This is a short review of the card game Cards Against Colonialism.
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Pictured above are some cards from the extremely popular card game Cards Against Humanity. They are from the new expansion pack included in the company’s “Donald Trump: Bug-out-bag” that includes survival gear, among others things, like a copy of Plato’s Republic and ‘flint & steel’. The political salt is real with this company. It wants people to wake up; it also wants to make money. It’s an ironic micro-embodiment of the self-conscious American capitalism of the 21st century. Try saying that twenty times, fast!
The game’s name is a pun on the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ and gets it’s format from the game Apples-to-Apples which is simple and fun party game. Cards Against Humanity is played by matching a collective black card with the best white card from your hand, making a statement that is both creative and shockingly politically incorrect. Each round, the player gets to overturn a black card and after the white cards are put down, votes on their favorite combo. If it’s yours that gets the vote, then you get a point. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. I’ve played it a few times with friends. The fun has been when someone masterfully pulls off the most morbidly creative combination of cards in a way that violates our most liberal of values. It’s all done knowing full-well that none of us mean the things we create. It’s like a safe space to do bad things and not get in trouble for it. You can call it a kind of group catharsis.
Not too long ago, when visiting the office of a colleague, I noticed that they had a game that looked suspiciously like Cards Against Humanity. It was red instead of black. Already the layers of irony begin to unfurl as we all know that Indians have been racially color-categorized as red. I borrowed the game and played it with some wonderful Indian friends of mine as well as a class of college students, to see what would happen.
“We are stronger when we laugh and humor makes it easier to talk about difficult issues. Cards Against Colonialism attempts to embrace the modern Native Culture, and allows us to learn and laugh at the same time.”
It is made by a company called Native Teaching Aids and will run you around $35 bucks. The company makes mostly what people would consider educational games, games around language, history and culture. The website doesn’t detail the business team’s tribal affiliations, but it appears that the company works with tribal councils, gets community approval for the work they do and emphasizes best practices for working in Indian country. That was actually a heartening surprise. Compared to the rest of their educational games though, Cards Against Colonialism sorta sits on the side of as something a bit different, something a little more ornery. It is marketed as being both a party-game and an educational game. I tested it out as a party-game and in a classroom at a tribal college, to see what would happen.
As party game:
When I took a picture and texted it to two of my board-gaming Indigenerdy friends, they were happy to come over and give it a try. I’ve played Cards Against Humanity with them before, so I was pretty excited to see what hilarity would come about from playing Cards Against Humanity with Indian stuff, and we’re Indian!
Unfortunately, we went from being pretty darn hyped to being somewhat depressed in the end. We might have a had a strange draw, but it seemed like the more we pushed through the game, the less fun it became. It seemed to have the elements of it’s predecessor, but something seemed to have gone awry somewhere.
Perhaps the problem was the fact that in order to take an ironic detached perspective that makes Cards Against Humanity fun is just sometimes hard or painful to do when it comes to stuff that have shaped our lives so profoundly. One of the cards “late child support payments” (pictured in the marketing picture above) came up in my draw. I put that out there matching some other black card, saying, “Yeah, my father never paid them”. Like Cards Against Humanity, I played it as if we were trying to make the most dark and sinister combination possible. Instead of being funny, it was more of a buzzkill. You could say I’m just not a funny guy, but it wasn’t just me. Traumatic memories were aired by all of us with these cards as the game continued. The game got increasingly somber, despite some genuinely funny things happening. We eventually moved on to doing something else, not really caring about how many points anybody had.
In the classroom:
I didn’t tell the students about my experience of the game at home as to not give them any bias towards the game. I did however explain that it was designed for educational purposes. We played the game after introducing it, and after playing we did some group discussion around it. The students in the classroom seemed to have a better reaction to the game than we did at home. It created a lot of discussion, story-telling and post-game critical thinking. They did mention that some of the cards don’t match grammatically and that some of them could be offensive, especially to those who might be considered more traditional. One student said, “If in the right mood with the right people, it could be educational and fun.”
I think the idea is great. It’s got some ‘bugs’. The grammar issues come up pretty often and the fun and educational elements tend to collide at times. With the right priming it can be pretty useful. The classroom had some genuine laughs and brought out some critical thoughts without being too serious. As more of a fun party game, it got increasingly serious and un-party-like though. If you do end up using it, I advise that it be used primarily as educational as opposed as ‘Hey, I got something fun to try!’
Still, the game is an exciting and interesting step towards using games in the context of adult oriented native studies. It’s a bit naughty and obtuse, and that is interesting to me as someone who is interested in education, native studies and games. Games don’t tend to be that compelling when they are used to teach something specific, whether it’s some moral lesson, or an academic skill, like math. People see through most educational games as being boring shells for some unfun idea pretty quick.
The micro-embodiment of why most educational games suck
I’m excited for more exploration of game design that is more open-ended in it’s goals for the player, that also happens to touch on very specific and important issues, such as contemporary Indian identity/culture. Can games teach us about colonialism? That’s a definite yes, and I’m looking forward to more games that follow in it’s “indigenant” footsteps.