As co-creator of one of the best-selling games on Amazon, Max Temkin ’10 thinks about playing all day long. Still, the 26-year-old, who’s building a career out of what he likes to do best, frequently wonders…
“Is this what I want to do with my life?”
by Julie Steinbacher ’10
On a typical day, Max Temkin ’10 spends the morning catching up on the news or taking a boxing lesson, then arrives around noon at a large, airy office he shares with a handful of other young Chicago-based arts professionals. He sports a five o’clock shadow, jeans, and a black T-shirt—the same as every day because he doesn’t like to waste time thinking about clothes.
Once at work, he plays video games, tweets a few thoughts, or posts philosophical witticisms and science news to his Tumblr. He may video-chat with his colleagues at Gnarwhal Studios, a company that he and some friends cofounded to design social games. If he feels stressed, Temkin might go home and build a spaceship out of Legos.
In his Twitter profile, the 26-year-old philosophy major describes himself in one word: “Unemployable.” He calls his occupation a “hobby I’ve been able to string together” and abhors the notion of joining the rat race. Nonetheless, Temkin seems to be working all the time.
While tweeting, he may also be mulling potential innovations for Cards Against Humanity, a politically incorrect card game he and his friends invented, now one of the best-selling games on Amazon.com. He may pause in the middle of a video game to check the sales from his online philosophy poster store, or take a call from one of his freelance design clients.
Despite all this, Temkin seems dismissive of his work. “A job implies regularity and responsibilities and stuff,” he says. “I don’t know if you can call this a job.”
Whatever he calls what he does, Temkin in the last few years has designed websites and worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, and Illinois Democratic Women. Through Gnarwhal Studios, he builds the software for Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ), the modified tag game created in 2005 by Goucher alumni Brad Sappington ’06 and Chris Weed ’08 that’s played on hundreds of campuses worldwide. And he has successfully financed three projects using Kickstarter, the online funding platform, including his online poster store.
All in all, Temkin says he has earned enough money since graduation to allow him to work for the next several years only on what really interests him. Nonetheless, the passage of time makes him anxious. “I see my time as very limited, and I make decisions by asking myself, ‘Is this how
I want to be spending my day and what I want to be doing with my life?’”
Seeing the Game in Things
Temkin grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Highland Park. His parents worked in advertising; his father now works in politics, and his mother runs an art store.
Since childhood, Temkin has been fascinated with science fiction and game theory. In elementary and middle school, he created prototypes for toys and board games. At Goucher, he became involved, first as a player and moderator and later as a designer, with HvZ, which he saw take off during his undergraduate years. He also became interested in graphic design and began taking political science classes. As a third-year student, he took a leave of absence to volunteer for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, working on graphic and web design.
On campus, Temkin also was involved in the Student Government Association (SGA), serving as the parliamentarian and later the vice president for student action. He spearheaded efforts to bring to the college Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager and humanitarian known for protecting more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide and made famous by the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda. Temkin also used his dual roles in the SGA and HvZ to come up with innovative ways to address student concerns.
Steve DeCaroli, Temkin’s former academic adviser and an associate professor of philosophy, recalls one project in particular. A group of Jewish students approached SGA with a request that certain areas of the campus be enclosed with a wire boundary called an eruv, which would allow them to keep Jewish laws on Shabbat while moving freely about campus. Unfazed by the task, Temkin assigned HvZ players the mission of stringing twine around the campus as a symbolic grid.
“I always thought that was a beautiful way of turning a chore into a game,” says DeCaroli. “Max is very capable of seeing the game in things. He thinks very deeply and seriously about the theory of games.”
‘A Party Game for Horrible People’
Cards Against Humanity may be Temkin’s most successful project to date. He and seven friends from grade school developed it with the intention of creating something clever, funny, and blatantly offensive. In December 2010, they used Kickstarter to raise the money to produce it in a form they could distribute. In 15 days, they’d met their goal of $4,000, and by the time they closed out their campaign, they had pulled in $15,570. They realized they were on to something big.
Cards, as the game is nicknamed, is unusual these days in the sense that it is not virtual. Marketed as “a party game for horrible people,” much of its content is not suitable for children. The deck contains black cards, which ask questions or require fill-in-the-blank answers (“The class field trip was completely ruined by _______.”), and white cards, which can be mixed and matched for the most hilarious or shocking responses (“emotions,” “William Shatner,” “shapeshifters”).
The game went on sale in June 2011 on Amazon.com for $25. Although it has always been downloadable for free under a Creative Commons license, hundreds of thousands of games have been purchased. (Temkin declined to give specific figures.) Two and a half years and three expansion packs after its launch, Cards Against Humanity is ranked on Amazon as one of the top-selling, best-reviewed, and most “wished for” games.
Last winter, the eight co-creators decided to release a holiday pack of seasonal cards using a pay-what-you-want business model—and agreed among themselves to give the profits to charity. Within a week, 85,000 packs were sold at an average price of $3.89 each, and the co-creators sent a check for $70,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation.
Cards has been reviewed by gaming websites such as The Onion’s A.V. Club and the Penny Arcade Report and included in the Vanity Fair and Jezebel 2012 holiday lists of best gifts. (One headline was “What to Buy Malcontents and Misanthropes.”) Celebrities such as William Shatner, actor and writer Wil Wheaton, and director Rob Sheridan have tweeted about the game, and Oscar-winning actor Anne Hathaway mentioned Cards on the red carpet at this year’s Academy Awards.
Temkin devotes about half of his time to developing Cards. The co-creators, split between Chicago and other cities, organize retreats to work on the game. “We work well in short bursts of intense energy,” Temkin says.
They spent a week last summer in a cabin in Wisconsin, working 16 hours a day. “We revise the game. We spend time thinking about what each joke means, why it’s funny. The jokes I really like make fun of us and our audience—they are heteronormativity jokes, jokes about white people. It’s way more honest, funny, and shocking to make fun of your own culture,” says Temkin. “We sit there and argue very seriously about fart jokes for an entire day. Stone cold sober.”
A Matter of Time
The older he gets, the more Temkin worries about how easy it is to miss out on great ideas. “When you’re in school, time is so neatly divided for you. When you graduate, there are no more ‘years’; you just have all this time. If you don’t do something about it, you’re 40 or 50 and you’ve used all your time and never put an idea out in the world.”
Wherever he goes, Temkin carries a sketchbook. He sleeps with a pen and notepad tucked behind his pillow and keeps markers in the shower so he can jot his thoughts on the tiles. At work, where he’s constantly drawing in Photoshop, he’ll shake things up by doodling on the
“He seems to come up with an idea, and unlike just about everybody else on Twitter or on the Internet, he realizes that idea, like, a day later,” says Matthew Baldwin, a game reviewer who blogs about board games at Playtest, to which Temkin is a contributor.
Perhaps Temkin’s ideas wouldn’t go so quickly from mind to matter if he weren’t invested in them. “Max creates the jobs for himself that he knows he’ll love to do,” says Jana Kinsman, a freelance illustrator and graphic designer who shares Temkin’s office space.
Temkin is preparing to move Cards Against Humanity to its own headquarters, which will include a conference room; a space for playtesting video games; an art studio with facilities for screen printing, 3-D printing, and fabrication; a bike shop; a book bindery where the company will be able to publish new games; and “a sweet pit bull named ‘Hickory,’” according to Kinsman.
In the meantime, Temkin isn’t letting any ideas get away from him. He crafts Tumblr themes and websites for friends and collaborators. He joined blogger Diana Kimball as co-host of 24-Hour Bookclub, a “reading flashmob” where they select a book and a date and urge readers to join a conversation about the work by tweeting their thoughts as they read. The creators of Cards are working with the staff of an online video game database, Giant Bomb, to produce a fourth expansion set. And Temkin is working on Petty Kingdoms, a tabletop strategy game that is now in the playtesting stages. “I’ll put the game out when I’m ready for it,” Temkin says. “If it’s not good, I’ll never put it out. I’ll work on something else.”
For Max Temkin’s tips on how to create a successful Kickstarter campaign, click here.