Why CAH is not included in my public library collection

Recently I was lambasted as “pro-censorship” and compared to homophobic bakeries when I attempted to explain why my collection development and selection criteria would not allow for Cards Against Humanity [CAH] into the public library’s circulating collection or would be played at any of our public board game nights in the library.

This interaction occurred on Facebook, spilled out onto Twitter, and eventually nestled in for the night in my gmail spam folder so I didn’t expect much from the interaction. This interaction was not with patrons of the library system (update: I no longer work for the library system that utilizes these collection development criteria so I feel comfortable discussing them now in this context) or those connected to my library system in any way. It was with a couple of entitled trolls that felt like “putting a public servant in their place” by insisting that an offensive and age-inappropriate game should be included in the library’s juvenile collection. The interaction did highlight how much the general public is ill-informed of how public library collections are developed, curated and managed. This is certainly the case with non-traditional collections such as board games.

Let’s open with the fact that Cards Against Humanity is a veritable tool box which enables players to engage in casual racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and sexism in the comfort of their own home with a close group of friends or family. It is billed and marketed as a game for horrible people so it should come as no surprise that it is, in essence, an activity designed specifically to be offensive. The goal of the game is to offend, to make people uncomfortable, embarrassed, and ashamed. This can be perfectly fine in a private gathering but I have seen several games of CAH and I can almost guarantee people who look at the cards and the resulting combinations and state, honestly, “I have no interest in saying that.” Why? Because Cards Against Humanity is deliberately marketing dehumanizing concepts with a barely perceptible wink and a nod. It isn’t satire and it does nothing to follow-up or learn about the prejudices and stereotypes it so flippantly utilized. 

When engaging in a game we create a social contract. This contract allows for certain things (lying, for example) that would ordinarily be considered impolite or socially inappropriate. We agree that certain mundane things suddenly have value (cardboard chits, “victory” points, for example). We agree to suspend disbelief, create an immersive experience, and in the case of most library collections we agree that the space we are creating is welcoming and safe for all library patrons.

For the public library the prejudices and stereotypes expressed in CAH are not acceptable and the expression of so much casual hatred isn’t appropriate to the collection and selection criteria I’ve developed and the library board accepted. If you are a librarian reading this, your criteria may be different. To aid in developing your own board game policy, the sections below will discuss the original goals, intents, criteria, and maintenance of  the board game collection at my (former) library system and will explain exactly how CAH fails to fit in that collection. It doesn’t fit due to my disdain and dislike of the game. It doesn’t fit because I developed parameters that excludes many games. Some are excluded due to the complexity of a game, the collectible nature of a game, the unoriginal nature of a game’s mechanisms, etc.

There are certainly games in the collection that I do not enjoy but still play an important role in the collection because of elements of the game-play, the thematic elements of the game, or certain innovations of the game that makes the collection richer. CAH adds nothing of value to a collection when other games do much better while still being accessible. 

CAH does not meet the goal of the collection:

The board game collection

“will consist of a variety of games with a diversity of inner-game mechanisms and themes that will be appropriate for family use as well as for use in after-school programs, school and independent gaming groups.”

The emphasis of the collection is on family use. Board game publishers provide an appropriate age range based upon the thematic elements and the strategic depth of the design right on the box. In the case of the library’s collection, we are focused on family games and those games appropriate to a wide range of ages. This range includes games starting with 4+ (in the case of HABA games such as Rhino Hero or Animal Upon Animal), 8+ (e.g cooperative classics such as Forbidden Island and Pandemic), 10+ (in the case of most “gateway” games on the market such as Ticket to Ride and Dominion), and 14+ (as is the case with most war-games, heavier Euro games and other longer, or more thematically dense, strategy games). Games strictly marketing to adults and with ages listed as 18+, such as CAH, Secret Hitler, Risk: Game of Thrones, or the NSFW version of Exploding Kittens, are outside the scope of the collection. I’ll also admit that in the case of an academic library looking to explore board games, these may have a potential place in the collection since the mean age of users is about 25 years according to the National Center for Education Statistics

On the topic of Risk: Game of Thrones, games with an adult intellectual property such as Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, or The Walking Dead are generally outside the scope of the collection even where the manufacturer’s suggested age is appropriate. As I will discuss more below, the collection is not designated as an adult (18+) collection and it is housed in our juvenile collection. This means that when searching our catalog or browsing our collection, parents can expect that the themes will be appropriate to the age to an age ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. None of the above IPs are marketed for, or meant for, families. In order to include some games that *would* appeal to adults we go with games that provide innocuous or more general themes — Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Dead of Winter, and T.I.M.E Stories are all included with the express idea that adults will be the primary consumers of those games. A case can be made for Dead of Winter (14+) and T.I.M.E. Stories (12+) to be included despite their adult themes when the innovative elements of the games are considered. 

The collection will consist of mostly designer or hobby board games and avoid mass-market games (those readily available in toy stores or “big box” stores such as Target or Walmart) or niche games.

In recent years, more stores have started carrying modern board games and this element of the collection development policy is growing obsolete as it is getting trickier to to delineate between where games are being sold. Many big box stores are carrying some hobby board games

Edit: With the current trend of Target Exclusive games, I may rethink this element of my collection development standards in the future. Games such as Codenames: Deep Undercover would likely not make the cut but Ticket to Ride First Journey may. There would be a case for each of them even after having several copies of Codenames and Ticket to Ride. 

The board game collection will also focus on games that include rules in numerous languages to meet the needs of our growing communities as well as games with limited text (more iconography) to provide material for patrons with limited sight or colorblindness. The board game collection is meant to provide recreational material which also challenges, enriches, educations and thrills an audience new to the hobby as well as patrons well-entrenched in the hobby game market. The collection criteria gives preference to games with limited text to allow for non-English speakers to have the same access to the games in the collection as English speakers. This generally would negate a particular game, especially story-telling games but preference is given to games that provide rules in different languages and are relatively language independent.

The collection will consist mostly of what is termed “gateway” games which are relatively simple to learn and teach, quick to set-up and play, accessible to a wide demographic of players and provides an atmosphere of fun and variety. While this definition of scope seems rather subjective, the term “gateway game” is well-established in the hobby to refer to games that provide an entry-level experience into modern board gaming.

Due to it’s themes, CAH would fail at this criteria. The themes are divisive, provides no sensitivity, context, or understanding of the topics it exploits, and does not provide equitable access to the hobby. The theme is a roadblock and CAH is a needless hurdle to patron’s exploring the collection. That said, the mechanics of the game are very simple and would be easy enough to learn. For this reason, the originators of the game mechanism — Apples to Apples — is included in our collection and continues to be a popular party game selection for adults and children alike. Also other Apples to Apples knock-offs such as Superfight would probably make the cut since they add some mechanical element to the original game.

The primary game mechanism in Apples to Apples (and later cloned by CAH) is two decks of cards: one is a Thing and the other deck is a Description. Each round, one player draws a Description card from the deck, then the other players each choose a Thing card that best matches that description and plays it face-down on the table. It is very simple and, honestly, a great mechanism. You can also see similar permutations (and evolution) of this mechanism in the party game Dixit (also in our collection) and Mysterium (included as a version of Dixit with more appeal to older children and adults). Why are those games in our collection and not CAH? The theme aside, both Dixit and Mysterium took the Apples to Apples mechanic and expanded upon it. Both games add new elements as well, making the experience similar but more robust and complex. There was growth in the mechanism apparent in those games. CAH simply cloned the mechanism of two decks and then added offensive words. But can’t Apples to Apples also be offensive if played that way? Of course, it can. However, CAH’s sole purpose, as stated above, is to be offensive. There is no choice for the players. The game is on a set of rails that drives it to be offensive and limit’s it’s audience.

Cards Against Humanity is a party game for horrible people. Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends. from manufacturers website 

Since the scope of the collection is primarily to introduce and attract patrons unfamiliar with modern board games into the board gaming space. A game that states it is made for established groups friends or groups with a history is not appropriate. Enjoyment of games is hinged upon established relationships and boundaries. The boundary of the game — the “magical circle” (Huizinga, 1955) is the area, agreed upon the players beforehand, wherein all play exists. This circle can be overtly or intrinsically agreed upon by the players and determines the expectations of play. This contract is represented by the library system’s policy towards programming where patrons have the expectation of a safe, secure, and welcoming space to play and explore — this is the circle and the contract we have with patrons. While I agree with proponents of CAH that play is a form of ritual which is distinct from reality (I’m not *really* racist…), I do believe that the consecrated area of play within the library can not be removed from the library itself. There is no safe space for casual or overt racism, sexism, homophobia,  or trans-phobia in the library space. The library is, and always will be, a microcosm dedicated to community and accessibility — it is a safe space and the magic circle within the library is the same. While CAH may offer some amount of catharsis (an element of the magic circle) it only does so when the boundaries are agreed upon by those playing the game, generally a group of close friends. The boundaries the selection criteria and the library’s policy provides for is not an open forum where anything goes. There are specific expectations of behavior that are meant to be followed in the library. These expectations are not aligned with the boundaries of behavior apparent in CAH.

CAH is not controversial, it is offensive

The issue of controversy is often convoluted with the issue of offensiveness. To clear this up I would like to list a couple of comparisons to illuminate the difference. First of all, CAH is offensive and it’s controversy manufactured in order to sell games. In a similar vein the game War on Terror is a game which is purposely offensive while a game like Labyrinth: The War on Terror or A Distant Plain approach the subject of terrorism and warfare in a sensitive manner. While most controversial games will not make it into the collection, I do give these games consideration. In the original pilot collection I had two games which featured controversial topics: Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Tammany Hall. In Freedom, you are working cooperatively with a group of abolitionists to help bring an end to slavery. Players have to make difficult choices between moving escaped slaves to freedom and monitoring influence and funds to keep the abolitionist movement alive. It creates a tense experience and can trigger painful emotions.

In Tammany Hall players are working as politicians during the Reconstruction period of New York. They help immigrants settle into boroughs in order to collect political favors, make alliances and gain power in time of Boss Tweed and the power of Tammany. Both games are controversial but the play that evolved from Freedom was one where players worked together to balance ideology, humanism, and practicality in order to free slaves and in Tammany Hall, play tended to evolve into temporary negotiations and meta-gaming and the plight of the immigrant population was not addressed. Both are great games (and I have both in my personal collection) but for the scope and purpose of the library’s collection, Freedom was an obvious choice. Even then, I have had patrons complain about the perceived disconnect between games, play, and the issue of slavery. Generally, I reserve Freedom as an educational game or “serious” game for schools, homeschoolers, or parents looking to create a more experiential understanding of the time period. 

Cash n Guns is another game that has similar issues in potential placement in the library’s collection. Two issues stand out with this game when it was evaluated. The mechanisms where players point toy guns at each other in a classic Tarantino-styled stand off (think the culmination of Reservoir Dogs) was not considered appropriate for the juvenile collection. This wasn’t due to the toy guns and game mechanisms themselves but with the insensitivity that the theme of violence was handled. The juvenile and teen print collections certainly include books which approach the topics of gun violence and crime, however, they do so with a respect for those themes. Cash n Guns does not. Secondly, both editions of the game features artwork which feature hurtful stereotypes that would not be appropriate for the collection. Three games were considered instead of Cash n Guns which provided a similar feel (and all ended up with a western theme) — Flick ’em Up, Bang: The Dice Game, and Colt Express. We have room and budget for one and it is a tough choice. All three are gateway games and provide a western theme (complete with guns and violence) but without the racial stereotypes that are utilized in Cash n Guns. The selection criteria will help us choose which game to include.

Letters from Whitechapel is an amazing “one against many,” hidden movement cooperative game where one person plays Jack the Ripper while the rest of the players are investigators trying to sniff out the location of Jack’s hideout. The game is thematically violent and features “the wretched” — those victims of Jack who are murdered at the start of each round and provide the starting point from which to deduce Jack’s location. I am a fan of this game and think it creates a tense and unforgiving experience for Jack and an exciting (at times frustrating) experience for the investigators. However, the theme is too mature for a juvenile collection so it isn’t included in our collection. We do however, include the game Scotland Yard from which Letters from Whitechapel borrowed (and expanded upon) the hidden movement mechanism. Robbery/heist replaces the Jack the Ripper theme with police attempting to ascertain the location of a thief (Mr. X) in London. This mechanism is also utilized in the games Fury of Dracula and (my personal favorite) Ghost Chase. However, their is only so much room for the collection and many examples of innovative game mechanisms and themes to display so we stuck with the one that provided the most general appeal — Scotland Yard.

CAH isn’t appropriate for a children’s collection.

Semantically, the board game collection is cataloged as a “Juvenile Non-Book” which means that all board games are housed in our children’s collection — not our adult collection. The insensitively handled themes in CAH would not be appropriate. Themes such as racism, colonialism, slavery, and other sensitive or controversial topics can be elements of games in the Juvenile collection. These topics are certainly covered in the print juvenile collection. Games such as “Freedom: The Underground Railroad,” “Tomorrow,” or “San Juan” all cover some difficult topics. However, offensive and controversial are not interchangeable. Controversial topics should be addressed in the collection where both designer and publisher respect the topics they are attempting to tackle in a manner that encourages critical thought and growth. It is impossible to state that CAH has respect…of anything other than promotion of their product. Even the people behind CAH are not “horrible” enough to state that it is a good fit for a children’s collection.

Let’s move on past the goals of the collection into the selection criteria. These are the criteria librarians use to determine whether a game is appropriate for the collection. As with many things in a library, space and resources are limited and not every game (even some amazing ones, do not get included in the collection). 

CAH does not meet the selection criteria of the collection.

The board game collection will be based on the following criteria:

  • Games will be from reputable and reliable board game publishers. — CAH is a self-published game and does not meet this criteria. While I would not discard a potential game to the collection solely on this criteria, it would have to meet some other criteria. A good example of a self-published game that would make our collection is “Paperback” by Time Fowers because it meets other criteria such as innovative use of a mechanism (in this case melding a deck-building into a word game). 
  • Games will be available (or have available) multi-lingual instructions. — CAH is solely in English so does not meet this criteria. Again, no one criteria would mean that a game is ineligible for the collection but preference is given to games with multi lingual rules (or access to those rules) or those that use little to no text. A good example is the game “Alhambra” which has rules in several languages and the game itself uses no text. This makes the game accessible to ESL, or non-english speaking patrons.
  • Games will range in player count but 2-4 will be the preferred. — CAH does pass this criteria with it’s large player count.
  • Games will be easy to moderate in difficulty to learn. — CAH is easy to learn.
  • Games will have a limited amount of pieces. — CAH is made up of cards. The cards can be removed with little affect on gameplay.
  • Games will feature innovative or unique mechanisms. — CAH fails this criteria since “Apples to Apples” is already included in the collection and CAH is a clone of “Apples to Apples.” Similar situations arise with deck-builders that are similar or clones of “Dominion.” Other deck building games such as “Ascension” or “Arctic Scavengers” are similarly clones of “Dominion” and would not be included in the collection. The collection would be open to deck-building games like Trains, A Few Acres of Snow, Paperback, or Valley of the Kings which use the deck-building mechanism in some interesting ways.
  • Awards winning games (Spiel des Jahres, Origins, Dice Tower, Golden Geek, Mensa Select) will be given precedence. — CAH fails at this criteria.
  • Card game and board games are acceptable. — CAH is a card game.
  • Games will not be “collectible card games” [CCGs] or “living card games” [LCGs]. — CAH is not a living card game.
  • Cost and availability (games should be “in-print”). 
  • Games will not be directly purchased from crowdfunding sites (Kickstarter, IndieGoGo) — This is not an issue with CAH but was an issue (among other issues) the game “Secret Hitler” which was also published by the CAH folks.
  • Preference will be given for “gateway” games. — CAH fails this criteria.
  • Critical reviews from reputable sources. — CAH fails this criteria.
  • Preference will be given to games of some social or educational merit. – CAH fails in this criteria.

CAH does not meet the usage expectation of the collection

As a library event (which means that the room can be reserved without the standard $20 an hour fee which is applied to non-library groups) the board game nights are open to the public. This includes families and young adults, walk-ins, staff, etc. Anyone can attend at no cost. In an effort to maintain an environment that allows all patrons to utilize library events and materials, the library board has adopted a policy concerning children in the library as well as a rather strict meeting room policy. These are the policies I refer to when planning events. Children age 11 and under must have a parent/caregiver in the same area of the library as the child. If the caregiver is a minor, they must be at least 15 years old and must have emergency contact information. Generally, at board gaming events, family groups rather than groups of children are interested in attending. They are more than welcome to attend as long as the parents are responsible for the children playing. Inter-generational gaming and programming is a goal of the library systems and we work to create an atmosphere at our events appropriate to families. CAH does not add  

 I do promote the event primarily to adults and that is generally who attends. What would not be allowed are parents just dropping off kids to game night. Young adults ages 12 through 17 may use the library and attend events on their own without a parent or guardian. Parents, however, are still responsible for their actions. All young people (children or young adults) will be subject to the same behavior polices as other adult library users. Solo teens are a rarity though due to the time the events are held. I used to have two teens that attended events at the Upper Darby library when I was there and they certainly added some personality to the group and were expected to follow the same behavioral policies as the rest of us.