chapman & Linderoth (2015). Their argument is that controversial subjects (such as racism, sexual violence, or the Holocaust) are seen as too sensitive to trivialise through play, so these elements are not included. For example there are very few instances, in digital WW2 games at least, of Swastikas as part of the gameplay – even the term “Nazis” is not used – and when you can play as the
Nazis Germans they are labelled as “Germans”, or they are called “Axis” and “Allies”, as opposed to fascists and Allies, or Nazis and Allies, etc. Things like this that are ok to represent in TV or film dramas are seldom represented in games, as the playable position in many senses would allow the players to reenact such atrocities, clearly something that game developers are not willing to be criticised for. Even in games like the new Wolfenstein, one of the few that does allude to the Holocaust as part of the narrative, it is presented in the form of a cinematic cut-scene, i.e. it is portrayed in the form of traditional media and not a part that you can play.
It is this element in terms of the Limits of Play in other games that CaH circumvents, where it blurs the boundaries between the verbal and the printed, as it merely gives you the tools to be a “horrible” person. After all, “The Holocaust” written on a card isn’t, in itself, offensive. The game itself isn’t horrible. It’s how these cards are used to answer the questions you are asked. The game doesn’t force you to play a card. You, as the player, have the agency to decide when that card should be played – if ever. But, and this is a biiiiiig but. Chances are you are not likely to win if you take a politically correct approach to the game. The more shocking, random, appropriate, or on occasion, clever answer you give, the more likely you are to win the round. The card in itself isn’t a joke, it is only in conjunction with the question that is asked that humour may arise, and perhaps, the offence, and it is the reading out loud of the answers by the Card Tsar that gives them their power to do one or the other.
I, for one, am not easily offended. I grew up close to Liverpool, where dark humour is not just a genre but a way of life (it took less than 2 hours after her death for me to hear a joke about Diana Spencer regarding [insert wall/paparazzi/tunnel/promiscuity/ assassination joke here]. However, you wouldn’t see these jokes printed anywhere….
Or at least not in the “reputable” rags of right-wing news, ironic considering it was these newspapers that contributed to her death in the first place. Even now there is many people (in the UK at least) who would actively complain if they were to read such a thing, even more than 18 years since her death. CaH makes it ok to joke about these perceived sensitive subjects, and if someone is offended, well, it’s irrelevant.
The game says that it’s for horrible people, right?
Something must be said about the “game frame”, to use Goffman’s term, which is described by Goffman (drawing from Bateson 1955) as the ability that animals have to understand the difference between a nip and a bite, i.e. drawing the distinction between the playful and the serious. This can equally be applied to our play of CaH, as post-game every person present stated their awareness of the fact that the terminology, content or subject matter seen on the cards would never be something that would be said in real life (in terms of Goffman’s metaphor, “a bite”), whereas in the game frame it is ok to use this terminology as it is merely “a nip”. The game frame essentially takes the agency from the player when they’re “horrible”, almost in “the game made me do it” type of way. The anonymity of the answers in terms of who played them further removes the player from the subject that they are answering on.
One thing that can be said, however, is that the game doesn’t discriminate against one ethnic, religious or cultural stereotype in it’s humour – to paraphrase South Park “either it’s all ok, or none of it is ok”. But perhaps the real irony lies in the fact that the reason that the stereotypes of these ethnic minorities are found to be amusing is that there is an acknowledged, nay propagated, disparity that these groups have in the wider world, meaning that their plight (in want of a better word) is found to be amusing, despite the players’ chagrin at the highlighting of it. This is not to say that any of the players were racist, etc., as all stated being fully aware of the dubious ethical connotations of our answers. Only that perhaps the humour arose not in the fact that this disparity and the awareness of it was all too real, but that the real humour arises in the quiet ridicule of the people that do try and propagate these myths, for example, about racial superiority. Indeed, “White privilege” was one of the cards we saw and the humour arose in the awareness that this was a fundamental and strong force in the modern world, saddening though it is. Something that came up in our discussions post-game is that the more liberal a group is, the more there is an awareness that the cards played were in fact politically incorrect, but that the humour arises not from the racial/sexual/religious stereotypes themselves but in poking fun at people who believe these arbitrary classifications actually should reflect reality, not that we should question this reflection. And, of course, in saying something that you shouldn’t.
Although there is certainly the argument to be made that you can win through shock factor in this game, the element of “comedy” timing is also a factor, as well as the fact that there is a “Card Tsar” that you are effectively targeting your answers to. So it might be said that the better you know someone’s humour, the better you will fare at CaH, though there is always the random draw of the cards themselves that must be taken into account. Though this is surely a feature in many games, including the metagame, as well as others card-based or not, so serves to inject some variation into the format.
The mechanics of the Metagame in many ways are similar to that of CaH. There is a Card Tsar who asks a question and decides the best response of all the cards given (this can also be decided by a democratic vote as another variation, but I always like the idea of a Dictator), however there is an additional discursive element in Metagame, in that you choose your card and must argue for that card’s win (at least in the “debate club” game variant we played). There is 200 culture cards that highlight civilisations “greatest achievements”, including works of art, films, music, fashion, and video games, and has 6 game variants –
- Matchmakers: match your culture cards to the right opinion cards
- History 101: put everything in the right chronological order
- Debate Club: argue to the critics for your hilarious opinion
- Head to Head: a fast-paced race to get your cards out first
- Massively Multiplayer Metagame: for big parties and events
- Metaquilt: a tricky combination of strategy and discussion
Although the player has more agency in the Metagame, as a group of 7 that played who had various International backgrounds, there was a certain level of pop culture knowledge and perhaps an anglo-centric orientation that had to be negotiated. For example, the Big Mac may be seen as a legitimate cultural phenomenon by at least Americans and Brits, perhaps this is not quite so important to world culture as western culture may have us believe. Similarly so with “the Mullet”.
Though, presumably this comes back to the agency of the player in choosing the card as a potentially winning answer, what works for some doesn’t by any means work for all parties. In the metagame, how you “sell” your card is just as important as the card itself – the game is as much about the presentation of the card as it is about the card, an aspect that is lacking in CaH, where you almost sneak your card across in the hope that you are revealed as the winner, where if you don’t you are undoubtedly doomed to obscurity until the next turn. perhaps the appeal in winning in CaH is merely the hope for recognition that you chose a “good answer”.
In the discussion of the metagame, it was emphatically stated that it requires more skill than CaH. Yes – there is a randomness to the selection of the cards themselves, but there is the skill of both choosing the right card to answer the question as well as how you present it. The heightened discursive nature of the metagame means that perhaps native English speakers are at an advantage, whereas in CaH you can play a card you don’t understand and still, potentially, win.
There was also the fact that the discussions in relation to the cards produced discussions outside of the “game frame”, in that it inspired us to talk about aspects of the question or cards presented in ways that were relevant to our own lives. To some extent this did also occur in CaH, though for the most part this was to explain the content of the cards. For example, I remember a discussion of the nature of Blackpool (ahem), as well as “reader’s wives”, amongst other personal highlights…. but this also illustrates a particularly Brit-centricity to the game, understandable given there are different American, Canadian, Australian and British versions of CaH.
This is as opposed to inspiring actual debates about the cards or surrounding topics as we saw in the metagame – the game was a jumping off point for non-game related discussions more so (in my opinion) than could be said for CaH. This being said, we were further along in the night (and thus further down our drinks) when playing the metagame, so perhaps this assertion won’t hold up in the cold light of day.
One thing that particularly struck me with the play of the metagame was that even while people were submitting their cards and arguments, there was a rebuttal of the arguments (or agreement with them) by the other players. This meant the game was a negotitation not only of the Card Tsar (as in CaH) but of the rest of the group also. Ultimately, the game was much more of a social experience – more of a discussion game as it were – than in CaH, as people were having to actively find their answer’s place in the hierarchy, as opposed to sneaking their answer in and being told their answer’s place in the hierarchy, i.e winning or not winning, as in CaH.
Whereas the format of CaH risks becoming a bit “same-y” with increased familiarity with the cards and despite the expansion packs, I have found that over time I have become somewhat desensitised to the content of the game. And once some of the shock factor of the cards is lost, it becomes much more difficult for it to have replay value. This is certainly not to say that I didn’t enjoy our game, but that I think that the longevity of it may be brief, especially if played on a regular basis.
As the metagame relies more heavily on the individual players to create the fun through their opinions and discussions, every time it’s played is different – and this isn’t even taking into account the different game variants. Though, as stated, we had imbibed somewhat more by the time we played it, so perhaps we should repeat the playing of the two games and invert the order of play, to see if it still holds up.
I, for one, am happy to play the metagame any time.
Cards Against Humanity is available in the different regional versions as a free pdf download here.
The Metagame is available by import from US Amazon.
Bateson, G. “A theory of play and fantasy,” in Psychiatric Research Reports vol. 2, no. 39 (1955), pp. 39-51.
Chapman, A. & Linderoth, J. ” A case study of the representations of Nazis in games” in The Dark Side of Gameplay: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments. Routlege.
Goffman, E. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.