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Horrible in the Right Way: Joking Hazard vs. Cards Against Humanity

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CN: article quotes cards from Joking Hazard and Cards Against Humanity, meaning there are mentions of violence, suicide, sexual assault, hate crimes, and bodily fluids.

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This past weekend was my birthday; it being my birthday, I played board games. There was Mysterium, and Codenames, and Sentinels of the Multiverse, and an ill-fated stab at Cosmic Encounter (Entropy Beasts ruin everything…). There was also a present for me: A copy of a game called Joking Hazard, complete with Kickstarter rewards, given to me by friends who had clearly thought far ahead about my present. They already had their own copy open and ready to go, so I put my still-wrapped copy aside, and played a few rounds. Later that night, I played a few more rounds. And when I got home, I unwrapped my own copy, tore open the Kickstarter bonus packs, and put Joking Hazard on our main gaming shelf. Of course, putting a new game on that crowded shelf means something else gets consigned to the storage bench where we keep our second-string board games — the ones we like, but that won’t get trotted out every time people want to crack open some cardboard. The victim of re-shelving this time was our previous Game Night staple, Cards Against Humanity. The reason? Joking Hazard is Cards Against Humanity, but far, far less problematic.

Some background for those not in the know: Cards Against Humanity is, as it says on the box, “a card game for horrible people.” There are stacks of black cards with white text (“black cards”), and stacks of white cards with black text (“white cards”); black cards either pose a question or provide a sentence with words missing, and white cards are all nouns or noun phrases. Every round, the current judge chooses a black card at random, and the other players choose one or more white cards to answer the question or fill the gaps in the sentences. Black and white cards alike have all manner of transgressive, often risqué, sometimes outright gross things on them, sometimes with current pop-culture references sprinkled in; one of my group’s favorite black cards is “What does Barack Obama find relaxing?”, while “a big, black dick” is a popular white card (also favorites: “BATMAN!” And “a windmill full of corpses”). These are among the less horrifying and boundary-edging cards, with others referencing various forms of assault, including a whole legion of cards that either obliquely or outright discuss rape.

Joking Hazard, at first blush, is much the same game, with a comic-strip twist. The deck is made up of single comic panels, depicting two (or so) recurring stick-figure characters just like those from the artist’s own web comic, Cyanide and Happiness. Each round, the judge flips up a card from the deck, then plays a card from their own hand; these form the first two panels of a three-panel strip (the judge chooses the order). The other players then choose a card from their hand, and the judge chooses which of those represents the best punchline for the panels presented. The panels present situations that are either mean (a character telling another “You should kill yourself”), violent (several cards feature one or both characters dying, often at the other’s hand, almost always messily), risqué (I did not imagine there would be that many ways to show stick figures sexually pleasuring each other), gross (every bodily fluid is represented at least twice, and there is more than one reference to AIDS), or just plain surreal (one panel just says “DRUGZ” over a psychedelic picture of two characters smoking weed).

Get it? Sense made? OK. Here’s why Joking Hazard is better, and why this is important.

On the surface, they are almost the same game: find the most shocking, bizarre, or hilarious way to combine the cards in your hand with the card(s) on the table. But that surface resemblance is all they share. Joking Hazard is transgressive, and readily ventures into the puerile, but its tone is less mean-spirited than Cards Against Humanity. Put simply: Joking Hazard does not punch down as hard.

Punching up versus punching down has been a hot topic in comedy lately (and, I dare say, a contentious one). It comes down to a discussion of how the target of a joke affects how funny that joke is; overall, the argument goes, a joke is funnier if it targets those more privileged than the joke-teller, or those who are the instigators of bad behavior rather than the victims of it: middle-class people joking about rich celebrities, black people joking about how racist white people are toward them, etc. Punching down is the place where racist jokes dwell, and sexist ones, and ones where the entire punchline is child abuse or people getting assaulted. These are the jokes of the experimental and the inexperienced, still trying to figure out how jokes work and what is and isn’t funny (and playing with social expectations); jokes that punch up are where the biggest laughs are, and where a lot of people, yours truly included, are most comfortable. Joking Hazard, by and large, punches up; Cards Against Humanity, by and large, doesn’t care who it targets. 

It comes down to the cards. Joking Hazard has plenty of weird, gross, taboo, and horrifying stuff on its cards, but race is entirely absent from their cards, and when gender or sexual orientation come up, it’s always presented straight, without inherent value judgment (e.g., one card in the history deck has a character simply declaring “gay marriage is legal now”). This is in comparison to CAH‘s many, many cards like “the gays,” “brown people,” and the somewhat infamous “passable transvestites.” There is a single card in the history expansion that references the Holocaust, vs. CAH‘s obsession with mentioning Hitler, the Nazis, or ethnic cleansing across multiple cards. And Joking Hazard has no sexual cards that outright specify they are nonconsensual in nature; some facial expressions can be left up to interpretation, but there is nothing equivalent to CAH‘s “date rape.”

CAH has been controversial since it came out, and there is no doubt that this state of affairs is intentional. They have also stated several times that they like to update their sets to remove things they realize are not funny, such as their removal of the aforementioned “passable transvestites.” But a continued issue with CAH has been that, while it purports to be a funny game, there is no clear mission statement about the way it intends to be funny. Are these horrible cards about trauma and violence meant to be funny on a meta-level, with us laughing because we cannot imagine who would find this stuff funny? Or are they meant to be funny on the face of them, a way for players to laugh about horrible things that we don’t like to consider about human existence? Both sides have traction, and some people vary from card to card, but either way, this game is highly problematic on the face of it, and has been the site of more than one argument about whether or not words can be harmful and whether us Social Justice Warriors are ruining a perfectly innocent card game by applauding the creators choosing to remove some cards from the game. (Hint: we’re not.) The cards lack nuance, and it makes playing the game in mixed company particularly troublesome; personally, I refuse to play it with strangers, and even with our friends there are a lot of trigger warnings and offers to take cards out of the mix before every game with a new entrant.

I have so many fewer compunctions about Joking Hazard. For sure, some of the cards are disgusting, and plenty of them are mean-spirited or even bleak, but just the fact there are people on the cards saying and doing these terrible things puts a different spin on the humor: Joking Hazard is much more clearly deriving humor from the terrible actions of terrible people, unsympathetic protagonists who provide laughs with cartoonish violence and the odd dynamite-blast of shock value. You certainly can make a rape joke out of a Joking Hazard strip if you decide to lay out the cards in the right (wrong?) way, but that is not something inherent to the cards. Even the Holocaust reference is, while shocking, neutral in content — it’s a picture of the two principle characters standing under a sign that says “Auschwitz,” which while not gentle or respectful is also not insisting that the Holocaust is the punchline (better than a card that just says “ethnic cleansing”). I’d provide a content notice before anyone played the game, and I would not expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I would consider playing it with strangers — while there are definitely some people (especially some gamers…) who would readily take the jokes down a too-dark path, the distance they have to go for those jokes is significant enough that they will find it harder to hide in a JH crowd than a CAH crowd.

Our culture (both Western culture and nerd subculture) needed Joking Hazard more than it needed Cards Against Humanity. We are living in an era where empathy and basic humanity are still far too much a subject of debate: where there is an entire subgenre of memes dedicated to regressive humor and white supremacy; where the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them is still not clear to many; where “social justice” is still seen as a derogatory term, inclusivity as automatically concurrent with exclusivity, and where male rape is still fair game for humor (and female rape is joked about at an alarmingly high rate). CAH feeds into that struggle, encouraging the idea that a little meta-awareness makes a rape joke OK, and that being vile is synonymous with being hilarious. Joking Hazard provides some context to the dark humor, both ensuring our laughter is pointed at the terrible actors rather than the idea of their actions existing, and making players walk farther to make a joke truly horrific.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Joking Hazard is the next step along the path from CAH: a more complex mechanic, a structure in which even the judge is an active participant, and humor that breaks taboos without outright tap-dancing on trauma triggers while singing the Who Cares About Your Feelings song. It’s the Brooklyn Nine-Nine to CAH‘s Big Bang Theory — undoubtedly in the same genre, but with an empathetic approach to its subject matter that elevates the experience. I expect CAH will come out rarely if at all at our Game Nights now, and I look forward to many, many sessions of Joking Hazard in the future.

Though I need to decide how I feel about that Holocaust reference…

Tyler Dent Hayes
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Tyler is a professional writer of speculative fiction and an enthusiastic lover of comics, tabletop games, pro wrestling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, literary criticism, ice hockey, and basically every genre of fiction and music, but especially anything about superheroes, mythology, or both. Hailing from the wilds of Mendocino County, Tyler is lucky enough to have attained an advanced degree in talking about writing and to have married his favorite person in the world. He blogs about writing, life with anxiety, and occasionally movies and comics at his website, www.tyler-hayes.com. He'd love to play Sentinels of the Multiverse with you if you're interested.

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