Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Max Temkin

Jokes against inanity

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Yesterday, Harvard University made headlines by withdrawing acceptances for ten high school students who had posted “sexually explicit memes and messages” on a private Facebook group. Here’s how The Crimson describes the situation:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December…In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been a divisive one, with critics of the college making the argument—which can’t be dismissed out of hand—that Harvard overreached in policing statements that were made essentially in private. But there’s another line of reasoning that I find increasingly hard to take seriously. The Washington Post quotes Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law School, who compares the humor in question to the party game Cards Against Humanity:

It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible. The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock—such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies. Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values. There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.

I might have agreed with this once, but I don’t think I do anymore. The catalyst, oddly, was a passage in Jon Ronson’s otherwise very good book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was evidently intended to make the opposite point. Ronson discusses the notorious case of Justine Sacco, the public relations executive who inspired a torrent of online outrage after tweeting before a flight to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco then switched off her phone, which meant that she spent the next eleven hours oblivious to the fact that her life had effectively been ruined. Ronson writes of the firestorm:

I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege—on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.

He concludes: “Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like ‘Don’t wear short skirts.’ It felt like victim-blaming.” And there’s no question that Sacco, who was fired from her job, paid a disproportionately harsh price for her actions. But it also feels like an overstatement to repeatedly insist, as Ronson does, that Sacco “didn’t do anything wrong.” To say that her tweet was “a badly worded joke” implies that there was an alternative wording that would have made it funny and acceptable. I have trouble imagining one. And the implicit assumption that this was a problem of phrasing or context strikes me as the slipperiest slope of all.

This brings us to Cards Against Humanity, a kind of analog computer for generating offensive jokes, which, revealingly, often evokes the specter of “white privilege” to justify itself. When asked to explain its expansion pack “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa,” one of the game’s designers told the Daily Dot: “It’s a joke that we meant to poke fun at white privilege, ignorance, and laziness.” This amounts to a defense of the entire game, in which players theoretically interrogate their privilege by forcing one another to make what Goldberg calls “irreverent and dark jokes.” In the same article, Jaya Saxena neatly sums up the company’s position:

The Cards Against Humanity team is stalled in the middle of that narrative: understanding that there is a cultural hierarchy that disenfranchises people, making it clear they’re aware of the privilege they hold, attempting to use their humor to separate themselves from those who don’t get it, and apologizing for their mistakes when they’re called out.

This raises two related issues. One is whether this kind of scrutiny is, in fact, what most players of the game think they’re doing. The other is whether this activity is worthwhile. I would argue that the answer to both questions is “probably not.” This isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of a logical and comedic inconsistency—and, frankly, of “privilege, ignorance, and laziness”—in the sort of humor involved. Let’s say that you’ve made a “transgressive” joke of the type that got these prospective Harvard freshmen in trouble. Now imagine how you’d react if it had been said by Milo Yiannopoulos or posted as a meme on the alt-right. If it bothers you, then the only conclusion is that your identity as a progressive somehow justifies statements that would be horrifyingly racist in the mouth of someone of whom you disapprove. You can make the joke because you, as a “horny bourgeois teen,” know better.

This sounds a lot like privilege to me. I won’t say that it’s worse or more insidious than other forms of racism, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t problematic, especially if you believe that transgressive humor is something to be celebrated. As Dan Brooks writes in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine: “The whole architecture of the game is designed to provide the thrill of transgression with none of the responsibility—to let players feel horrible, if you will, without feeling bad.” It’s a mechanical simulation of transgression, and, like bad art that allows for an emotional release that absolves the viewer from other kinds of empathy, it can numb us to the real thing, leaving us unable to make the distinction. Just because you were smart enough to get into Harvard—and believe me, I know—doesn’t make you Michael O’Donoghue. On that level, the college made the right call. It has the right to withdraw admission if “an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” and even if these teenagers share their assumptions with millions of other “good liberals,” that doesn’t make them any less wrong. Max Temkin, the primary creative force behind Cards Against Humanity, has impeccably progressive credentials and has done a lot of admirable things, but he has also said “We removed all of the ‘rape’ jokes from Cards Against Humanity years ago,” as if this were commendable in itself. They cull the cards that they’ve personally outgrown, as if objective standards of acceptability have changed simply because they’re no longer in their early twenties, and I’m not even sure if this strikes them as problematic. As a profile of the company in Fusion notes:

As part of their job, [the creators] periodically pull cards that seemed funny to college seniors in their parents’ basement, but are a little less funny now…Meanwhile some [cards], like “passable transvestites” and “date rape,” were pulled when the guys realized that kind of “humor” wasn’t actually very humorous.

The reference to “the guys” speaks volumes. But this kind of culling is something that we all do, as we leave behind our adolescent selves, and it has one inevitable conclusion. Speaking of the “passable transvestites” card, Temkin said: “It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life that that was funny.” And for a lot of us, that includes the game as a whole.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with a tricky problem: how would you compare the areas of the different kinds of rock shown above? A quick look at the map by the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers—no relation—is enough to establish that some formations are clearly larger than others, but it isn’t immediately obvious how to quantify the difference more precisely. Darwin’s answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, I also like how it testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) And while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I’ve realized that I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I enjoyed about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and for those who are trying to go even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And playing with physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. If you were prototyping a game like Tetris, for instance, you could cut pieces out of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became visibly more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is a reminder that I really should get back to my cards when it comes time for my next big project. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

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