Assistant professor Tim Cassedy thought he’d spice up the curriculum for his Southern Methodist University students when he told them they could choose the format of their final projects on the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. He thought giving his class freedom of form would help spur their creativity, but he didn’t think he’d be starting a business with three of his students. Nor did he expect to create a Cards Against Humanity-style game based on Melville’s book, efficiently titled Dick.
“Someone emailed me saying, ‘Hey, can I make a game?’” Cassedy says. “I thought it was such a good idea. I got a stack of print-your-own business cards and printed up a sample game.”
This year Cassedy and his former students-turned-business partners Chelsea Grogan, Jenna Peck and Kate Petsche, teamed up to take another crack at the card game business and released Bards Dispense Profanity, a similar game to Dick, but this time featuring the works of William Shakespeare. Since its release in May the game has gone viral, selling more than 1,000 copies to giggling literature fans across the globe.
“It’s one of the weirdest things that’s ever happened to me,” Cassedy says. “I imagined that if I ever were in the Washington Post, especially in my capacity as an English professor, it would be because of a scholarly endeavor. I didn’t think I was going to be in the Post in a pop culture way ever.”
The games themselves are easy to explain. Players are given a number of cards with excerpts from the Bard’s extensive oeuvre or Melville’s masterpiece, and are tasked with answering a shared prompt, such as: “I’m thinking about getting a lower-back tattoo of … ” or “What’s my ideal first date?” Whoever comes up with the funniest, dirtiest, silliest or most awkward response gets a point and a new prompt is selected.
This simple party game has had big impact on its creators, who all work full-time and never imagined the game they played with their professor during office hours would morph into an online sensation.
“It just brings old text like Shakespeare to life. People back then made really weird dirty jokes too,” Peck says. “It’s hilarious because we were all like English majors but this has taught us more about practical things than we ever learned in school.”
Petsche, who was a marketing major while in Cassedy’s class, says the experience of creating business out of the bawdy card game changed the course of her career and future education.
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“I definitely learned a lot more through this experience than I did through my whole marketing degree just from like the practical experience of it,” Petsche says. “I was doing a lot of marketing internships and kind of thinking marketing wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to do and I wasn’t such a big fan of it anymore and then I got brought on to this project and I was like, ‘Oh wait, I do like some of this,’ but I like it a lot more when it’s something that I care about and am involved in.”
What started out as a unique way for Cassedy to introduce readers to the often risqué and hilarious side of serious literature has now turned into an engine of inspiration for those involved. Cassedy says that while something like Moby Dick or Shakespeare might seem dry and daunting at first, the games he’s created help new readers feel more comfortable with the language of some of the greatest written works in history.
“Playing the game requires close engagement with language,” Cassedy says. “If I were trying to make a pedagogical justification for this, that would be the justification, getting people to take words and play with them and scrutinize them and think about them … that is my job.”
But even if Dick and Bards Dispense Profanity don’t compel people to finally get around to reading more classic literature, their creators say that it’s worth it just to see people enjoying the game. The games are more about coming together and laughing at the absurdity of canonical literature than changing the way you read. But you may learn something along the way, just like Cassedy and his partners have.
“Universities are always trying to get professors and students to launch businesses but they do not try and get the English department to do that,” Cassedy says. “It turns out that we have a lot of the skills that you need. … I want to make a video and show it to parents who are skeptical about their kids majoring in English. These are real skills. Even if what you want to do is go be a successful businessman or woman, majoring in English is totally appropriate.”