Share this project


Share this project

Women have been leaders in computing from the start, but not enough of our contributions are remembered. Keep our history.
Women have been leaders in computing from the start, but not enough of our contributions are remembered. Keep our history.
392 backers pledged $15,010 to help bring this project to life.

Lessons from a Night Playing Hearts with the Notable Women in Computing Playing Card Deck

Posted by Jessica Dickinson Goodman (Creator)
Note: this is a copy of the first edition. All of my second editions are elsewhere at the moment.
Note: this is a copy of the first edition. All of my second editions are elsewhere at the moment.

Last weekend I had a group of friends over to play Settlers of Catan and Hearts. Of course, we used the Notable Women in Computing Playing Cards for the Hearts games. I learned something about the deck that I want to share, but it involves a deeply nerdy exploration of Hearts, face card semiotics, and feminism. If any of those wig you out, feel free to not read this post.

Depending on the games you play, you might have different emotional reactions to different cards. As someone who grew up playing Hearts constantly, the Queen of Spades is always exciting/terrifying to see on a first hand, and a source of withheld-groans on a pass.

For me, seeing any Queen card in Hearts in any other deck elicits dread. In Hearts, all Queens are high enough to trap me into getting points I don't want, but not high enough to guarantee me control of the hand. An unexpected Queen of Spades can ruin a good run faster than any other card.

That is why when we first released the Notable Women in Computing Playing Cards we wanted to suggest a few changes to the usual gendered-structure of cards. We decided Queens would outrank Kings in our deck. That is how we showed the card ordering on the poster and that is how we printed the decks. But it also meant we would have to change the rules for a game like Hearts, where the ordering of the top-pointed card matters.

In our game last week, we decided that it would be the King of Spades that brought 13 points, not Queen, and that all Queens trumped all Kings. In our mix-gendered group, the men had much more trouble--and complained quite loudly--about the change. The other woman and I smiled and took control of hands using our Queens. 

After playing for a few hours, a realization started to peer over my shoulder. The impact of seeing woman's face after woman's face--on every suit and every number--was profound for me. In a regular deck of cards, there are 4 women: Queen of Clubs, Queen of Diamonds, Queen of Hearts, and Queen of Spades. There are 12 men, one in each suit for the Kings, Jacks, and Aces. 14 men to 4 women if you count the nearly-always-male Jokers.

Maybe you have a better gender-counter in your brain, but that drastic imbalance--14 against 4--had not struck me in a lifetime of card sharking until I was making this deck. That bias-blindness is pretty normal, if these studies about how people perceive gender (im)balance are true. But even as we played last weekend, gossiping about state politics and razzing each other about our hands, it started to settle in to my hindbrain. Even the twos, the lowly deuces, were women. The Aces were women. The Jacks were women.

In our deck, every card is a woman. It felt like, for that hour playing Hearts, I was chipping away at a lifetime of only having Queens to represent me in a hand, cards not ranked high enough to win constantly, always open to being trumped by a King. Our team's deck gave me a wider range of cards in which to see myself. If I felt like a 10 or a 2, there were cards for me. I could have a high flush of women, a low straight of women, a winning or a losing hand entirely made-up of women. 

The experience was clearly uncomfortable and confusing for the 3 guy friends at my party. They complained. Though they are good guys, as those are the only kind I feed my special mulled cider to, I do not think they had ever thought about how 71% of all face-cards are men in regular decks, or that Kings always beat Queens. I don't think they have a lot of experience being out of power or outnumbered and I would not wish it to be a regular occurrence for them. It is not fun. I could tell my guy friends were struggling and trying to get along with the change. But they still did not see why that change could mean so much, and did not get what the big deal was.

That is because the impact of the deck is not really for them, though it was great when it finally clicked near the end of the evening. But for me? Seeing women's faces on every card was a balm.

(I can envision another deck, one that's 50% men in computing (men with disabilities, men of color, men who grew up in Kentucky, men who grew up in Laos, software coders, trans* men, hardware hackers, bi-men, academics, CFOs, all kinds of men) and 50% women, as diverse and full of role-models as this deck. That deck would reflect the future world we all want to sing into existence and we can feel so far away from sometimes. Because the entire project is licensed under Creative Commons, someone else could make that deck tomorrow. I'd love a copy.)

But last weekend I shot the moon with a hand full of women. It meant a lot to me. I hope the deck comes to mean as much to you.

If you have any ideas about how to play games differently using these cards, let us know in the comments. Thank you for supporting this project and please let me know if you have comments or questions.

Debra M. Duke, Fred Douglis, and 3 more people like this update.


Only backers can post comments. Log In
    1. annag

      Sorry for not replying earlier: I just saw your reply here! Somehow, it either didn't notify me by email (nor on the site), or I inadvertently forgot about it.

      Anyhow, Tichu is a card game, and a Tichu Deck is a deck of cards that started as a standard (Poker?) deck, but to which two additional Jokers have been added, to make a total of 56 cards. The four Jokers each have a letter (well, character) added (typically written on in Sharpie permanent marker): D for Dragon, P for Phoenix, 1 for Mahjong, and d for dog. This letter is added twice: once in or near each of the top-left corners of the applicable card. Typically, I think, I've seen the four cards labelled each in a different colour of sharpie: D in green, P in red, 1 in black, and d in blue, though my memory on that could be inaccurate, and it's probably not wholly standard, nor really standardised at all.

      There is an official Tichu deck which one is supposed to use to play Tichu the game, but I have yet to see such a deck in person. Online, they don't look highly appealing, I seem to recall hearing that they might not be particularly special-quality cards for playing, and they're obviously harder to use (re-purpose) for other card games. However, if I were to do anything involving money and selling decks advertised as being usable for playing Tichu, I would at least try to contact the manufacturer or copyright holder, to see about arranging a deal.

    2. Jessica Dickinson Goodman Creator on

      A.G. what a cool idea. I've never seen that kind of deck--is Tichu the game or the style of deck?

    3. annag

      I think of Aces as asexual (and tend to count them as "high"), and Jokers as feminine (probably due to their resemblance to Harley Quinn).

      On a side note, I'd be particularly interested in a Tichu deck, which contains 4 distinct jokers per otherwise-standard (poker?) deck. The 4 jokers are conventionally labelled P for phoenix, d for dog, 1 for mahjong, and D for dragon, in 4 different colours (e.g., of sharpie markers). I usually have to purchase 2 identical decks, just to get the 2 additional jokers per deck, but it would be so much cooler (or at least, geekier... :P ) to have 4 distinct jokers from the get-go.

    4. Jessica Dickinson Goodman Creator on

      Yep, I was wrong, Aces don't usually have faces (except in George RR Martin's underrated Wild Cards series, which brings the psychology of cards to an even deeper level: or where that term refers to asexuals, who obviously have faces). I think I was thinking of the term "ace" which usually only refers to men being excellent, much like "spry" only refers to seniors being unexpectedly athletic.

      I think my math also stands in a different formulation, because of women are still 4 of 14 possible face cards, making them 29% of cards (4 Queens), and men 71% of possible cards (4 Kings, 4 Jacks, and 2 Jokers). This is a different form of the equation I used in the above post, which was showing a 4:14 ratio of women to men, which we know is inaccurate because of the lack of faces on aces.

      Thanks for the comments!

    5. Missing avatar

      Sarah Elkins on

      Interesting. I've never seen a man's face (or drawing) on an Ace, but your point about the ratios and impacts still stands. I'm looking forward to playing with my deck!

    6. Missing avatar

      Forrest Stonedahl on

      Thanks for an interesting post on possible psychological benefits of your project.

      Minor erratum: Standard decks *do not* have a male face on the Aces. The Ace is usually just represented by a single heart, club, diamond, or spade. See, e.g.,:

      Thus, the usual male:female ratio would be 10:4 (including jokers, which can vary, but are usually portrayed as male) rather than 14:4. Your argument still stands, but in case you make it again in the future, you wouldn't want to have your argument undermined by overstating the case.

    7. Tasha Turner

      Thank you for sharing. Powerful. I cried a little reading this. This is why we need more diversity in games, books, TV, movies. So the experience of seeing ourselves in things is not rare and so white men are just as comfortable with seeing others.