For Tumblr user horriblewarning, a party game turned into a viral Tumblr post about transphobic jokes–and prompted one of the game’s creators to publicly apologize for it.
A brief overview for the uninitiated: Cards Against Humanity is a game similar to Apples to Apples, but with purposefully lewd and funny pop culture references. The game play, per the company’s website, goes as such: “Each round, one player asks a question from a black card, and everyone else answers with their funniest white card.” Black cards contain fill-in-the-blank sentences, such as, “What the gift that keeps on giving?” or, “What is Batman’s guilty pleasure?” White cards have possible answers, such as, “Glenn Beck getting harried by a swarm of buzzards,” “a homoerotic volleyball montage,” and “Miley Cyrus at 55.”
Tumblr user horriblewarning was playing Cards Against Humanity with his friends. A white card with “passable transvestites” on it came up.
“A lot of my friends are LGBT, emphasis on the T,” horriblewarning told Fusion. “Somebody played that card, and somebody else was like, ‘That’s not okay.’ I decided I didn’t want it in my deck.”
Instead of just throwing it away, horriblewarning–who in real life is a 19-year-old Boston resident named Jonah–decided to have some fun with it. So he set it on fire over the sink and took a few photos. He posted the photos to Tumblr with the caption “DEATH TO TRANSPHOBIA.”
Like most Tumblr users, Jonah sometimes posts funny, silly, or thought-provoking things about his life in between reblogs of funny, silly, or thought-provoking things other people have posted. Sometimes they resonate with people and get lots of notes–maybe a couple hundred, up to 1000 or so at most.
In this case, the fiery demise of the transphobic joke caught on like, well, wildfire. As of now, the post has more than 44,000 notes.
“It got bigger than I ever thought it would,” Jonah said.
Max Temkin, one of the co-creators of Cards Against Humanity, said a fellow Cards creator found Jonah’s post and emailed it to him. On Tumblr, people have the ability to reblog a post and add their own commentary to it. Temkin decided to speak up.
“I regret writing this card, it was a mean, cheap joke,” Temkin posted on his Tumblr. “We took it out of the game a while ago.”
When Cards Against Humanity got its start, Temkin and his friends were eight self-proclaimed “straight white guys” making a goofy game to play together when they were home on break from college. They wrote up a bunch of cards and then released them all online, where people could print them and play the game on their own. Much to their surprise, the game exploded in popularity, and people started asking how they could buy a professional-grade version (mostly so they could avoid having to print and cut out more than 30 pages of cards on their own).
That led to a Kickstarter to fund the cost of manufacturing the game, which led to them getting nearly four times as much funding as they’d initially asked for, which lead to multiple sold-out runs, followed by numerous expansions, generous media coverage, awkward celebrity fan encounters, and a fair share of parodies–the true sign you’ve arrived in the cultural zeitgeist.
The creators were floored.
“Cards Against Humanity was just a thing that me and a bunch of nerd friends made,” Temkin told Fusion. “We put it on the Internet and it caught on and developed a cult following…. It was always a shock to us that this was desirable and people wanted it.”
Since then, they’ve turned their game into a company. As part of their job, they periodically pull cards that seemed funny to college seniors in their parents’ basement, but are a little less funny now.
“We were writing jokes for ourselves and we weren’t really thinking about how it would affect other people,” Temkin said. “But when you have something that starts to be part of pop culture, you can’t help but see how it makes people feel and feel some sense of responsibility for that.”
Since that fateful night in a Midwestern basement five years ago, Temkin says he and his co-creators have grown a lot as people, and general cultural awareness of things like trans issues and rape jokes has evolved. He estimates roughly one-third to maybe half of the cards from the original run of the game have been taken out in reprintings. Some of them were just cultural references that had passed their expiration dates. “Miley Cyrus at 55” was originally “Britney Spears at 55,” but she’s a bit less relevant now (sorry Brit-Brit!). Meanwhile some, like “passable transvestites” and “date rape,” were pulled when the guys realized that kind of “humor” wasn’t actually very humorous.
“It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life that that was funny,” Temkin said.
Both Temkin and Jonah started getting anonymous messages from users that generally fell into two categories: 1) People who appreciated Jonah’s post and Temkin’s apology, and 2) People who were outraged that a game that’s supposed to be rude and offensive would change something just because people were offended. But Temkin says he and the other creators know there’s a big difference between cards that make fun of public figures and ones that victimize people in marginalized groups.
“We talk about the idea of ‘punching up, not punching down’ all the time,” Temkin said. “It’s something that we stand behind: making fun of those power structures, because they’re already powerful. Making jokes about rapes, making jokes about trans people, they don’t have the same cultural power.”
To that end, some of the newer cards have a decidedly social-justice-friendly edge: You can now play “heteronormativity,” “the patriarchy” and “white privilege.”
Frankly, all of those would be good answers to “What is Batman’s guilty pleasure?”