Any English major will tell you that the college literature classroom is the perfect place to find tongue-in-cheek puns. Why is that? “The sheer language, at the level of the word, is so creative and strange,” says Tim Cassedy, assistant professor of American literature at Southern Methodist University.
It’s that play with language that inspired him to give students in his spring 2015 class an “un-essay” for a final. Instead of preparing a paper for the seminar class on Moby Dick, students were encouraged to create some other artistic representation that would display how well they engaged with the text. “I would evaluate it based on how meaningfully it achieves literary study,” Cassedy says. “It has to involve interpretation.”
It was through this process that he got the idea for Dick, a Cards Against Humanity-style game complete with prompt cards and Moby Dick quotes for answers. A few of the playable cards include phrases such as: “stark naked men,” “panting and snorting,” and “an ineffably oozy, stringy affair.”
“There are so many phrases in here,” Tim Cassedy says. “On every freaking page, there’s some weird thing. It’s incredibly playful and hilarious.”
“It’s an answer-matching game, but all the answers are direct quotations from Moby Dick,” Cassedy says. “There are so many phrases in here. On every freaking page, there’s some weird thing. It’s incredibly playful and hilarious.”
Two students in particular took up the project with Cassedy, and before they knew it, they were producing boxes of card sets and playing with others in the English department. “We played it and everyone loved it,” says Jenna Peck, a recent graduate who helped Cassedy develop the game. “Everyone just started spouting out ideas. You don’t have to read the book to enjoy the game.”
But development of the game certainly came in stages. First, Cassedy printed the cards at his office and stuffed them in a box originally meant for business cards. That led to buying a business-card maker that would cut and produce handfuls of cards at a time. Finally, the team started outsourcing to an actual printer. For a bunch of English majors and literature nerds, it was an exercise in learning all its own. “I’m an English professor. I have no training in business, marketing, manufacturing, or anything,” says Cassedy, who admits the team has pulled off a few “box-stuffing parties” in order to get the product out.
Peck also laughs about times when they ended up running web searches like “how to make a purchase order” or learning how to set prices for their product. “I remember moments in the early stages when it felt like we were ‘playing business.’ We thought it was so much fun to learn business stuff, because we’re a bunch of English majors,” she says. “We look at the spreadsheets we had in Google Docs like, ‘Wow. We’re basically business majors.’”
Eventually, the team launched an Etsy page, quickly followed by a presence on Amazon and their own website, whysoever.com. In addition, Cassedy spread the word to his English professor network. It wasn’t long before they were getting press hits from Mental Floss, The Washington Post, and a New York Magazine holiday gift guide.
“I had a misconception about Moby Dick before I read it,” says 2015 graduate Chelsea Grogan, who joined Cassedy and Peck in the development of the game. “I was so struck by the deliciousness of the language and how it lends itself to a game of this nature.”
“I was so struck by the deliciousness of the language and how it lends itself to a game of this nature,” Chelsea Grogan says of Moby Dick.
The team also has other ideas in the works. The group has just launched a set of greeting cards called “Love, Ishmael” on the website. They also hope to create other boxes of cards based on different sets of classic literature. For example, Cassedy and a few of his fellow professors are collecting Shakespearean clips for a set called The Bard’s Cards. What else are they interested in? Emily Dickinson, of course.
“The criteria are canonical authors who it would be funny to tweak or knock down a peg, and weird and interesting at the level of the word,” Cassedy says. “Part of the joke is, ‘Oh, there’s no way there could be sex in Moby Dick.’ But it says ‘dick’ in the title!”
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