We’re Not Really Enemies: A viral card game embraces free speech culture

July 22, 2022

In recognition of FIRE’s expansion into off-campus free speech advocacy work, summer intern Abby Varricchio examines how a popular card game reveals important lessons about free speech culture.

What lesson took you the longest to unlearn? Have you changed your mind about anything recently? What about me is the hardest for you to understand? 

These are just a few of the thought provoking questions featured in the wildly popular card game We’re Not Really Strangers,” which is designed to facilitate meaningful connections between friends, family members, significant others, or, as the name suggests, total strangers.

By enabling honest conversations, “We’re Not Really Strangers” supports a free speech culture — i.e., a culture that embraces open expression and tolerates a diversity of beliefs. Players learn to navigate a crucial part of free speech culture: persevering through discomfort in hopes of greater understanding. 

Players learn to navigate a crucial part of free speech culture: persevering through discomfort in hopes of greater understanding.

The game is seemingly simple. Players draw a card from the deck and ask another player the question printed on the card. But the conversations spurred by the game are often quite complex. Throughout the game, players ask one another provocative questions about experiences, feelings, moral opinions, and the players themselves. Though “We’re Not Really Strangers” is a game, there is no winner or loser in a traditional sense. Questions like, “How are you, really?” are designed to move past common niceties and foster genuine connection and understanding among players. Cards reminding players to continually practice active listening and to maintain humility are sprinkled throughout the deck. 

With five million followers on Instagram, the game’s popularity suggests that many are seeking the connections and conversations generated by open and honest discourse. 

The game’s creator released several expansion packs, including a “Voting Edition” and a “Race and Privilege” edition, that ask players to confront controversial political and societal topics. One card asks, “Is there a political view you have that you feel too afraid to admit publicly?” Another asks, “What do you feel when you hear Black Lives Matter? All Lives Matter?” 

Do we need a game to feel comfortable hearing different perspectives?

Significantly, the game does not guarantee participants a happy experience or ending. The absence of this guarantee is seen often on the game’s “final notes” card Instagram page, which features images of players’ notes to each other after completing the game and reveals a wide range of emotional responses. 

Although the game may make players feel uncomfortable at times, most persevere and leave with an appreciation of their fellow players. The experience reveals that discomfort can lead to connection — if one is willing to persist.

The popularity of “We’re Not Really Strangers” begs the question: Do we need a game to connect with one another? Do we need a game to feel comfortable hearing different perspectives, especially those with which we vehemently disagree? Such questions are increasingly relevant in an era when nearly two-thirds of students approve of some degree of shouting down a campus speaker.

Ultimately, students do not need a game to confront such discomforts. They need to be part of a community that embraces full exploration and the possibility of confrontation. What we can learn from “We’re Not Really Strangers” is that we should practice the skills learned from playing the game —such as the ability to ask hard questions and the patience to listen to others — in everyday life. After all, a culture that champions free and unfettered discourse fosters a deeper understanding of people and their ideas. 

As Greg Lukianoff and Nadine Strossen state in their series addressing common arguments against free speech on the “Eternally Radical Idea” blog, the embrace and protection of a robust free speech culture carries benefits for all. 

A culture that champions free and unfettered discourse fosters a deeper understanding of people and their ideas.

“You cannot understand the world as it is if you don’t know what people think and why,” wrote Lukianoff. The ability to freely question, listen to, and espouse one’s views — even if they are abhorrently offensive — is essential to building not only an understanding of the world, but also confidence in one’s own beliefs. There is no way to know whether beliefs that go unchallenged or untested are sound or right. The ability to freely question and listen is intrinsically connected to the ability to learn. 

Learning, nonetheless, requires listening. Open speech is the bedrock of free expression; listening is the keystone. Listening enables us to reach the understanding needed to strengthen and encourage diversity: If powerful groups are to extend a platform to those unlike them, where all can be heard and listened to, we threaten the diversity of our college campuses and country as whole. The extension of a platform must come with the mindset of listening and dialogue. When many people practice this mindset, more identities are able to be shared and — hopefully — appreciated. 

Emotional upset or offense ought not to be minimized. Those moments are real, and they are hard. They can alter lives in undeniably negative ways; however, gaining a better understanding because of them is so much more beneficial than attempting to eliminate them altogether. When we lose the chance to be upset or uncomfortable, we lose a chance to acknowledge our similarities or to understand an experience completely different from our own. Strong communities cannot be established without a respect and understanding of differences.

Abby Varricchio is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary and a FIRE summer intern.