Max Temkin: Against Humanity

Max Temkin is one of a few bright stars helping to grow Chicago's indie game scene. We chart his trail from the Obama campaign to Cards Against Humanity and beyond.
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Max Temkin thinks that comedy can change people's opinions about the world. One of the most popular comedy games of the past few years, in any medium, is a game he made with seven friends called Cards Against Humanity. It's held the No. 1 slot in Amazon's toys and games category for nearly two years.

"I think there's a huge social value to [Cards]," Temkin says. "George Carlin used to say that when people laugh, their minds open up for just one second, and you can plant a new idea in there and they don't notice it, necessarily."

Cards is a simple game. One player draws a black card with a question on it. Everyone else at the table plays a white card anonymously from their hand of answers. To win the round the asker must like your answer the best. The hilarity that ensues gives Temkin and his friends the chance to implant a lot of ideas, and to change a lot of opinions.

"With Cards we are confronting people with these things that are really inappropriate," Temkin says. "In some cases we've just given people a framework to talk about social ideas that are important to us."

And therein lies the tension of the game; it has a perspective. That perspective, and Temkin's artistic voice, might not even exist if he hadn't discovered Kickstarter. That's why he's working as an advocate to bring more people to the model.

And Temkin might not have discovered Kickstarter if he hadn't first discovered Barack Obama.

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Entrepreneurial class

There's a pallet of boxes sitting next to Temkin's desk. They hold his beautiful printing of a folk game called Werewolf. He's been bringing them to his office from his apartment for the last few days, a carload at a time.

In the coming days he will fulfill more than 3,500 orders. Temkin never expected this project to be that popular. His Kickstarter campaign asked for only $200, enough to purchase a minimum order from the printer. The response blew him away.

"That is what's cool about Kickstarter," Temkin says. "It helps you set appropriate expectations for what to do with a project."

It also gives creators like Temkin control over their projects. When prototypes of Werewolf came back from the printer, the carrying case was too small. Temkin was able to spend more money on production because of the number of backers who supported him. He had a new prototype made with a bigger bag, and also added extras.

There was no publisher to tell him no, no investor to complicate things. Kickstarter didn't bring Temkin 3,500 customers. It brought him 3,500 patrons who trusted him to make his art.

Temkin doesn't just take from Kickstarter; he also gives. He has personally funded more than 110 Kickstarter projects, many to get hands-on time with ideas he likes, but sometimes just a dollar to show his support. And then, along with the rest of the backers, he waits for the projects to arrive in the mail and enjoys them.

For my whole life I want to be able to use Kickstarter to [fund] what I'm doing.

When he's not dreaming up new marketing campaigns for Cards, Temkin has quietly become a free Kickstarter consultant, spending time giving advice to other would-be entrepreneurs before they launch their own campaigns.

"I want Kickstarter to be around forever," says Temkin. "For my whole life I want to be able to use Kickstarter to [fund] what I'm doing. And I'll be in deep trouble if it's not around. Because there's nothing else that's any good — that's like it.

"It was not so long ago that I can't remember how that [first Kickstarter] felt. So it costs very little for me to talk to people and give them the kind of advice that I wish that I could have had. Ninety percent of the time the advice is just, 'This project is good. People will like it. Just do it. You'll be happy.'

"I wish I had heard that."

Temkin is also doing something unusual. He's taken $10,000 of his own money and invested it in an indie video game, called Samurai Gunn. The developer is a friend of his named Beau Blyth. But Temkin says this financial support is not evidence that he's trying to become a publisher, or leaving the Kickstarter model behind. He's just trying to bring something beautiful and fun into the world in a different way.

"Creatively, it's 100 percent his game," Temkin says. "We're calling me a publisher because people will understand what that word means. ... I'm pretty sure it will make $20,000 and I'll get paid back. I hope. If I don't, oh well. At least I got to make a game. ... I guess I just paid a lot for a game that I like.

"But in the end I just want to have him make his art."

Temkin believes that Kickstarter is an agent for change, a service capable of upending the creative process and giving control back to artists and makers. He believes in it, and that's why he volunteers his time to it.

And it's not the first time Temkin has put his time into something he believes in.

Master debater

In middle school Temkin specialized in making trouble. He grew up in a wealthy northern suburb of Chicago called Highland Park. While all his friends were competing against one another to get into advanced placement courses, he got his As by doing the required work and little more. School bored him, and that boredom led him to act out.

"I would just make tons of trouble in the class," Temkin says. "It would always end up with a bargain with the teacher; I'll settle down and let you teach if you don't make me do too much. We'll just agree to disagree here. I'll do my thing. You'll do your thing. They would let me read books under my desk, and I would read a lot of sci-fi."

What snapped Temkin awake were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was his second week as a high school freshman and he remembers sitting in math class early one morning when an administrator came on the public address system to make the announcement. He and his classmates spent the rest of the day watching CNN.

"I felt like the world was going insane," Temkin says.

He put down the sci-fi and began reading Kafka. Kafka didn't push him toward the abyss; it gave him a vocabulary from which to speak about it. Instead of closing himself off, he opened himself up to politics and world affairs. It was the war in Iraq that sent him off the deep end.

"I would walk around school and I would try to talk to everyone about [Iraq]," he says. "'How are you not mad about this? How is the whole world not mad about this obviously bad thing that's happening?' And nobody cared! They were like, 'Well, I gotta go eat lunch. What am I gonna do about the war?'"

People at his high school weren't interested in debate, but the people of the internet were. Temkin was drawn to the new crop of independent, liberal bloggers that emerged in the mid-2000s. That exposure to the online world introduced him to the wider geek culture that began to grow in the dark corners of the internet around the same time.

"Most of my interests, like gaming and philosophy, I can trace back to the blogs that I was reading when I was 13 and 14 years old," says Temkin — blogs like Defective Yeti, Waxy.org, BoingBoing and even, for a time, cartoonist Scott Adams' blog.

"There were just really interesting people out there," Temkin says. "And there was just no one like that in my high school. There was no one who was interested in hacking and geek culture, and all that stuff was very, very new and underground."

He soon found the high school debate team and became a one-trick pony who specialized in over-the-top, comic belittling of conservative issues. Judges either loved him or hated him.

Those debate competitions exposed him to new ideas and new methods of argumentation. It was a short leap to local politics, and he was volunteering on campaigns before he was old enough to vote.

There was no one who was interested in hacking and geek culture, and all that stuff was very, very new and underground.

Thanks, Obama

Nobody there cared about the one thing I cared about, which was not having a war in Iraq and not killing a lot of civilians in the process.

Through his political work Temkin heard of an anti-war rally being held in Daley Plaza, an open public square in downtown Chicago. He was excited to finally meet his peers, the like-minded people he'd been reading and chatting with online since 9/11. What he found there instead made him begin to question those associations.

"It was so unattractive," he says. "It was one of these crazy anti-war rallies. It was a mix of animal rights people and anti-Israel people, and they're all waving their signs. Nobody there cared about the one thing I cared about, which was not having a war in Iraq and not killing a lot of civilians in the process."

The only person that Temkin heard speak at the rally whom he felt a connection with was a young Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. When Obama began to speak, the crowd of crazies around Temkin melted away.

"His name was ridiculous," Temkin says. "And nobody knew who the hell he was. I just remember sitting in the audience and it felt like everyone around me was talking and I was the only one who was just locked into his speech. And I thought, 'Holy shit. This guy is incredible.'"

After the rally Temkin went up to the future president, shook his hand, and asked to volunteer on his campaign for the 2004 U.S. Senate race. He was among the very first Obama supporters in northern Illinois. The high school junior was also one of the youngest.

Suddenly Temkin wasn't just reading about politics and banging out angsty LiveJournal entries. He was in the thick of it.

"A lot of the top political operatives in the world," Temkin says, "cut their teeth in Chicago. ... I've heard it described as trench warfare. The game is played at a very high level. Mistakes count for more. It's very competitive. You're never safe. There's tons of money. And it's all happening in a very small space."

For Temkin it was all so immediate, all so real. In 2004, Temkin went to college in Baltimore to study philosophy, but he would spend every summer as part of Chicago's political machine, a young foot soldier in the "ground game." He helped do the grunt work for political campaigns across the city, and later the state, including going door-to-door to bring out voters for his candidates on election day.

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Resistance is futile

Temkin can recall being part of at least 20 Democratic campaigns over the last decade. But it was the first Obama race that hooked him hard.

In the 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate campaign Obama was initially up against a man named Jack Ryan, who used to be married to Jeri Ryan, who played Seven of Nine on Star Trek Voyager.

"It was my favorite show at the time," Temkin says. "[Jack and Jeri] had gotten divorced in the past. During the campaign someone found their divorce papers. And it turns out this guy Jack Ryan forced Jeri Ryan to go to these sex clubs, and he was super creepy and abusive, and all this information got out. And then he had to resign from the race."

That led the national Republican Party to import an African-American radio host, Alan Keyes, to compete against Obama. While Keyes was a former diplomat in the Reagan administration, many analysts saw it as a crass play to divide the African American demographic, a shortsighted move by Republicans to nullify the racial advantage they perceived Obama had in the state. What followed was a political death spiral of epic proportions as Keyes made one gaffe after another, turning what had been a close race into an 70/30 victory for Obama.

"So this is the coolest thing," Temkin says, lingering on the story. "Me, being a Voyager fan and an Obama fan? I was like, 'Fuck yeah. Seven of Nine saved the Senate race.'"

The more he learned about Chicago politics the more Temkin found political absurdities piling up around him. There was gerrymandering and legal battles, media firestorms and dirty tricks. In one campaign Temkin's candidate lost an election because his opponent had a single elevator in a key high-rise retirement home serviced on election day. With the elevator out of service, not enough retirees could safely make it out of the tower to vote for his candidate.

But these absurdities felt different than they had post-9/11. It wasn't the world working against Temkin so much as it was that he was now seeing the world for how it actually worked. He developed a thicker skin, and a broader perspective.

"When you're 14 years old, and especially if you're smart, it seems like you become aware of these rules in the world," Temkin says. "And so you begin to understand law and you understand elections. And it seems like the world should behave according to rules.

"And of course the world doesn't work like that. It's so sloppy. It's so unfair. It's so messy. It's so human. And when you think you've got it figured out and you see: Well no, actually. The laws don't work that way. They're rarely what matters. It's all lawsuits and it's all fraud. Or it's all media manipulation. And you start to become aware of these outside factors."

Temkin says that what started in high school as righteous indignation simmered down to a weary stew of pragmatism by the time he graduated from college. But his political work made him more progressive, not less.

10,000 hours

A few years later, in 2007, Temkin got an email from Obama For America, the Obama presidential campaign. It needed an intern it could trust to work at the national headquarters, located in downtown Chicago. Because of Temkin's involvement with the Senate campaign he got the job.

"I started doing data entry and total intern shit-work," Temkin says. "Then I'd find myself in these meetings where people were saying, 'We really need a website for this project.' 'We really need a graphic.' 'We really need a yard sign.'

"I knew Photoshop as well as any idiot on an online forum knows [it] ... I thought, 'I can figure this stuff out.'"

But as Temkin soon discovered, it was slightly more complicated than slapping the "O" on things and sending them out the door.

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Cards Against Humanity is known for its design. Bold, almost bland typography. Black and white. Firm and consistent punctuation. The cards seem so simple on the surface, but in reality the game employs incredibly shrewd design.

The cards are just cards. The words are just words. The fun of the game, and the uncomfortable and often uproarious humor that the game facilitates, comes from the players at the table. The cards are so perfectly stark as to be mute.

Max Temkin learned to design that way by spending the summer of 2007 at the Obama presidential campaign headquarters.

Late at night, after most all the other staffers had gone home, and before Temkin fell asleep on, under or near his desk, he would sneak over to the desk of Scott Thomas, the campaign design director.

"To this day he's my favorite designer. I learned so much from him," Temkin says. "I don't think he knew that I was stealing [samples of finished campaign print materials] off his desk. We really only had one or two interactions and they were mostly him yelling at me for doing off-brand design that wasn't very good."

The projects that Temkin was working on were urgent, and they had to be perfect. The assets he was tasked with making from scratch could be assigned to him in the morning, and then show up on Fox News that night. Every single one was an opportunity to help or hinder the Obama campaign. That summer the philosophy major immersed himself in design, and from that campaign's crucible he emerged as a pretty good self-taught graphic designer.

In 2009 Thomas wrote a book about his work on the Obama For America campaign, called Designing Obama. It opened a new door for Temkin.

"He did it on Kickstarter, which I had never heard of before," Temkin says. "It was the first really big Kickstarter project I was ever aware of. I was following the backer updates, and the things he was able to do, like going to Japan to supervise the binding of the book, were crazy to me."

If Thomas could use Kickstarter to complete his creative ambition, then Temkin could as well.

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Believe

Temkin got into politics to try to bring about change. But in the end that change didn't come from politics. It came from games. It came because of Kickstarter. And that's why he wants to give back.

"On a political campaign," Temkin says, "best case scenario you win the campaign and you're unemployed the next day. It's a crazy lifestyle. Nobody who works in politics has health insurance.

"I care about Kickstarter as a platform, and I want projects to be successful and people to do well at it. And I have a lot invested in Kickstarter. ... So I feel some stewardship of it."

The campaigns that Temkin worked on before he got into games were all about ideas, about creating more justice and more equality in the world. To Temkin, that's what Kickstarter is as well.

"You give the artist your money," Temkin says. "The artist gives you the art. You have an experience with it. You like it or you don't. But that's how it is. ... And when that becomes the new normal it will be weird talking about the days when indie games had their own little conferences, and their own little scenes, and it was such a weird thing they had to make documentaries about it to show you how indie games worked."

Temkin used to be angry about how the world works, but he's learned to turn that anger into creative energy, an energy that is the opposite of hate. It is infectious. And it is quietly stoking the flame of game development in Chicago and around the world.Babykayak

Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Ally Palanzi, Tyson Whiting
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