Once the game begins, the dissonance amplifies. As the stream begins to buffer out to half a million players, it tends to lag and jump at first. Rogowsky inadvertently stutters, Max Headroom–style. This is the sort of production gaffe that would never be tolerated on television, but which is so common as to go unnoticed in software. The distortion suggests a rift, a breach where computers rub up against the material world uncomfortably. Like Max Headroom’s, HQ’s stutter reinforces the idea that the computers are running things now—indeed, all of us might even be inside one.
The animated intro, the music, Rogowsky’s competent but imperfect emcee act—they feel so close to traditional entertainment that they seem to realize the convergence first attempted by You Don’t Know Jack and Spiderdance. But after that notion fades, a premonition descends. Not something functional, in the questions or the prizes, but something aesthetic, in the presentation and experience of the app itself. It’s almost as if HQ is a fictional entertainment broadcast, like the kind created to broadcast the Hunger Games in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the motion graphics, the actors portraying news or talk-show hosts, the sets, the chyrons—they impose the grammar of television in order to recreate it, but they contort it in order to emphasize that it is also fictional. This is your world, but not quite.
HQ bears the same sincere fakery, but seems utterly unaware that it is doing so. Or else, it knows perfectly well that it is, but refuses to wink to its audience as acknowledgement. As a trivia game, this refusal feels particularly violent. HQ’s questions and answers aren’t made up; they are real, and they are correct. But in an era cacophonous with the din of social-media manipulation, fake news, and general mistrust, the app offers a sign of what the future of propaganda might look like.
If knowledge is best tested from the gut first, on the private screens of individuals, with the head weighing in only after it’s too late, then virtue can be measured by reflex rather than reason. No longer will misinformation take the form of falsely staged events that went down differently than they are portrayed, or that never took place at all. Instead, one can imagine that tests of knowledge amount to tests of loyalty, erupting on the screens clutched by citizens at all times, demanding instant, correct responses.
There is no time for thought, but only the terror of hopeful conformity to natural tendency. Best to make sure your instincts are the right ones.
* * *
More than any other reference, HQ’s aesthetic makes me think of the British science-fiction series Black Mirror, a show about the dystopian but plausible future of technological dominion. In one early episode, “15 Million Merits,” people earn a living by pedaling stationary bikes to generate power. They are paid in “merits,” a currency that can be used to buy things like food, and also to skip the advertisements that constantly play in the bikers’ tiny sleeping quarters. It’s HQ Trivia’s economy taken to an extreme: Entertainment is labor, pay, and citizenship all at once. (The episode’s protagonist tries to help a friend escape from this treadmill, but only succeeds in condemning her to an even worse fate as a television sex slave.)