We Are All
Horrible People

Forty-eight hours with Max Temkin, the creator of Cards Against Humanity

Story: Sam Hockley-Smith
Photos: Jeremy Kanne, Phil Provencio, & Tomasz Werner

PAX East descends on the Boston Convention Center yearly, cramming every corner with video games, card games, tabletop games, role-playing games, and just about anything else with a game suffix. It’s a surreal dream that stretches across all 516,000 square feet of the building, expanding and contracting with every explosion that rumbles across the floor, bouncing off the wide arc of the airplane hangar-like ceiling. All around there are people in elaborate costumes, cheap costumes, costumes made out of cardboard and rubber. There’s a Superman, and a dude for some reason dressed like Jesus who seems to be everywhere at once.

Millions of miniature battles are waged during PAX. People criss-cross sky bridges in full costume, nose-deep in Nintendo 3DSs, eating greasy pizza, stale carnival popcorn, and massive taco salads in taco-shell bowls bigger than most human heads. It seems like the kind of place that you’d end up eating a lot of corn dogs, just because that was the only option you had as you waited in an endless series of lines that tangled around giant sculptures of aliens and monsters frozen forever in menacing poses, leering over a vast expanse of folding tables with 20-sided dice clattering like hail.

“It felt like we would rather pretend problems don’t exist than address them.”

Max Temkin, one of the eight creators of card game phenomenon Cards Against Humanity — easily one of the most popular products at PAX — is in a densely packed nook on the convention floor checking on another one of his creations, a game called Werewolf. When the convention began this weekend, he set up a pay-what-you-want station with a suggested price of 10 bucks, then he left it alone. Right now, though, there’s a small mountain of cash in the center, and it’s mostly twenties.

Temkin, decked out in a black sweater, dark Levi’s and a gingham shirt, carries himself with the sort of confidence that could come off as blasé if you saw him from a distance. After talking to him for just a minute, he’s unabashedly passionate and very funny, perpetually deadpan, but without any of the cynicism that normally comes with that. In fact, Temkin is the exact opposite of cynical. He’s endlessly supportive of other creators, both within the games sphere and outside of it, and though Cards experienced an enviably quick rise to success, he doesn’t take it for granted.

In February 2014, Cards Against Humanity produced a House of Cards pack for Netflix because “someone in the Netflix marketing department had an epiphany: House of Cards and Cards Against Humanity both contain the word ‘cards.’” They got paid a lot, and then donated all the proceeds to open-government advocacy nonprofit The Sunlight Foundation. The fact that this kind of large-scale donation is not exactly uncommon for the Cards crew makes it clear that they’re very aware of what a huge influx of money can do for a group with a strong vision.

Temkin grabs an empty cardboard box and starts sweeping the bills into it, like he’s getting crumbs off a table. It’s sort of beside the point whether he will actually make a profit from this (he doesn’t). Instead he’s treating it as an optimistic social experiment: it gets the game in more people’s hands, and will probably say something about the type of person that attends PAX, which is a highly interactive three-day-long arcade showcase, and not so much a network-y trade show.

Temkin is able to take risks like this largely because of the success of Cards Against Humanity, a well-designed game that he and his friends developed together in Chicago. The rules are simple: one person is anointed the role of Card Czar per turn; that person reads a fill-in-the-blank phrase. The rest of the players draw cards with words on them, filling in the blank spaces to get the funniest answer, as judged by the Card Czar.

There are no images on these cards, just sentences, words, and phrases in clean, familiar Helvetica typeface. The game is easy to learn and immediately hilarious. It is not a surprise that it is a massive success. “The game is an amazing ice breaker, which is the worst category of games,” Temkin says. “The lowest life form of a game is an ice breaker game. We dreaded that in college orientation. You’d do anything you could to get out of there. ‘Cards’ is great because a lot of the social anxiety of meeting new people — am I going to say the wrong thing, am I going to offend them, are we going to get off on the wrong foot—when you play Cards everyone says inappropriate things to each other and you all laugh at it. You have to do your worst fear right then, there’s no getting around it. I think everyone makes art that speaks to their inner fears and desires and Cards is very much about things I don’t like in myself and I don’t like in society. Part of it is naming it and recognizing it.”

Temkin’s made a career of creating or participating in the creation of inclusive, innovative and easy-to-play games like this. Prior to Cards, while attending Goucher College, he designed the site for Humans vs. Zombies, a game developed by Brad Sappington and Chris Weed in 2005, just as the most recent iteration of the zombie craze lurched its way into popular American consciousness. “I played in the first ever game,” Temkin says. “Chris and Brad came up with the idea and put flyers up around the school. From the second game on, I helped organize it and made the first website.”

“You have to do your worst fear right then, there’s no getting around it.”

In Humans vs. Zombies, one person begins as the “original zombie”; that person must tag other players, turning them into zombies. Plastic Nerf guns and bandanas are involved. It is, at heart, an elaborate, modifiable game of tag, stretched out over 48 hours. It expanded outward from Goucher, making its way, grassroots-style, across colleges all over the US, becoming a campus cult classic. “With Humans vs. Zombies, you walk on campus and it comes alive,” Temkin says. In this moment, the Boston Convention Center looks like an iteration of Humans vs. Zombies: a group of guys in costume are standing around listening to dubstep, bouncing on the balls of their feet, waiting for the drop. Right next to us, a woman with fairy wings is smoking a cigarette, talking to her boyfriend. This is not a mundane world, and while it’s been going on long before the existence of Humans vs. Zombies, it still feels like a subculture hidden in plain sight. Spend enough time around it, and it starts to seem pretty normal, but the second you leave it, it’s like it was never there at all.

Temkin continues, completely unperturbed by the scene around him: “You’re like, ‘oh shit, we could run up this hill and we could use this drainage ditch for a bunker.’ You see it this whole other way. You’re in college and it’s supposed to be the most exciting point in your life or whatever and just like anything else, you are in the shitty day-to-day routine. You go to class, you do your homework, you eat your food in the hall…and then you play Humans vs. Zombies and nothing really changes in your life except these arbitrary rules that you agreed to. Suddenly you’re being chased for your life to class, it becomes this crazy adventure. Getting food, getting to your dorm, everything is so alive. That’s such a crazy thing! You’re not in a different place, nothing has changed, it’s just that you agreed to look at the world a little bit differently.”

If Humans vs. Zombies was about manipulating the rules of the real world in the name of fantasy, then PAX is about ignoring the real world entirely. While Temkin is putting money into the box, people sidle up to the table. Some of them recognize him as one of the creators of Cards, but others seem to be ogling the money, or at least confused by its presence. Here on the convention floor, nothing is real. Everything is 3D-rendered, animated, posed in threatening positions or drenched in an otherworldly metallic sheen. The money is real, though. It’s the realest thing in a room packed with objects that may never actually exist in the history of planet earth.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the Kickstarter room, Cards Against Humanity is doing brisk business. There’s a line out the door just to purchase the game, which is only available from Amazon or directly from the Cards site, and is often sold out. This scarcity was never the plan, but for a time there was a shortage of cards because the paper used to print them, which is FSC certified — meaning it doesn’t come from trees in the rainforest — was temporarily gone.

Most people in line seem to have the basic iteration of the game. Cards—though popular outside traditional gaming circles—has not lost touch with its gaming-culture roots. They consistently offer convention exclusives. This year, they printed a ’90s nostalgia pack, which features cards like “Several Michael Keatons,” “Liking big butts and not being able to lie about it,” and “Sunny D! Alright!” as well as a participation pack, which was made in collaboration with the audience at a panel held the night before. Those packs are gone before lunch. Still, Temkin’s most elaborate stunt at PAX was Pwnmeal.

Not too long before the Cards crew arrived in Boston, a bizarre commercial circulated around the internet. In it, a buff man and woman in workout gear shoveled oatmeal into their mouths, letting it ooze down their toned bodies, squeezing it through their fingers like lumpy, grey-brown clay. As PAX progressed, it became apparent that Temkin was behind the stunt, which pitched the regular oatmeal as “gamer fuel” as a joke. But I witnessed at least one person come up to Temkin to tell him that the oatmeal wasn’t very good. Temkin was surprised anyone actually ate it.

The real draw of Pwnmeal was the Cards Against Humanity cards nestled among the dry oats inside. “I hope that [Pwnmeal] is demonstrating that we have abilities and talents and a sense of humor outside Cards Against Humanity,” Temkin says. “To me, comedy is never just comedy. If you’re laughing at something, it’s a spark of recognition. George Carlin has this great quote, he used to say something like, ‘I think when people laugh, their minds open up for a second and you can plant a new idea in there.’ You’re laughing as you’re like, I see myself in that joke. There’s something honest—that explosive shock of recognition. For someone like Carlin or a Louis CK, there’s the audacity of it coupled with the honesty of it. It’s a very powerful way to talk about ideas that are not trivial.”

“You’re not in a different place, nothing has changed, it’s just that you agreed to look at the world a little bit differently.”

Temkin’s given a lot of thought to comedy. What it means to make jokes. What it means to be offensive. Where the line is, and how you can skip over it entirely if you word it just right. Cards Against Humanity isn’t offensive just to get a cheap rise out of people; they’re just looking at the world they’re part of and lovingly ripping it to shreds. If you are playing Cards Against Humanity, you’re already in on the joke. “We most enjoy making fun of things that we actually like,” Temkin says. “It’s easier to see the flaws and have an honest critique of the things that you’re close to and matter to you. Games matter a lot to me and PAX matters a lot to me. That’s why Pwnmeal—the tone is exactly right. No outsider could do that. If you do it with love and it’s half mocking, half celebration … we’re not being mean. Or if we’re being mean, we’ve thought through it.”

Though it’s only been around since 2011, hearing Temkin talk about their considered approach to off-the-cuff, sometimes vulgar, sometimes absurd humor of the game, it becomes clear that Cards is a product of a long-gestating uneasiness with the world the eight creators were born into. “The Cards guys and I talk about how we grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and it was super sheltered, super suburban,” he says. “We grew up in a super politically correct liberal school, and it always felt awful to us. It felt dishonest. It felt like we would rather pretend problems don’t exist than address them. That always rubbed us the wrong way. It has rubbed us the wrong way our entire friendship. Making fun of political correctness is one of the funniest things to us. We are a liberal group, but it felt like a total surrender of liberal values to say, ‘Well if we don’t talk about race, if we don’t talk about sexual identity, if we don’t talk about class, these things will go away.’ There’s no pretending them away. These are things that everyone knows exist in the world and make us uncomfortable. We’re going to put them out there in Helvetica and there’s a little period at the end. It’s very declarative. There’s no getting around it. There’s no picture. No illustration. It’s just like, there it is. It’s fact. It’s so platonic.”

The simple games Temkin helped create have a couple things in common: they’re easy to learn and they break down social boundaries the second you commit to playing. Werewolf and Cards Against Humanity and Humans vs. Zombies and Temkin’s upcoming Slap 45 take the basic architecture of social interaction and dismantle it efficiently and completely. “We like games because they’re a way for us to hang out with each other and have a way to behave that is according to a set of rules. It has none of the messy interaction of actual social engagement. Maybe subconsciously we were making something that was a structure for us to talk about these things that we’re uncomfortable with,” he says.

Hearing statements like that, it’s easy to imagine a future world where harmony is found through social gaming, which is a little too lofty to ever actually be a reality. Except people are buying into the ethos of Cards wholeheartedly. They’re getting it from their parents for Christmas. They’re buying it for their friends. It’s making the taboo okay. “Cards is having an effect on the board game industry, which is a really big deal,” says Temkin’s friend and colleague Elaine Short. “He’s getting people to play board games.”

Crucially, the game is welcoming, and as long as you’re cool with getting kind of weird, it is never cynical. This is something that Temkin has clearly put a lot of thought into. On a basic level, Cards has succeeded because it’s a fun game to play and it’s clever, but it’s stayed successful because it sincerely welcomes anyone into the world it is building through honesty—however darkly comic that honesty might be.

It’s that tandem of honesty and considered sincerity that leads Temkin to take out his phone and pull up a 1996 Salon interview with David Foster Wallace as an example of the way he thinks about the business he’s developed with his closest friends. In it, Wallace says:

“It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation. All the things my parents said to me, like ‘It’s really important not to lie.’ OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don’t feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can’t trust you. I feel that I’m in pain, I’m nervous, I’m lonely and I can’t figure out why. Then I realize, ‘Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie.’ The idea that something so simple, and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—with for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.”

So, sure, not lying is important, but so is carefully placed sincerity. With Cards Against Humanity, Max Temkin and his friends have created a game that relies on the concept of letting your mind go where it naturally goes when it’s in a safe space. It encourages weirdness and openness, and hopefully that feeling lasts long after the game is over. Hopefully it’s something you can take with you.