The Nuts and Bolts of Play

Playing Cards Against Humanity with my in-laws was a little rough, but not for the reasons you expect.

A couple weeks ago, I went camping with my wife's family. One night, without any screens to which to turn for entertainment, we ended up playing Cards Against Humanity. The game is a blue humor version of Apples to Apples. One player pulls a black card with a topic or sentence and acts as a judge. The other players have a hand of white cards (the number can vary based on house rules) and must choose a card with a scenario or phrase that in the judge's opinion best fits the black card's theme.

It's important to explain just how raunchy the game can get, so here's an example:

Black card: What ended my last relationship?

One player's potential hand of white cards:

- The entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir

- Jerking off into a pool of children's tears

- Hulk Hogan

- Pac-Man uncontrollably guzzling cum

- Sniffing glue

- Poor people

- The folly of man

Now that I think about it, "Playing Cards Against Humanity with your in-laws" would be a pretty good white card for any number of black cards.

If the judge picks the card that you submit as their favorite you get a point. Thus, success is tied less to what you think is the most fitting answer but to what you think the judge will pick. After each guessing round, people refill their hands, the judge rotates to a new person, and play continues until someone gets enough points or people become too drunk to play.

Back to the in-laws: despite my wife, her cousins, and me, the median age of our little group was well over 50. These were parents, aunts, and uncles, the people who stopped us from watching Ren and Stimpy as kids, the people we tried to shock with our pop music, the folks that chided us for using the word "suck" as an adjective. We braced ourselves for a wave of indignity and disgust.

The wave never came. Maybe it was the campfire, maybe it was the beer, or maybe it was because the passage of time has leveled the generational divide, leaving us all united on that expansive mesa we call "adulthood." Whatever the case, it was all fun and games. People laughed, joked around, and generally enjoyed the content.

The most problematic aspect of the whole game turned out to be playing the game itself. People constantly forgot how many cards they had. They misplaced the draw deck or didn't understand the pattern of passing and reclaiming cards. Figuring out which cards to read aloud and which to keep for yourself. It was dark and the font was small. Learning how to play and then navigate the game's systems required more discussion than all the slang for all the bodily fluids. Simply put, it was the nuts and bolts that people had a hard time with, not the actual content.

All this brings me back around to video games, which I think suffer from the same problem, albeit on a broader scale. There's no doubt that video games can be provocative and hyper violent, but they're by no means out of the scope of most people's cultural experiences. I know plenty of people who have never touched games but have seen films like The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, and A Clockwork Orange. Shocking content is by no means new to the folks the often seemed to avoid games.

The barrier is a logistical one. Something that is shocking becomes downright incomprehensible when, simply in order to interact with it, you have to use a tool with almost two-dozen different inputs. Even if you surmount that initial control hurdle, you have to familiarize yourself with the grammar of movement. Simply navigating a video game world is a significant task, and when you layer a dense scheme of rules and interface elements on top of it all, things start to feel incomprehensible. As the saying goes, people fear what they do not understand, or they at least ignore it. This dynamic often traps mainstream video games in a perpetual spiral of serving the same base of people year in and year out.

Seven years ago, this dynamic in the mainstream console environment was challenged. Like it or not, the Wii broke through decades of logistical barriers. Anyone could understand how to use a Wii Remote, which meant they could easily play tennis or bowling or golf. Sony and Microsoft followed suit, and we had a series of E3s dedicated to accessibility. Unfortunately, the technology was crude and the contrived on-stage model families failed to facilitate a transition into gaming experiences that involved more than flailing about randomly. Still, for a moment, it looked like a big change had happened.

This past E3 seemed to be a return to the old status quo. Nintendo appealed to its base and pushed experimental hardware. Sony abandoned almost all talk of accessibility in terms of pursuing the traditional, historical gamer. Microsoft wants its console to be everything to everyone, but their heavy reliance on televsion and movie services seems focused on catering to existing interests rather than on creating new bridges into gaming. It's hard to imagine another "Wii Sports Moment" for this round of consoles.

Without something that so drastically changes the way people fundamentally interact with games, enlarging the audience becomes a demographic endeavor. Soon enough, the general population will be comprised of people that have always known a world of complicated game controllers, mouse look, HUD overlays, and the shocking material that can be explored using those tools. For those on the outside, that material will remain inaccessible and mysterious and therefore likely off-putting.

It's a shame, since if my Cards Against Humanity experience is any indication, people of all backgrounds and experiences are pretty game when it comes to shocking content. Making sure they understand the logistics and feel they are in control is the first -- and biggest -- challenge.

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