What is the Question?
May 28, 2021 10:00 PM   Subscribe

"There isn’t even a word for us, really. Quiz players? Trivia fanatics? I prefer quizzers. But when I use that to describe myself to a civilian – to a non-quizzer – the inevitable inquiry follows: What does that mean?” A Guardian essay on the world of trivia—and on knowledge, memory, and experience.
posted by blue shadows (30 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
"Quizzing depends too much on not knowing. I don’t mean this in the hard-nosed..."

What is Mnemonic Naievite.
posted by clavdivs at 11:23 PM on May 28, 2021

My proudest moment was interrupting by buzzing, and correctly answering, the question "Whose vision, on the" with "Saint Paul, on the road to Damascus".

I say that because I was sitting on the same team as the head of the Christian Union at the time.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:06 AM on May 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

It's a fine article, but I'm surprised by the omission of Trivial Pursuit in the history of quizzes as a growing pop phenomenon -- it was the one of the most popular board games in North America, if not the world, for almost a decade. It spawned countless variants and themed versions. While there's no immediate proof to hand, I'm reasonably sure that the advent of quizzing as a popular phenomenon is due at least partially to the ubiquity of the game at family game nights for a couple of generations.

I don't know what the chicken/egg relationship of pub trivia and the board game is, but I feel like the game must have seeded something; the pub quiz phenomenon post-dates the advent of Trivial Pursuit by about 10-12 years, which feels about right for the idea of a generational cohort aging into bars.
posted by Shepherd at 4:55 AM on May 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

I recall playing the Trivial Pursuit coin-op arcade game....
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:01 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

My proudest moment was interrupting by buzzing, and correctly answering, the question "Whose vision, on the" with "Saint Paul, on the road to Damascus".

My finest-ever Articulate answer was an instant response to the extremely vague prompt, "he's kind of like a raisin?" with "THE SULTAN OF BRUNEI".
posted by terretu at 6:30 AM on May 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

The Sultana of Brunei?
posted by toddforbid at 8:22 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Sultana would be a 'she', no?
posted by pompomtom at 8:25 AM on May 29, 2021

Timely, as I just recently managed to claw my way up into Rundle D in LearnedLeague this season where I am getting absolutely tyrannosaurus wrecked.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:29 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Obligatory this is a good time to bring it up and it's less invasive than posting another MeTa:
LearnedLeague is on a waitlist system for referrals nowadays, but if you're interested in joining up, you can hit me up or one of the people on the wiki page.

Also we have a private rundle for Mefites. It's a little A-Rundley, so just understand you're going to get 9(6)'ed from time to time, but if you're already in LL let me know and I can get you the info for next season.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:38 AM on May 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

The best, most improbable thing I learned (ahem) in this recent New Yorker feature on Learned League is that its namesake is one Eric Learned, a one-time roommate of creator Shayne Bushfield.

Huffy Puffy, hook me up!
posted by bassomatic at 9:09 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm a regular trivia player with a zoom group (that was once a group that met at a pub). As much as I enjoyed this article, reading it made me realize that I am more interested in socializing with my friends - I'm not that devoted to trivia in itself and would have just as much fun if we were playing board games. I wonder how many other trivia players are really just in it as a way to hang out with people.
I don't think my group would be meeting regularly if we weren't doing it for trivia. When we were playing at a pub, I don't think we'd have gone out to a restaurant weekly just to chat. And I used to throw a party just once a year. Is the popularity of quizzes connected to finding ways to socialize as much as to the quizzes themselves? I don't have an answer, but I can't believe I'm the only regular player who feels this way.
posted by FencingGal at 9:13 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

> It's a fine article, but I'm surprised by the omission of Trivial Pursuit in the history of quizzes

Nor does it mention the torrent of trivia books, led by the Guinness Book of World Records and followed most notably by the Book of Lists series, that were fashionable in the 70s and were pretty clearly antecedents to Trivial Pursuit -- I consumed those books voraciously in my childhood and probably not coincidentally did exceedingly well on the first edition of Trivial Pursuit in my teen years. Nor, before that, the decades-long popularity of quiz shows in the US, starting from the 1950s when people took them seriously enough to be subject to Congressional inqury.

But I didn't mind any of that because the author is writing a personal history, and the antecedents in *his* personal history have origins in the trivia and quiz cultures of India, the UK and Ireland. Which was information I didn't previously know and have hopefully cached away for future use.
posted by ardgedee at 9:41 AM on May 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

One of my two experiences with trivia was attending a trivia event at the only WorldCon I ever went to, where two preselected teams of three more or less well known author/superfan panelists (the names of four were familiar to me) competed to answer SFF questions, and if they couldn’t, the questions were thrown to the audience of ~50.

I answered almost every question that got answered when it made it to the audience, including all the names of the 'demon princes' in Jack Vance's series, which none of the panelists knew any of to my surprise, though there were several questions I didn’t know the answers to either. At the end of the game, the audience had about double the score of either panel and people were staring at me. It was very uncomfortable, a feeling which increased sharply later on when an auditorium full of fans literally growled at me when I embarrassed Roger Zelazny with a question about most if not all the heroines of his longer works getting killed. I concluded that those fans also serve who sit and keep their mouths shut.
posted by jamjam at 10:09 AM on May 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

My shelf contains five feet of nearly identical copies of the Ask Me Another and Ask Me Again quiz books (1927, 1938, reprinted and revised into the '40s - I don't know why the article claims 1928 - both versions of the original and the omnibus edition were published in 27, when it was a US best seller. I'm sure it was also published in '28.) I am very slowly working on getting the rights to releasing an online version, with enthusiastic support from the family of the authors. My team came in second to the national Science Bowl winners when I was a kid. These are my people.

But. . . I really don't get contemporary trivia. I don't claim it's bad in any way and respect those who love it. I'm happy for them. I can't explain why I'm excited to make jokes with my wife about the musical legacy of Charles Gates Dawes, but don't give a damn about the questions asked in any version of Trivial Pursuit or Jeoppardy. I can't even pretend to care about either one. The start of bar trivia is a sure sign that I should leave the bar. (I hate, with firey rage, puzzles involving physical things that are based on puns. But, that's my own hangup and a different thing.)

I did attend a bar trivia event in a remote research station where the question was "name this tool" based on a photo of a very specific and wierd item. That was great fun. Then they moved on to Seinfeld and sports and other stuff I don't personally care about. We didn't win.

I wish there was more crossover between trivial and aspects of the physical world. People who think in words have made trivial less fun than it could be, for me, personally.

But, I enjoyed the article. Cheers!
posted by eotvos at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2021

My proudest moment in trivia was knowing that "the Hot Corner" (totally devoid of all context, not even a category given) referred to third base in baseball, due to an ill-advised brief romantic relationship with an insufferable baseball columnist. This is not nearly the most obscure or impressive trivia I know, I was just excited that at least ONE good thing came of the relationship, contrary to literally all of my friends' predictions at the time. (I literally called people up to be like "Guess what the final answer at trivia was last night, I told you that wasn't the worst idea I'd ever had ...")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 AM on May 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

At worst, quizzers are thought to suck up facts only to win meaningless contests that cater to their intellectual vanities

At my job, ever since we went remote, I have to attend two meetings that involve a short trivia contest, and boy do I feel that about these contests at work.

There was the time we had "diversity" trivia. There was "Black History Month" trivia. There was the "Middle East" week, when there was a question about a war that my father-in-law fought in, that created lingering inter-generational trauma in my husband's family for decades. Then there was this week, where the "current events" contest included a question about Roman Protasevich. To me, it felt like, "Sure, it's an unspeakable tragedy that isn't even a week old, but we remembered that he's from Belarus! Yay, we're so smart!"

Questions about seriously upsetting topics (about people who aren't white Americans) are lumped in with "The Hammers is the nickname of what English football team?" kinds of questions. It's just gross.

I appreciated this guy's article because it helped me see what he and other get out of quiz culture, even if it didn't change my mind about what's going on at the trivia contests at work.
posted by creepygirl at 10:52 AM on May 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I play in a zoom game every Monday night - usually we come in 2nd or 3rd. Every once in a while we come in first. But - we've got a lock on certain categories - GenX music, math, physics, 90% of video games - and we have an absolute ringer for Simpsons trivia. We do decently to the point where the quiz master recognized that we gave a wrong answer to a question on math terminology and then he scratched his head, looked up our answer - recognized it as a more correct term for the answer, and then had to rescore that question for everyone, accepting both answers.

It feels good to make a quiz master work.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:24 AM on May 29, 2021

My proudest moment in trivia is getting a Rush Round question right on the first clue, which was that the person in question was born in 1943 in Pincher Creek, Alberta. No other team in the bar submitted a guess on that clue, and I was right.

(The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, as she was then.)
posted by jacquilynne at 11:32 AM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

High School, Late 90s, high school trivia tournament. Real important stuff... the big game for nerds, so to speak...

The finals were in the auditorium, in front of the entire school. My team was punk rockers, stoners and weirdos. It being the big game and all, I had decided to wear a spandex glitter flaming bodysuit thing borrowed from a friend.

The other team was staid, president of the high school republicans club types, and were not wearing spandex body suits.

So there we are, question to question, a real teenage knowledge slugfest. 1848! Beirut! You know, the real facts.

They come to a bonus round, specifically about various "Captains". A couple questions back and forth and then:

"Who was the first captain of the starship enterprise"

I, being the dutiful nerd, remembered that it was NOT Kirk, but some other gentlemen, whose name escaped me. I knew it wasn't Kirk but because of the rules of the bonus round, I would lose five points if I answered incorrectly. So I held my flag down, and wracked my brains for the name.

This was after TNG, well after the original series was off the air, and the only mentions of Captain Christopher Pike, were in one episode of the old star trek. However, I had read the scripts for every episode. I knew it wasn't Kirk. This is of course common knowledge now with Pike making multiple appearances... at the time though it hardly even qualified as a fact. A great question and I was essentially stumped.

The other team raises their flag.

"Captain Kirk".


"NOOOOOOO" I scream, kick over the table, spandex glitter suit flashing on the stage lights, "It is not Kirk, they specifically mention another guy but I don't remember his name and that answer is wrong and they should lose five points !SDKJCDUYEDC*& "

I must have been quite the sight, yelling about how much more I knew about star trek than anyone else on the stage, including the damn damn game company. Order was restored, the crowd did not rise up in a wave of support for my insurrection, and the game continued.

Due to the rules of the bonus round, they would have lost 5 points if the answer was wrong. Instead they were awarded 5 points for an incorrect answer, a total potential swing of 10 points.

We ended up losing by 5 points. . .

The next day I brought the teacher running the contest a copy of script that proved the quiz itself was incorrect... He was admonished but indifferent to my demand that we have a rematch.

And that...that is the story of how I fraudulently lost a high school trivia contest, by knowing too much about star trek, while wearing a spandex glitter bodysuit ...
posted by albion moonlight at 11:57 AM on May 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

I was on my high school's It's Academic team (the high school version of Quiz Bowl), one year as captain, and appeared on television twice. (We won once, lost once.) Of all my high school extracurricular activities, it might have been the only one I picked solely because I enjoyed it, not because I cared how it would look on my transcript or because it meant I could hang out with my friends.

I rarely understood the science or math questions, but I was the go-to for history, literature, and culture. Many things I only learned about from the sample questions we got week after week, and only late read about in depth. (Hello, Elgin Marbles.) And at least once every few months, though it's been almost 40 yeas, I dream that I'm back on the TV set, answering "The process of converting a fat, oil, or lipid, into soap and alcohol ..." and screaming "supponfication!!!" into the microphone. (It had been our winning answer my junior year.)

I made a half-hearted attempt to audition for Cornell's Quiz Bowl team and played a lot of Trivial Pursuit over the years, but post-high school, the luster was gone. But as much as I loved showing off what I knew, it was learning (mostly useless) things from new (and repeated) questions in our training sessions that yielded that period of youthful delight.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

My shelf contains five feet of nearly identical copies of the Ask Me Another and Ask Me Again quiz books

My understanding — and I am happy to be corrected — is that in that era (interwar to mid-century) that trivia questions were solitary things: shortstop of the ‘25 Yankees, capitals of these countries, year Marco Polo set out on his voyage. The idea of making a more formalized contest with points and rounds and teams and such, was the brainchild of one Ed Goodgold, who subsequently managed Sha Na Na (themselves a motherlode of trivia).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:12 PM on May 29, 2021

(I hate, with firey rage, puzzles involving physical things that are based on puns. But, that's my own hangup and a different thing.)

eotvos, I wish you would elaborate on this. Do you mean something like (since SFF is on my mind, here) 'L E Modessit novel about Schwarzenegger's favorite car if made by Henry Ford', where the answer would be 'Hummer of Darkness' (my sincere apologies!), or something more like a rebus?
posted by jamjam at 1:35 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Huh, blast from the past. I actually know the author and have participated in many a quiz with him in India. He and his team were a bit of a legend in Chennai quizzing circles at the time. He seems to have since done really well as a journalist.
posted by peacheater at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

The other team raises their flag.

"Captain Kirk".


"NOOOOOOO" I scream,

I woulda gone for Robert April myself.

But I know this pain well: when a question comes up on a topic your are fiendishly well-informed on, the calculus you are faced with between the right answer and what the question writer might think is the right answer.

There is a simple, diverting card game called Timeline. Each card is double-sided with a historical event (with a small illustration) on one side, and the same thing with the year added on the reverse. One random card is in the table, year up. You begin with four cards in hand, but you cannot see the year side. Players take turns placing their cards, aiming to place each card at the correct spot in the timeline read left to right, with to the left being earlier and the right being later. If you place your card in the correct spot, you leave it; if no, you draw a new card to replace it. The aim is to run out of cards in your hand.

As the game begins, it is pretty easy, but as more and more cards are laid it gets trickier — you can probably work out that the microscope was invented before Apollo 11 went to the moon but late in the game you might be desperately trying to remember if Neptune was discovered before the sewing machine was patented (1846), between then and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published (1852), or between that and the Meiji Restoration (1868).

There are perhaps six or eight different decks on various themes — art and music, Americana, science, etc. They can all be shuffled together and played as one big deck.

Of course, there is no room for fact-checking on these minuscule cards. I was playing once with the late, lamented Lemurrhea and a card came up for the invention of the helicopter. We both agreed it had to be either fifteenth century (Leonardo’s notebooks) or circa 1942 (Sikorsky). The card had a nineteenth century year which stumped both of us. I assume it now to be on of the unmanned prototypes that lifted off for six seconds or whatever.

Most annoying is the American history one which includes a card for “Gerald Ford elected president,” which, of course, he never was. Hard to say where to place such an event.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:59 PM on May 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

My happiest trivia moment occurred in a Key West bar 48 hours before Mr. Carmicha and I tied the knot. The bar featured a multi-location trivia contest where competitors used handheld contraptions to submit answers, receiving points for speed and accuracy. I won about $350 and used about half of it to buy the house a round, something I’d always wanted to do. It was glorious and a great start to a wonderful long weekend.
posted by carmicha at 2:37 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got a free trip to Vancouver for a high school trivia competition. We ended up winning, which made our team the national champions, and some reporter from the Toronto Star came to our school to interview us. When the article was published I found that she quoted me out of context, which was pretty annoying. I guess I learned a lesson about watching what you say to the media but it isn't like I've spoken to the media since so it wasn't the most useful lesson. I did enjoy the trip to Vancouver though.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:58 PM on May 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

And that...that is the story of how I fraudulently lost a high school trivia contest, by knowing too much about star trek, while wearing a spandex glitter bodysuit ...

those sorts of things get lodged in the brain forever, i feel you

posted by lazaruslong at 2:56 PM on May 30, 2021

Rajok, of course.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:12 PM on May 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

eotvos, I wish you would elaborate on this. Do you mean something like (since SFF is on my mind, here) 'L E Modessit novel about Schwarzenegger's favorite car if made by Henry Ford', where the answer would be 'Hummer of Darkness' (my sincere apologies!), or something more like a rebus?
Sorry for being vague. And for being snarky and intentionally obnoxious. But, yeah, both are reasonable examples. Any trivia question / puzzle / video-game / escape-the-room / ARG / joke that depends on words in a language sounding like other words or having some literary connection to other words just makes me angry. If the way specific words sounds is important, it really pulls me out of the experience. (The room with a table and a mirror puzzle is my go-to example of the worst possible kind of those.)

Any time there's a puzzle where the coincidences among words or digits or geometric patterns, rather than the properties of the physical things themselves, are important, I feel cheated. I think the term of art, which is more general than what I mean, is "non linear thinking." Which sounds neat. But, it's almost always entirely artificial and frustrating. When I'm trying to figure out why a component in a circuit is intermittently failing or why a test sample has different properties than expected, I don't have to worry about whether or not the word in English for the thing happens to rhyme with another thing. Nobody sews the pattern of their bank vault code into the threads of their nightshirt, and nobody escapes a room because "saw" is a common word with several meanings. If the rules of the universe aren't defined independent of language and god-like initial clue-seeding, it's not a really a fair game; it's just random pattern-matching. It requires the kind of thinking that I associate with delusions and false beliefs.

But, I don't claim those sorts of puzzles are objectively bad. I wish the best to everyone who enjoys them. I realize I'm an outlier, but questions about things and questions about the way we describe them feel very different to me. I've been to enough art history and film lectures, and enough game nights, to realize a lot of smart and thoughtful people feel very differently. I'm tempted to speculate on whether it's related to the idea that some people think in words and some of us don't. But, I'd just be guessing.
posted by eotvos at 4:05 PM on May 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Before smartphones ruined pub trivia, I was right into it. My SO knows way more stuff than me, but generally we're complementary, subject-wise. A lot of times we'd have someone who knew stuff about AFL on our team (a big weakness for us). When I lived in Brunswick, we used to attend our local quiz-night religiously, and I was somewhat embarrassed by them correcting the hosts so regularly (eg: slugs don't have thousands of teeth, they have a single "rasp", which has thousands of bumps, which aren't 'technically' teeth. The hosts ended up prefacing certain questions like this with "According to Men's Health magazine..." to stop this). We kicked arse, and got a lot of free beer.

A year or so after that quiz night stopped happening one of the hosts took the record for being the largest quiz-TV-show prize recipient in Australian history.
posted by pompomtom at 7:37 AM on May 31, 2021

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