Friday, November 19, 2004

Wednesday night I ended up playing and finishing second in the law school Trivial Pursuit tournament at Leopold's. We played in two-person teams, in a strange format involving playing a full game, then a written round, and then reading questions team-by-team to the finalists.

I was reminded that while I've always been into trivia games, I've never been that big of a Trivial Pursuit fan, at least not since getting into organized quiz-bowl. As someone who played a lot of quiz-bowl and who spent a lot of time micro-analyzing things, I have some thoughts on why.

Trivia games (and trivia questions, for that matter) can range on a wide spectrum from impossibly hard to absurdly easy. But the distinctions are more complicated than that. I would argue that any trivia game has two competing factors that determine what kind of outcome you want: do you want to reward knowing more obscure things ("knowing"), or do you want to reward figuring out more commonly known things ("reckoning")? Answering that question tells you a lot about the game. For instance, think about the difference between a pun-laced $200 Jeopardy question and a straightforward $2000 question. The former probably involves more reckoning, and the latter probably requires mostly just knowing.

Academic quiz-bowl has always been more about knowing than reckoning. Even College Bowl Inc. provides a lot of questions whose answers are well outside the scope of pure common knowledge. More difficult variations on quiz-bowl go even further in being about knowing rather than reckoning, to the point where I believe average people could go through a whole quiz-bowl game without hearing one non-popular culture question whose answer they knew.

Trivial Pursuit, as far as I can tell, has played with this ratio over the course of its many editions. The original couple of Genus editions had some pretty deep knowledge--I remember being amazed at my mother's in-depth knowledge of the love affairs of 1940s Hollywood, for instance, which seemed to be plumbed at great depth. Young Player's went in a different direction, making the questions generally easier, and also bringing in more reckoning-type questions.

At the tournament Wednesday, we played our prelim game on the Millenium Edition, and the finals used questions from Volume 6. I think I can say that in Millenium, Trivial Pursuit took the reckoning questions much further than I've seen in their editions before, and the reckoning itself wasn't as hard. The number of "giveaway nouns" in questions went up dramatically: think "This pacifist" and imagine anywhere the game could take that question that didn't end up back at Gandhi. You can't. The rest of the words might as well not have even been there. The number of this type of question--where no one is going to know the answer to the question actually posed, but most people will be able to guess right based on heavy contextual clues--almost took Millenium out of the realm of "trivia game" and into some other sort of puzzle game.

In Volume 6, they're definitely come back a bit from the precipice that was Millenium; most of the questions in the finals required you to know a little something and not just reckon from context.

I think the proper reckoning/knowing ratio for a good trivia game is a highly subjective thing; most people would never want to play a game with the level of knowledge required in quiz-bowl, because most people just don't have that kind of factual knowledge. On the other hand, many quiz-bowl people disdain reckoning questions, except insofar as they have to choose from a small set of answers they know that may fit the early clues to a question.

For me, CBI Regionals was always just about right--a fair amount of factual knowledge required to do well, some other analytical thinking skills useful if you want to do really well. NTN also has a nice ratio, because the questions generally require some knowledge, but because they are multiple choice, there's also a reckoning between answers aspect. Trivial Pursuit and harder versions of academic quiz-bowl are too far away from my ideal point for me to want to play them regularly; I enjoy them on occasion, but would probably get irritated with them if those occasions came more than about once a year.

No comments: