Admit it: When reading or discussing the classic novel Moby-Dick in high school or college, your mind went places. Maybe you vocalized the inappropriate jokes you were thinking of, getting an easy chuckle from your nearby friends. Or maybe you kept your thoughts to yourself, thinking that surely such lowbrow humor was not good enough for literature as great as this.

But Tim Cassedy, an English professor at SMU, thinks it's OK to laugh at Moby-Dick. In fact, he thinks that's the intent of the name.

"I genuinely believe that on some level there is a dick joke in the title of the book -- hidden in plain sight," Cassedy told me via e-mail. "I think the book frequently plays around with that meaning of 'dick.' Sperm whales really are named that because they have a white, waxy substance in their head that early mariners mistook for semen. They called that substance 'spermaceti' (which means whale sperm) or just 'sperm.' (It turns out to make excellent candles.) The book is full of moments where the whale meaning of sperm starts to blur over into the reproductive meaning -- sometimes just to play with words, sometimes for comic effect, and sometimes as part of straining to articulate ideas that are difficult to put into words. Relevant chapters include 81, 94, and 95. The entirety of chapter 95 is about making a smock out of the foreskin removed from a sperm whale's 6-foot-long penis. So."

Yeah, OK. Hard to argue with that, right? The guy is paid to know this stuff. So it might not be a surprise that Cassedy is the co-creator of a new card game called Dick. Yes, it's based on the Herman Melville novel (it says so right on the box), and no, it's not exactly made with the intent of teaching small children about literature.

It works similarly to the popular and family-friendly card game Apples to Apples, or more appropriately, the the not at all family-friendly card game Cards Against Humanity. (In fact, Cassedy told me the working title for the game was "Cards Against the Humanities," but the name was changed to avoid trademark infringement.) Players have a hand drawn randomly from more than 300 cards, all containing quotes from Moby-Dick. These cards are played to answer questions such as "Ted Cruz caused a stir today when he called a press conference to denounce [blank]." Each round has a judge, and said judge chooses his or her favorite answer, which wins that round.

The game wasn't just created by an SMU professor; it was conceived during a class. Specifically, a class "about American gothic literature, crime writing and detective fiction from the 19th century to the present -- plus Moby-Dick."

"The idea for Dick came to me when I was answering an email from a student who was checking with me about an idea she had for the final project," Cassedy says. "I gave the students in this class complete freedom of form for the project: they could prepare an academic essay, a personal essay, a song cycle, a blog, whatever, and they could choose any subject as long as they were able to associate it with the course content. The only requirements for this 'unessay' were that it reflect interpretive engagement with a text or texts, and that its scope be appropriate to being the final assignment in an upper-division college course."

The student in question had an idea for a game like Trivial Pursuit with questions about the texts on the class syllabus. Cassedy wrote back with some advice: "You'll need to make sure that the game requires more than knowing the titles, plots, and characters of the texts: the game should involve interpretation and analysis of the texts." 

He went further and gave examples, one of which was, "I can also imagine a great Cards Against Humanity-type game built around material from our class [...] where after each round the players vote on whose answer was best... and in your game, coming up with the 'best answer' would naturally involve thinking synthetically and analytically about the texts: thinking not just about their plots but also about their themes, patterns, concerns, etc. In other words, it would require on-the-spot interpretive work by the players. That would be great."

The advice didn't matter much for the student, who ended up doing something different for her project. But the idea stuck with Cassedy, so he worked out a set of prototype cards with his wife, printed them out himself and tested the game with some of his students. After about 10 minutes it was clear that the idea had legs.

Two of those students were Chelsea Grogan and Jenna Peck, who have been involved with all aspects of the game ever since.

"I was in awe of how perfectly the novel's language lends itself to a game of this nature, and loved the way in which the game made Moby-Dick relatable and accessible," Grogan told me via e-mail. 

"I laughed so hard after playing it the first time that I almost cried -- I knew this game had potential, and wanted to contribute to getting it out into the world in any way I could."

The trio began focus testing the game primarily by playing with other students, friends and professors. The text for the answer cards are taken straight from the novel, but as Peck points out, "some are better than others." Through playing the game over and over with new people they were able to figure out which cards worked and which didn't, leaving some of them on the cutting room floor.

"The early prompts were also tailored more narrowly to English majors and professional academics," Cassedy admits. "We ended up cutting a lot of those prompts because they made non-English major, non-academic players feel stupid when they didn't get the joke."

One such card prompt? "[Blank]: Inscribing the Politics of Literary Culture, 1899-1914." Not really something that's likely to get your drunk programmer friends laughing.

Of course, when you're taking a beloved book and boiling it down to inappropriate jokes, you're sure to make some people uncomfortable. But according to the people behind Dick, that's OK. They even have a section of the game's website devoted to such people, asking, "Isn't this offensive?"

"Some people online have expressed offense," Grogan says. "I'm not surprised -- many people see Moby-Dick as a piece of very serious canonical literature. And no doubt, Moby-Dick is philosophical and serious and deserves the respected reputation it has garnered. However, the novel also has a more playful side -- one that makes dick jokes and includes a chapter about a guy literally wearing a coat made out of a giant whale penis. When this humorous interpretation of the text isn't recognized or acknowledged, the raunchy playfulness of Dick may be a bit jarring. 

"I think it's great to see Dick touching a nerve and people getting passionate about Moby-Dick, and I think it's a privilege that our game can start a conversation about the less serious reading of Melville's classic work. Just because something is classical and canonical, that doesn't mean it can't also be funny!"

Moby-Dick seems to lend itself particularly well to becoming a subversive (and hilarious) card game, but there might be other classic literature adaptations in the future. "Oh my gosh, once we came up with Dick, we realized how much literature and art can and should be looked at from a humorous level," Peck says. "And there are so many other works of high art that people don't think of as just hilarious and irreverent, but [they are]. It makes these works feel a little bit less distant." 

Shakespeare might be the group's next classical target, though they all seem to agree that "the possibilities are endless."

Dick can be purchased online at whysoever.com for $19.75. It can be purchased as a base game or with optional, additional cards called, ahem, "Dick Enhancements."

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