We are proud of the fact that for the past three years, Spot it! is often ranked #1 in the Toys & Games category on Amazon.com. However, some interesting competition emerged in the last year. In an understated black box with simple white font that most likely is Helvetica (a typographical choice loaded with connotation), Cards Against Humanity made a night in with a card game suddenly the hip thing to do. Not only does it give people something fun to do while hanging out with their friends, but playing the game is like having a boundary-pushing comedian put on a show in your living room.
It is a little strange having Spot it! in the same category as this very adult card game in which the naughty factor depends on the crass ingenuity of the players. For those who don’t know, Cards Against Humanity is pretty much Apple To Apples but with hilariously un-PC, so-wrong-it’s-right humor, and people, particularly college students through thirty-somethings can’t get enough. To be honest, the team at Blue Orange thinks the game is a riot. I’ve played it so many times I know all the cards in the original deck plus the 1st expansion pack.
So why I am bringing all this up? Because I recently came across this talk by the man behind the game, Max Temkin at the XOXO Festival a few months ago. Only in its second year, XOXO is an experimental arts and technology conference held in Portland, Oregon. The four day Tech & Art festival is packed with talks, indie game arcades, tabletop tournaments, workshops, genre-bending live music, indie film screenings, and parties, all with the intention of celebrating creativity that is considered alternative to media’s status quo (1).
Max’s talk got me thinking how the the story of Cards Against Humanity and its runaway success is such a product of the times and the current intersection of culture, tech and society.
The DIY (Do It Yourself) culture that we recognize today has been popular since the 1960’s. One philosopher, Alan Watts explained its emergence as a response to our country’s educational system that teaches ideas and how to think, rather than “material competence,” or in other words, the “doing” that is essential to our lives (2). The philosophy behind DIY empowers the individual to shed dependence on the tradition channels of consumerism. It can be understood simply as “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” Home improvement projects, self published books, “upcycled” clothes, crafts, indie record labels are all considered part of the DIY movement. The introduction of 21st century technology into our lives has made even more DIY fields possible with innovations such as open source coding and 3D printing. Furthermore, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and the democratized media space of the internet has put the power of financing and publicity into the Regular Joe’s hands.
Both the video game industry and tabletop game industry has benefitted from DIY, with the development of independently designed and manufactured games into a increasingly mainstream genre. Cards Against Humanity is a great example. The game was born in the basement out of Max’s and his buddies’ quest to provide some New Year’s Eve entertainment. The guys thought they had something good going and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, so they released it online as a free PDF. To get your own game, you just had to print and cut out the cards. The download was met with a flurry of enthusiasm, prompting the founders to take the game to Kickstarter with the hopes of raising enough money to have the game professionally manufactured. They surpassed their funding goals by $11,000 and pretty soon were filling their parents’ garages with thousands of copies from the US based indie game printer Ad Magic. Quickly, and without much promotional work on the founders’ part, Cards Against Humanity became the #1 best seller of toys & games on Amazon.com. In the office, we were perplexed by the ouster of Spot It, especially since we didn’t understand this new game’s rapid rise to fame or where the heck it came from. But after we finally played it, we realized that the two games were like apples and oranges.
Max admits to the XOXO audience that the eight founders of CAH had no experience as comedy writers, nor experience designing and manufacturing products, let alone the fact that they lacked pertinent skills and business experience. But he explains that they did have one crucial asset that guided them: their good sense of their values and goals, which helped them make good business decisions despite not knowing exactly what they were doing. So what was this value? To be as funny as possible and to share the fun with as many people as possible.
They knew they had to maintain strict independence and limit external dependencies so no other entity could dictate what they could or couldn’t do. This strategy in turn, informed their tactics. The major one being to decision to license the game under Creative Commons, so it could be distributed without limitation. Although it spawned a string of regrettable knock offs, the CC license is very much a part of the spirit of the game.
And here is where Max gets a bit mushy in the video. It’s true, people have formed a peculiarly strong connection to the game, some going as far as using the cards for wedding proposals or creating custom memorial packs for funerals. Max sees this phenomenon as a “celebration of the radical act of sharing.” People bring the game into their lives and in a sense, bring the founding values into their lives, which has “elevated a stupid game into something that means a lot more to people.”
Hmm…okay, you could argue that. I also think that people are most impressed by things that strike a strong and often buried emotional chord. I’m of the opinion that the appeal of CAH lies in the combination of our craving for refreshingly no-tech interaction that’s as amusing as Youtube cat videos coupled with the shocking disturbance to our society’s hyper politically correct sensibility. With CAH, you are given permission to say things you would never utter on your own (well one would hope…) and find the non sequitur humor and potential lightness in even the darkest of subjects. Plus, like any good party game, it sparks interesting conversation and dopamine-raising belly laughter without doing much more than opening a box.
Anyway, I digress. Max sums up his talk by bringing his story back to the indie game scene and upholds that he and the other founders never looked at their project as a “zero sum proposition.” In other words, they never looked at their success as offset by someone else’s failure. He believes that indie game designers rise a fall as a group. If one game becomes a big hit, the entire genre profits with more credibility and more room for success for other projects.
Max’s recent contribution to the indie gaming community is an independent game design contest called Tabletop Deathmatch. Nearly 500 unpublished games were submitted and a panel of industry expert judges selected 16 finalists who presented their games at Gen Con last summer. The stories of the 16 games in the running are set to be told in a 16 part web series that was supposed to air end of 2013 but I can’t find them online yet. The winning game will receive a first printing courtesy of CAH. The winner will also have the privilege of joining CAH booth at Gen Con 2014 for its official debut.
Max leaves us with an important message of integrity and craftiness that I think is important to consider in all matters of life. He says knowing what you are doing is not nearly as important as knowing what your values are and understanding how to translate them into the decisions you have to make. I believe these are fine guiding words to take with us as we segue way into 2014.
And on that note, on behalf of your friends at Blue Orange Games, we wish our fans and customers a very Happy New Year.
Wired Magazine’s 2011 cover story on the rise of DIY