When Dick: A Card Game Based on the Novel by Herman Melville appeared for sale, Avidly sent a few questions to the game’s creators at Southern Methodist University in Dallas: recent graduates Chelsea Grogan and Jenna Peck, and Tim Cassedy, an assistant professor of English. Tim, Chelsea, and Jenna sat down together to answer Avidly’s questions.
Avidly: Tell us a little about yourself.
Tim: This first question seems like the hardest one.
Jenna: We’re students, you’re a professor….
Tim: It’s actually important that I emphasize that as of this week you are NO LONGER students.
Jenna: Right. We are GRADUATED STUDENTS from SMU.
Tim: We had a really great Moby-Dick seminar, and this emerged. Chelsea, say something about yourself. What are your post-college plans?
Chelsea: Planning to move to New York, but no job or apartment yet. But hopefully working.
Jenna: I think you should reconsider your moving-away plans because, you know… “Dick is growing.” Sorry. I need to stop doing that.
Tim: Actually, I think New York is the natural market for this game. It should be a table at the Brooklyn Flea.
Avidly: Where does Moby-Dick fall on your list of favorite books? Top five? Top ten? Not at all? Number one?
Jenna: Well, for you it’s number one.
Tim: Right, boring answer. My favorite book.
Chelsea: I respect it a lot. I’m glad I read it. I feel like I understand the canon more and got in on an American secret. But I can’t say it’s my favorite. But I respect it.
Tim: But you don’t want to say you like it? Which is fine.
Chelsea: I like it, I like it. But I can’t say I liked the process of reading it.
Jenna: I would say that I really like it, now, after I stopped thinking that the book wanted to be taken completely seriously all the time. I liked it way more after we found all the dick jokes in it, and I realized that the book wants to be incredibly playful as well as serious.
Tim: When was that?
Jenna: I would say the “squeeze! squeeze! squeeze!” spermaceti moment was when I was like “oh, this is a big book about dick jokes.” Anyway, it’s in my top 19th-century books. And I really like 19th-century books!
Tim: Political answer.
Jenna: I really do! It’s a true answer.
How did this “Dick” game come about?
Tim: A student e-mailed me asking about doing a project for our Moby-Dick class in the form of a question-and-answer game, and I wanted to tell her that a game was fine as long as the content of the game reflect interpretive work, or require it on the part of the players. It couldn’t only be about factual questions like “who is the second mate?”
So I came up with a couple of examples of how to make a game that would require textual interpretation, and one of them was this. In each round the players vote on whose answer was best, and coming up with the “best answer” requires thinking synthetically and analytically about the text — on-the-spot interpretive work. That student ended up doing something totally different for her project, but I felt like this was too good an idea to not do. How did you guys come on board?
Jenna: Well, I love things that take high art, literature, and mash them up with popular culture, like the Star Wars rendered in Shakespearean English. I love that and this is kind of like it.
Tim: Yeah, like bringing it to our normal plane of experience. Bathos.
Jenna: Plus, you were so serious about actually making this!
Avidly: There is already a Moby-Dick Game. Why is it important that we have this new, more dick-centric game?
Tim: So, none of us have actually played the other one, which is called Moby-Dick: Or, the Card Game, but we did some research and as far as we can tell that one is a lot more involved. It sounds like you have to set aside several hours to play it. There’s a 12-minute YouTube video explaining how to play it. Ours is, you know, a lot simpler.
Chelsea: Can we say in this that ours is like Cards Against Humanity, or is that infringing their trademark?
Jenna: We could say Apples to Apples?
Tim: I think it’s okay to say Cards Against Humanity as long as we also say Apples to Apples.
Jenna: “It’s kind of like one of those Cards Against Humanity/Apples to Apples-type games, you know?”
Tim: The other game has things like “custom-engraved dice,” “beautiful raw wood oil tokens,” “cards of the highest-quality vinyl stock.” “A lovingly crafted art object as well as a raucous interactive adventure.”
Jenna: It sounds like reading the actual book without the jokes or the irony. A much more sober and respectful reading.
Tim: Ours is more irreverent.
Chelsea: Right, Dick is like a party game. You just play until you feel like stopping.
Jenna: One might equally ask why it’s important that we have this old, LESS dick-centric game?
Tim: Dick is proposing a reading of Moby-Dick that says the book is much weirder and subversive than the other game proposes. And it puts you in a position to grasp that reading by playing the game, in the same way that an interpretive essay puts you in a position to grasp its reading by marshaling evidence and rhetoric.
Also, the other game is, like, “an art object.” Those oil-rubbed tokens sound very satisfying and beautiful but I also think that Melville perhaps would have rolled his eyes.
Jenna: It might be more of a collector’s item than an actual fun time. Melville would have played Dick.
Tim: I feel confident that Melville would have preferred our game!
Jenna: Respect to other people who make Moby-Dick games, though.
Tim: Good point! We’re not assholes!
Avidly: Some might say that making a dick joke game out of one of the most revered works of American literature is troubling and/or offensive. How would you respond?
Chelsea: But that’s what the text is! Not exclusively, of course. There are multiple meanings and different facets of it, but obviously there are dick jokes. So it seems completely appropriate.
Jenna: When the title of the book is Moby-DICK, it seems okay to use that.
Tim: “Moby-Dick: OR, THE WHALE”!
Jenna: Right. It seems like the book is kind of egging you on to do something like this Dick here.
Tim: I saw on a friend’s Facebook wall a post about “A Squeeze of the Hand” by someone who was not a literary scholar. The person said something like “if a modern author had written it, I’d guess there was homoeroticism there; but with Melville, I just don’t know.” So it’s possible that I’m trying to reach that exact person with this game to say, “yes, you do know!”
Jenna: One of the things we said was that the entire book was Melville pranking us by writing this big serious novel that is also a gigantic dick joke.
Tim: A gigantic-dick joke or a gigantic dick-joke?
Chelsea: It’s been made so inaccessible, like some barrier has been built up around it. I was petrified to try reading it. But it turns out to be this big literary secret — until you’ve read it you have no idea what it’s actually like! When I was explaining Moby-Dick to people in my dorm, they were like “what! there’s sex humor??”
Tim: I do love — and this is a conspicuous part of my pedagogy — demanding that students realize that people had sex in the past. And not just reproductive sex but more or less a relationship to sex as diverse as what anyone has now. Or probably more diverse!
Jenna: Right — they liked jokes too!
Tim: Right. [Beat.] Although actually they didn’t! Commercial failure!
Jenna: Whatever. Melville liked the jokes and other people just didn’t get them yet.
Avidly: How is or is not making a game out of Moby-Dick like writing criticism about Moby-Dick?
Tim: Well, I feel like we’ve sort of already answered this.
Jenna: We’re interpreting it to be really funny.
Tim: One thing that I think is really perfect about this game concept is that the game requires putting together meanings that arrive randomly and alter each other and that you could never plan for. The gameplay is about how meaning is fluid and unstable. And I think that’s also what the book is about. So I guess that’s also a reading of Moby-Dick that the game is proposing.
Chelsea: Screw Ahab, marry Queequeg, kill Ishmael.
Jenna: Fuck Queequeg, marry Ishmael, kill Ahab.
Tim: I have the same one as Jenna. But Chelsea has a different relationship to the book! You would kill Ishmael?
Chelsea: I think he’d be annoying to be married to, because you have to spend the rest of your life with this guy and who’s going to interpret and over read everything. Everything’s over-determined. I don’t—
Jenna: —want a woman?
Chelsea: Whereas Queequeg, I feel like he’d be nice. You could share blankets with him. You know, where does he end and the blanket begin? And Ahab just seems cool.
Jenna: Does he, though?
Tim: Is it about his big, phallic bone leg?
Jenna: Is that attractive to you?
Chelsea: His leg did not influence this decision. He’s jagged around the edges! I feel like he’s a bad boy and that’s alluring. And he could be a one-night stand, because he’s otherwise too focused on the whale. He’s not clingy.
Jenna: Okay. I like Ishmael, so I would marry him. Ahab’s really angry and crazed captain-guy.
Tim: Yeah, and evil! And he’s old!
Chelsea: Maybe he’s a silver fox.
Jenna: Well, and Queequeg’s just like, you know. Nice.
Tim: Look at that tomahawk! I mean, have you seen Queequeg? He’s incredibly hot!
Jenna: He’s the obvious answer. Chelsea, your answer is wrong.
Chelsea: I think you’re both caught in an orientalist fantasy about the exotic tattooed native.
Tim: Exactly! For one night! That’s the whole point! I mean, whatever. You don’t have to fuck Queequeg. But I recommend it.
Avidly: If you were to play Dick with Melville and Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson, who do you think would win?
Chelsea: Dickinson would definitely be in the running.
Jenna: I feel like Dickinson would really get the jokes and she’d be good at pairing funny answers with really good prompts.
Jenna: Because she’s so clever. With all of her poetry it takes awhile to make the connection, but once you do, it’s like Oh my god! So she would come up with ones that are not obvious, but if you think about it for a second are brilliant. It would be between her and Melville. I’m sure Hawthorne would be good, but, you know, not really.
Chelsea: Maybe I just haven’t read enough Hawthorne, but when I think about sexual humor, he doesn’t come to mind.
Tim: The Scarlet Letter is about sex.
Jenna: No dick jokes, though.
Chelsea: Dickinson is with Melville, in terms of veiled sexual references.
Tim: Sharing a bed with a loaded gun. Vesuvian face.
Jenna: Maybe we should make “Emily DICKinson: The Game.”
Tim: “A Loaded Gun: A Card Game Based on the Poetry of Emily DICKinson.”
Jenna: “Dick, Part II: Emily DICKinson.”
Jenna: Wow. That just presented itself.
Tim: I feel like I want to make an argument for Hawthorne winning, in token of my admiration for his genius, but it’s tough. I feel like Hawthorne would really appreciate Melville and Dickinson’s answers — he would appreciate the lewdness and the wordplay, but he wouldn’t quite go there himself.
Avidly: What portion of Moby-Dick is most meaningful to you?
Jenna: There’s one part where after Ishmael almost dies and he talks about how he thinks that life is a big practical joke that God is playing on us:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own…. Worrying, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker.
I love that. Because Ishmael takes everything seriously. But he’s also willing to see everything as humorous. That’s something about Moby-Dick that I really love. It’s like Moby-Dick itself is Melville’s big joke on us, and it’s really funny, but it’s also really serious.
Tim: Right, the book is a practical joke at the same time that it is dead-serious. Just like the universe.
Jenna: But the fact that it is a joke lets us see the seriousness and appreciate it. And I also think that that’s what our game is doing, you know?
Chelsea: I really like the chapter “The Lee Shore.” Especially the end where it says people think the land is safe and the ocean is dangerous — but for sailors, land is what ruins you: if you run into it in a storm, you sink and die. And I really like this line:
So better it is to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.
That it’s better to go out into the unknown, or take risks, and even if you fail at them that’s better than clinging to what you know is safe. I also really like the last line: “up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up leaps thy apotheosis.” That even in perishing, sinking, it’s still this glorious, redeeming climax.
Tim: There’s something about the sheer sounds of the words of that line, and maybe the syntax. Knocks me out.
Chelsea: And in this chapter I really like the line “the land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable.” I just like the words.
Tim: I really like the beginning, the land chapters.
Jenna: How come?
Tim: I guess I like Ishmael and Queequeg — all of those “confidential disclosures between friends.” Thinking about Ishmael and Queequeg staying up all night talking to each other. And I think the beginning of “The Counterpane” is amazing, losing track of where your body ends — this weird sensation that once really creeped you out but now feels good to find that you can’t quite tell where you end and your best friend begins. What an amazing way to write about intimacy.
Avidly: What is your favorite Moby-Dick dick joke other than the title?
Chelsea: Well, I really like “The Cassock”: the fact that he’s literally in a giant dick coat.
Jenna: That’s what I was going to say! That’s the part where I started laughing out loud. I could not believe that was actually in the book. Because there’s no way that’s a real thing!
Chelsea: Unless it is!
Tim: I imagine that it is a real thing! We should find out. If it isn’t a real thing, that’s even funnier.
Jenna: Right! How do you come up with that? Melville’s like, “Heh heh, we will use the dick as a robe!” That’s my favorite. The fact that “The Cassock” is in this book means that there’s no way the book takes itself completely seriously.
Chelsea: And the “Squeeze” chapter! So overt!
Tim: What do you think is overt? Like do you think the book wants us to think that these people had sex with each other?
Jenna: Not literally.
Chelsea: Maybe, though! They’re on a boat, they spend a long time. I don’t know.
Jenna: We’re definitely supposed to think about it.
Chelsea: Especially after the Queequeg material at the beginning, we’re primed to read it erotically. And they’re literally — they’re squeezing—
Tim: —Sperm! It’s a group of men squeezing sperm!
Chelsea: And sometimes each other! And “looking up into their eyes sentimentally”! Yeah, so I do think you can read it as homoerotically charged but no genital contact. But then I also think they might have had, you know—
Tim: A giant circle-jerk.
Jenna: They very well could have.
Tim: I would be surprised if they didn’t.
Jenna: “The grandissimus.” So great. What’s yours?
Tim: I think the best dick euphemism in the book is when he calls it “that unaccountable cone.” How do you come up with that! “Unaccountable”? What is unaccountable?
Jenna: Where is that?
Tim: It’s also in “The Cassock.” It’s like “nothing about the whale would surprise you as much as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone.”
Jenna: “The Cassock” is a great chapter.
Tim: Well, I think this went really well.
Jenna: Those were really funny questions. A mix.
Tim: It’s the thing you like! Serious questions and joking ones at the same time.
Avidly: Marries Queequeg.