Did Cards Against Humanity’s ironic humor mask a toxic culture all along?

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Lysol wipes and a Cards Against Humanity game sit on a counter together.

Lysol wipes and a Cards Against Humanity game sit on a counter in North Bend, Washington, on February 6, 2020. | David Ryder/Getty Images

The popular brand built its progressive ethos through a game that encouraged ironic bigotry. Now, it faces a reckoning.

Cards Against Humanity, its legions of supporters, and perhaps an entire culture of ironic humor is currently undergoing a reckoning.

The popular card game company faced multiple allegations of fostering a long-standing abusive, racist workplace culture earlier this month. After weeks of discussion online, including a resurfaced 2014 rape allegation, the best-known Cards Against Humanity co-founder, Max Temkin, has left the company.

On June 23, Cards Against Humanity published a statement in a preemptive response to a pending report by Vox sister site Polygon. The company alternately confirmed and contradicted many of the allegations made against it while also outlining the actions it would take to rebuild its workplace to eliminate toxicity. “We are incredibly sorry, and we know our apologies are not enough,” a company spokesperson told Polygon. The company also told Vox in an email that it would pledge $100,000 to support organizations working toward racial justice.

Cards Against Humanity (CAH) has long been a bastion of “edgy” geek culture. Since the company was founded in 2011, its mini-empire has grown to include a board game cafe and a theater in Chicago and the recent acquisition of satirical news site Clickhole. The company’s estimated lifetime revenue is as high as $25 million as of 2017. But CAH is best known for pushing social boundaries, whether by mocking social ills like racism, misogyny, and transphobia or through grandiose nihilistic stunts like selling “nothing” for $5 on Black Friday or threatening to destroy a Picasso. Such stunts helped attract its huge fandom — in 2017, its six-day-long CAH Save America campaign garnered national attention and won a Clio advertising award — but also drew plenty of side-eyes from naysayers who found its cynicism off-putting.

CAH’s namesake card game, a self-proclaimed “party game for terrible people,” is an off-color derivative of the family-friendly Apples to Apples, the Mad Libs-style party game. Players use a small handful of words to fill in blanks within loaded phrases for maximum comedic effect, and the appeal lies in the goal of creating a more shocking, provocative one-liner from your hand of cards than your fellow players in order to be dubbed the funniest player in the group. It’s the kind of wordplay silliness that goes over well among a lot of drunk party-goers.

But detractors have argued for years that CAH’s real appeal is, in a word, racism. A 2016 study published in the academic journal Humanity & Society found that a quarter of the cards in the original deck dealt with race, and nearly all of those cards involving minorities seemed to invite the worst readings possible. Consider, for example, the card about indigenous Rwandans, “Stifling a giggle at the mention of Hutus and Tutsis,” later reportedly changed to “Helplessly giggling at the mention …” The phrase implies that something about the names of indigenous tribes is inherently funny, and that even though we all know it’s wrong, we just can’t help but indulge in our racism just a little bit, for a laugh.

In practice, that implied racism often leads players to indulge in their worst impulses, leading easily to jokes that demonstrate overt racism and which can occasionally turn real-life genocide into the butt of a joke:


Me.Me

The reason the game’s design didn’t create an immediate clusterfuck when it launched largely had to do with the message and appearance of the company itself. Founded by eight male, white, liberal high school buddies from Chicago, CAH was born out of what we might think of as the peak of ironic comedy culture. South Park first epitomized this sensibility, and it carried forward through pop culture of the 2000s and 2010s. Everything from shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Big Bang Theory, movies like The Hangover and Superbad, the Broadway musicals Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, and vast swaths of internet culture, from YouTube to Reddit, thrived on the idea that over-the-top “satire” was the sincerest form of comedy.

As the company’s six active founders wrote to Vox, “Cards Against Humanity began as a satire of hollow morality and evangelical hypocrisy during the tail end of the George W. Bush administration.” Though it didn’t officially launch until 2011, three years into the Obama administration, the game’s brand of comedy was by then well-established within pop culture. CAH publicly espoused progressive ideals, and its game’s joking bigotry was universally assumed to be punching up.

Critics’ chief complaint about CAH has always been that, like with all mainstays of ironic culture, they feel alienated by the suspicion that all that joking bigotry was secretly real once the party is over. Now, in the wake of the many allegations of workplace abuse, racism, and sexual harassment made by former staff members, along with the rape allegation against Temkin, former fans and supporters are questioning whether the company that spent years putting “jokes” about such issues onto the shelves of urbane, white, middle-class households across America was actually ever in on its own joke.

A benign Slack request allegedly led to months of racially motivated backlash

The undoing of Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity’s most public face, followed a successfully funded Kickstarter for a series of jigsaw puzzles developed by Temkin, his CAH co-founder Ben Hantoot, and other game designers. The project drew support from more than 62,000 loyal CAH fans and game enthusiasts after its May 4 launch, and a Kickstarter for it has raised $3.4 million.

Three days later came a Twitter thread by former CAH designer A. Theresa Stewart, who hashtagged her story of workplace abuse with #CAHisover. Stewart, a black queer woman who worked for the company’s shipping arm, Blackbox, described inadvertently provoking hair-trigger tempers from white male coworkers after she asked if staff could “thread messages when possible” on the work chat program Slack.

“Working at Cards Against Humanity was a tough time in my career,” Stewart told Vox in an email. She says she was subjected to ridicule and months of alienation from other staff because of her Slack message, with no effort from management to address the situation. She tweeted that after she pleaded with the company’s COO to address what had become a hostile work environment, he allegedly handled it by doing nothing beyond asking the aggressive staff how they felt about the situation. At that point, Stewart tweeted, “I learned my lesson. I WAS ALONE.”

CAH has since partially disputed Stewart’s narrative. But her claims still highlight how the company’s regressive workplace ethos and behind-the-scenes treatment of employees undermined its public efforts to appear progressive. In 2017, she and other staffers took issue with CAH’s plan to make paltry reparations as part of CAH’s 2017 weeklong winter holiday stunt to “Save America,” a project intended to repudiate Trumpism through petty kindnesses like sending kids to museums and pretending to rename a baseball stadium. Temkin, in particular, she alleged was dismissive of her concerns, although the day of reparations ultimately became a day of “wealth redistribution.”

“In retrospect, this employee clearly did not feel comfortable sharing her true disappointment with our actions to resolve the concerns she brought up,” CAH said in its public response. “We want to apologize to her for not creating a workplace where she felt comfortable bringing concerns forward. As we conduct our third-party HR review, we hope to use this as a learning experience for how we can do better in the future.”

In the end, Stewart said she left the company a few months later and never looked back. She later told Polygon that she further experienced “a barrage of microaggressions” from staff, including management, and described her departure from CAH as an “escape.”

Despite what Stewart thought at the time, however, she apparently wasn’t alone.

From one woman’s allegations, an entire culture of abuse surfaced

Stewart’s thread initiated a chain of similar allegations from other former CAH employees backing up Stewart’s claims as well as each others’. These included people like ex-employee Nico Carter, who alleged that other company writers persuaded his parents to have him committed to a mental health institute after he began “raising a ruckus about the unethical, racist way the predominantly white, upper-middle-class room was approaching writing the game.” Former contractor Ali Barthwell, a Second City comedian and journalist, tweeted about a litany of racially tinged microaggressions and other negative experiences she had working with the company.

Former CAH designer Ayla B. Arthur wrote in a thread detailing her own alienation at the company that “marginalized people, especially people of color, were often regulated to the sidelines in terms of staffing because of a company culture that prized Who You Knew over actual Gainful Employment or Benefits.” An anonymous former contractor echoed Arthur, tweeting, “The constant microaggressions against BIPOC was a lot to grin and bear to have a place in games.”

One former staffer who wished to remain anonymous told Vox that ex-employees also used the phrase “golden handcuffs” to describe the experience of feeling trapped while working at the company, which offered huge career and social clout but left workers feeling frustrated and uninspired.

Former staffer Elaine Short alleged that Temkin, in particular, had sexually harassed her during work hours. The most damning of all the allegations, however, concerned an allegation of rape made against Temkin in 2014 by a Tumblr user named Magz. Magz made the accusation — that Temkin raped her in 2006 when she was a first-year student in college — first in a private Facebook post which Temkin made public without her permission and then with more details in a since-deleted Tumblr post. (Vox was unable to reach Magz for comment.)

Temkin denied the allegation in 2014 and continues to deny it. In 2014, the rape allegation didn’t gather much attention outside of Tumblr, although the intimate tech festival XOXO did subsequently ban Temkin after the spread of Magz’s posts, and the accusation occasionally resurfaced in the years that followed. In our post-Me Too culture, however, the public response was much, much different.

A domino effect of accountability and apologies

While the rape allegation against Temkin had garnered little attention in 2014, June’s wave of new allegations regarding CAH’s toxic company culture attracted broader notice, leading many geek and tech culture figures to denounce Temkin and CAH itself. Former friends, like feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, publicly distanced themselves from Temkin. Geek and tech convention organizer ReedPop publicly announced it would no longer be partnering with CAH; meanwhile, hundreds of patrons of his puzzle Kickstarter posted requests to cancel their pledges.

Amid growing calls for change, two employees announced they’d chosen to leave the company. Other former CAH employees took responsibility for being part of its toxic culture. On Twitter, Andrew Briggs, who’d been one of Stewart’s chief aggressors after she asked for Slack threading, issued a lengthy apology. “It’s true, I was a brute and made life worse for someone who never deserved that,” Briggs said. “I participated in and contributed to a culture that normalized this behavior.” (Stewart also told Vox that Briggs had written her a short apology email.)

Skepticism remains about how effective CAH’s internal efforts to better itself will be. After CAH posted its lengthy response to the allegations, observers criticized the statement — for its lateness, arriving more than two weeks after the original wave of complaints surfaced; for its late-night publication (to preempt the pending Polygon report); for its failure to acknowledge CAH’s inaction in 2014 when the rape allegation against Temkin first became known; and for how little it does to address the real underlying issues within the company’s corporate culture.

“The CAH founders released a statement in the middle of the night filled with evasive, defensive, victim-blaming ‘context,’” Elaine Short told Vox in an email, “confirming that Cards Against Humanity’s problems don’t begin and end with Max.”

“I don’t even consider this an apology,” Ali Barthwell told Vox. “From what I know of the culture at the company and looking at how they tackled things in this statement, I believe [this is an] attempt at damage control — to preserve the image that they’re a progressive, inclusive company.”

Communicating through irony isn’t a great basis for sincere change

Factors that led to the company’s workplace culture are plentiful, but most people seem to agree that the nature of CAH’s humor is intrinsically tied to the allegations of toxicity. This is, after all, a company built on pushing boundaries and edgy satire — but that ethos doesn’t exactly lend itself to a safe and comfortable work environment.

Because CAH’s white male founders have largely continued to be the “face” of the company, regardless of how many writers they’ve hired since, CAH’s humor has appeared to remain largely by and for white people. So even though CAH can appear very progressive and all about confronting systemic social problems, much of its humor is derived from the implicit assumption that things suck for everyone else — and that, in turn, can lead to comedy that actually sucks for everyone else.

Take, for example, the one card CAH has pulled from its game because it was found to be punching down: “Passable transvestites,” which Temkin himself said he regretted publishing. But among the other punch lines that remain in the game include gems like “Black people, “The biggest, blackest dick” (a secret card found in the Bigger, Blacker Box” expansion pack), “The hardworking Mexican,” “A sassy black woman,” “African children,” and “AIDS.”

This kind of humor is only funny if you’re “in” on the collective “joke” that you’re not truly bigoted and so you can therefore make fun of the inherent bigotry in the joke. But what usually happens is that the ironic cushion gets lost; making “Black people” a joke doesn’t punch up at the social system that oppresses Black people, it perpetuates the racist idea that Black people are inherently mockable. And that type of convoluted messaging doesn’t make people who are the most frequent butt of those jokes feel comfortable.

This intersection between the comedy culture of CAH the game and the workplace culture of CAH the company has been a constant theme of the discussion around the allegations. Many former employees say they spoke out about the ongoing attempts to diversify the humor of the cards, only to be met with resistance from, for example, white writers who didn’t understand why “Denzel” [Washington] or “Shonda” [Rhimes] were pop culture staples. Polygon further reported that many staffers felt they were tacitly discouraged from punching up specifically against rape culture because of Temkin’s preexisting rape allegation.

CAH responded by pointing out examples of black culture and attempts to send up rape culture making it into the humor of the cards. But the list of more conciliatory cards CAH offered in defense may have served to further highlight how contextual such humor is to begin with.

“I joined the writers room being told this is an attempt to make this a more inclusive game,” Barthwell told Vox. “When you are 21 and a white guy … the things that you find funny are most likely the easiest things to make fun of and derive humor from. You also have to look at the culture around comedy that says if you care, if you want to use comedy to make things better, then you’re a sap. It’s funny to make fun of people caring, it’s funny to make fun of things that are offensive, but what you’re ending up doing is replicating systems of oppression that already exist.”

In an emailed statement to Vox, Cards Against Humanity’s remaining founders indicated that they take concerns about the efficacy of the game’s humor seriously:

Cards Against Humanity began as a satire of hollow morality and evangelical hypocrisy during the tail end of the George W. Bush administration. Over time, we have updated the game to reflect contemporary values and concerns. In 2020, that means taking aim at the white, reactionary ideologies and power structures that form Trump’s base of support. We publish major revisions every year, and fewer than 25% of the cards in the first release of Cards Against Humanity remain in the game now. These annual revisions are decided based on continuous playtesting with a diverse spread of players, as well as feedback from our staff and the wider public. When we discover that a card is predominantly being played at the expense of marginalized groups, we remove it.

Despite the company’s stated commitment to self-examination, some former employees noted a disconnect between CAH’s public-facing progressivism and its workplace environment. One former employee who asked to remain anonymous stressed that even though the anti-corporate mentality around the office engendered toxic elements — like the lack of an HR department — the company wasn’t averse to corporate practices when it benefited its founders. From the start, after all, the game’s massive profit came from exploiting cheap labor in China.

“I’ve always kinda struggled [with] representing the game in public at events and such,” another former employee who asked to remain anonymous told Vox. “But [I] was able to tell myself that they were ‘working on it’ … I don’t think a lot of the work they do is fake woke, just sometimes very blinded by privilege.”

The ex-employee was equally dubious that the company could commit to larger meaningful change: “I’m in a sort of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ mindset,” they said. “There’s always room to learn, but the company has to be willing — and stop using the brand voice to hide behind sarcasm.”

Stewart likewise had a list of concrete changes she encouraged CAH to make in order to decrease its workplace toxicity. “The statement Cards Against Humanity has given and the actions the organization promises to take are only an overdue first step in making amends to those they’ve hurt,” she told Vox. “In order to truly evolve Cards Against Humanity, there needs to be drastic changes in the broader leadership team and day-to-day operations that allowed a toxic environment to thrive.”

Stewart’s suggested action items included removing the company’s COO who initially handled her complaints, creating a formal HR department, anti-racism and anti-harassment training, increasing equity among employees, and reducing the CAH founders’ overall. CAH declined to comment on Stewart’s requested changes.

As for Temkin, the outcome of his harassment allegations is complex. He retains a 1/8 share in the company as one of its original eight founders; in their email to Vox, CAH’s founders claimed that buying out his remaining share would be an adverse move: “Legally, we’re unable to seize his 1/8 share without buying him out, which would only reward Max. We are not willing to do that.” (Vox has reached out to Temkin for comment.)

While most people Vox spoke with seemed satisfied by his departure, a CAH contractor who asked to remain anonymous told Vox that they didn’t want Temkin and his actions to be forgotten. “I do not want Temkin to withdraw and hide,” they said. “I really honestly hope that he will do the work needed to right these wrongs. I want him to remember that it isn’t easy, nor is it instant, and he needs to practice the understanding and philosophy he once preached.

Multiple people Vox spoke with believe CAH is capable of positive change moving forward, for its workplace and its game’s humor. “Part of why I worked there even when I didn’t feel completely safe,” one source said, “was that I believed there was potential to do good work for the community with the immense amount of money that game brings in.”

“I do want to say there are many talented and good people who continue to work there and are pushing for change,” Stewart told Vox. “My hope is that leadership will listen and elevate those voices who have been silenced for so long.”

“My hope is that the future of this company, if it has one, is defined by its employees,” Short said, calling for a structural overhaul. “Time for the boy kings to step down.”

But for change to be lasting, it may need to come with an overhaul of the company’s spirit as well as its structure. In 2017, Temkin told Vox in an interview that the team behind Cards Against Humanity is happiest with their comedy when it’s rooted in something real. In retrospect, that statement seems to be an indictment of the real toxicity that for many years lay dormant behind many of its “jokes” — until they all came home to roost at once.


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