The Atlantic

Twice a day, HQ Trivia players tune in to a smartphone game-show app, where an emcee poses 12 wholesome questions, each with three possible answers. Players who answer all of them correctly split a cash prize. The winnings started at a few hundred bucks when the app launched in the summer, and now average around $1,500. But they go up to $10,000 or more.

The app, created by two former founders of the defunct short-video start-up Vine, has become a sensation. Around half a million people tune in each session, and less than 100 typically win, making the prize substantial enough to motivate users beyond the usual pleasure of quiz games.

That all sounds great. So why do I feel such dread when I play? It’s not the terror of losing, or even that of being embarrassed for answering questions wrong in front of my family and friends. It’s the dread that the app represents some awful, plausible future not yet realized, but just over the horizon: one where expertise isn’t measured by knowledge, but by instinct tripped out on illusion.

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This will seem like an insane claim to anyone who has played this fun, innocuous take on a game show, but trivia has a surprising history of social benefit. Quiz bowls were popular United Service Organizations activities during World War II, and in the 1950s they caught on in schools, on radio, and then on television. Group trivia also has a long history. The pub quiz appears to have originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a lure to draw customers on slower weekday nights. That format spread, and many bars still host a weekly trivia night run by a live emcee.

Likewise, there’s precedent for digital quiz games. In 1985, a company called NTN started distributing a quiz called Buzztime to bars and taverns. The system standardized the format, and spared local employees the trouble of managing and operating the games.

By the mid-1990s, home computers had entered the mix. You Don’t Know Jack took advantage of the CD-ROM format to deliver a full-audio quiz game on personal computers in 1995. Unlike earlier home-trivia trends, like Trivial Pursuit, You Don’t Know Jack was saucy, bringing the adult context of pub trivia home to the PC. As the web became popular, fusions of television and internet game shows arrived, too. The publishers of You Don’t Know Jack launched a puzzle game show called Acrophobia in 1997. Around the same time, a start-up called Spiderdance began developing interactive television, including games.

In all these cases, trivia games emphasize how broad, shared knowledge helps hold communities together. The USO and secondary-school quiz bowls offered both distraction from the trying effort of war and education, respectively, while also advocating for general knowledge as an aspiration for citizens. Trivia means minutiae, but sometimes knowledge of a wide range of details can allow a person to find an insight or make a decision that would otherwise have been impossible.

By the mid-20th century, specialization had mostly ended the dubious aspiration of becoming a Renaissance person, but at least trivia could offer tourism into various domains of knowledge. Radio and television game shows like The $64,000 Question, Jeopardy, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? all connected the promise of wealth to the possession and mobilization of large quantities of general knowledge. Pub quizzes did the same for group knowledge. Nobody can know everything, but a group of people, each with a specialty, might best one smart loner.

Even when they are cheeky, quiz games have always revered the institution of trivia: the sedate presentation of Jeopardy, the elaborate sets of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the excessive production values of You Don’t Know Jack. Money might be on the line, but the goal of trivia—its underlying purpose—highlights human beings’ smallness in relation to the universe. There is so much out there, beyond our individual or even collective heads, and to master even a fragment of it is to graze the face of the sublime.

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But this is not the sensation that HQ Trivia creates. The questions themselves aren’t that different from any quiz game, ranging from pop culture to history to literature to sports. But the form of the questions makes performing both individual and collective knowledge impossible.

Trivia games pose a natural challenge: how to prevent cheating. A television game show makes live access to secondary materials impossible, but that hasn’t stopped some contestants from getting access to the questions in advance. In groups, social pressure makes cheating shameful. And scoring can offset the gains of cheating: Points in trivia often decrease as the time allotted to answer a question elapses, making a faster response more valuable than a slower one anyway.

HQ addresses the challenge by shortening the response time to a quick 10 seconds. That’s barely enough time to process the list of answers, let alone to consult friends or search the web (not that people don’t try). HQ is visceral trivia.

Because of this, HQ feels like it tests the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. In the app, trivia breaks its bond to reason, memory, and community. Instead, it tests instinct. Which answer does the shell of flesh, organs, and plasma that forms the player’s flawed human body feel to be true? The brain’s faculties attempt to weigh in, but there’s little time for the human intellect to work with the question before time elapses.

Worse, the questions start out easy but get difficult fast. Even the early questions aren’t always easy, especially when the gut has to answer instead of the brain. In a recent game, an incredibly easy first question about which Greek god is associated with lightning came with two preposterous answers (one was “Steve Jobs”) and the obviously correct one, Zeus. “What am I missing?” I wondered while waiting for the result, assuming some subterfuge—all questions seem like trick questions, these days.

The hardest questions resist instinctive response, but the game has so prepped users’ minds to respond from intuition that it becomes difficult to switch gears to logic again. As one considers the matter, an endless stream of comments scroll fast at the bottom of the screen, where players can post to its chat feed. These range from banal assertions of presence to political proclamations. The result is crippling. Who can even think while one’s fellow citizens cry out something like JEWS JEWS JEWS JEWS in the scrolling billow at screen’s bottom?

It would be a far leap to say that HQ allegorizes the present moment of media, politics, and civic life. But not too far. Sensation is more important than thought, intuition wins out over reason, and on online platforms anyone can subject anyone else to whatever idea they prefer, in any context. This is trivia as a measure of intrinsic merit, not of lived experience, let alone reasoned choice.

Then there are the payouts. $1,500 is a good prize, but when split dozens of ways it becomes paltry again. A recent game ended with around 75 winners, each of whom would take home a little over $20. “Winner winner, chicken marsala dinner,” Scott Rogowsky, the game’s host, improvised awkwardly. “Twenty bucks ought to be enough to buy an entrée almost anywhere these days.” The game show’s promise of small-scale wealth for the very few is replaced by HQ’s promise of a pittance for the few. Today, everyone claws for table scraps. HQ turns that desperation into the basis of entertainment.

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There’s something off in HQ Trivia. The form of the game only amplifies its ideology of foreboding. When players log on, pulsating, bright-colored blobs animate over a deep house-music track. The effect is hypnotic, mesmerizing players so as to prepare them to play trivia by hunch rather than by judgement. The pub quiz relies on the intoxicating effect of alcohol, a depressant in large quantities but a stimulant in small ones. Booze gives the quiz player a sensation of mental acuity. But HQ’s set up is hallucinogenic. The animation and music never climax but only linger, creating a feeling of dissonance from the very start.

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.

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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.)

The entertainment in the world portrayed is stylized. Like HQ, it’s bright and cacophonous, a utopian jolliness so cloying that it immediately feels dystopian. Here, too, the shows, games, advertisements, and other broadcasts are slightly misshapen, so that even familiar themes or formats feel wrong. The purpose of dystopian science fiction is not to predict the future, but to warn about the present. And Black Mirror commands respect because its warnings are profoundly abhorrent and utterly credible—and because its creators know that they are issuing warnings. If HQ Trivia were a fictional game-show app from a Black Mirror episode, I’d feel more comforted.

But it is not. It is a real and earnest entry into the trivia-game tradition. Its formal and aesthetic decisions appear unconsidered. And the app feels innocuous, too, a trifle, like trivia itself, that brings momentary joy and perhaps a small measure of remuneration at a time of uncertainty. Just a cute app to pass the time. It’s just trivia. What could possibly go wrong?

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