Cards Against Humanity is a popular party game in which a player reads a card with a prompt containing fill-in-the-blank values for the other players to submit answers to anonymously. Its collection of answers include crass and dark humor, sophisticated social commentary, adult themes, and cites both pop culture references and philosophical concepts.
The social dynamics of the game unofficially define winning as having the most popular answer among the party members. Officially however, the winner of a round is determined solely by the personal preference of the prompt reader. The problem with this model is that all games eventually devolve into inside jokes made for the asking player’s enjoyment as opposed to the group’s. Or, if played entirely for the group’s enjoyment, the jokes begin to fall within a limited comedic spectrum due to the makeup of the group of players.
The fun social element of the game is making people laugh at the absurdity, irony, or poignance of one’s answers. A player’s answers are an indication of their cleverness, their boldness, and their desire to connect with their fellow party goers. While wide appeal is the most rewarding experience it does not ensure victory within the game and this can become frustrating, since the game is an exercise in expressing one’s sense of humor, and the appraisal of one’s jokes through peer review.
The scoring mechanism is originally followed as such, whichever answer was found to be the funniest by the group it is chosen by the asking player and then a victory point is awarded to the answering player. This follows the sentiment that when an answer undeniably beats out the others, that player should win the round. The asking player always retains the right to pick whichever answer entertained them the most, but this opens the door to favoritism. After a few rounds players start to be able to recognize how their friends will submit answers and begin to award their close friends for their insight into their sense of humor. Close friends start amassing victory points through favored round selections. This progression of the game starts to force players out of being invested in the game through the increasing sense that the rounds will be unfair.
The counterpoint to this breakdown of the game is how the game breaks when playing with a small group, then the jokes end up repeating around the same theme. Here the game runs into the problem of players not being able to venture into esoteric comedic territory or obtuse references since the audience does not feature enough diversity to allow for the appreciation of the variety of jokes and subject matter that the game has to offer.
The game is a surprising mixture of simple design and complex social dynamics. It doesn’t account for the nuances of how the players relate, their social backgrounds, nor does it require that players know all of the references to play the game. It simply focuses on giving the players several answers which always affords them the opportunity to play. Since their answers are anonymous, players can always feel safe in participating regardless of their success within the game.
The experience has the foundation for a fun gameplay experience due to its inherently comedic model; however the experience can be painted good or bad through the behaviors of its players. The flow of the game runs into some problems when handling groups of varying sizes and walks of life. The answer submission process can become less enjoyable in long matches due to favoritism. Yet the game remains a fun and expressive social experience through its focus on generating memorable jokes and surprising our friends with creative senses of humor.
Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor. You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.
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I must say that this is the first time I’ve read a thorough discourse about the social dynamics surrounding Cards Against Humanity, so kudos to the author! I agree that yes, that winning is largely based on the subjective decision of the prompt reader, but more than winning, maybe the bigger “fun” to the game is actually hearing all the funny responses?
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Thank you for your support Pat! Cards Against Humanity is an enchanting game the first few times players new to the game play it. However, after several sessions with different groups of people, these patterns start to emerge which illustrate the challenges there are to making such a game, and how keeping it an entertaining experience can differ greatly depending on the dynamic of the players themselves.