HQ fad tires out trivia fans



HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky. (Photo courtesy Apple Itunes)

By Brian Gentry | Columnist

My friends and I sat around the one remaining phone, our palms sweaty from anxiety. We were playing “HQ,” a trivia app that features prizes ranging in value from $1,000 to $10,000 awarded to those who can correctly answer 12 trivia questions. Out of the four people who started the game, only one of us had gotten 11 consecutive questions correct.

We had made it to the final question. Scott Rogowsky, the host for the day, paused for dramatic effect before revealing the final question: “Are Muppets predominantly left-handed, right-handed or ambidextrous?”

Fortunately, I could quickly Google “muppets” and pull up the Wikipedia page, command-F “hand” and saw the word “left” at least once. We pressed “left-handed” at the last second, and awaited our fate.

“And the answer is … left-handed!” Rogowsky exclaimed.

We won $16.31, splitting the $1,500 prize with 91 other people. Elated, we screamed and probably angered the neighbors.

Based on what I’ve described, the app HQ seems like a benign, modern-day rendition of a trivia game. But it’s not all fun and games — technology skeptics are paranoid about the app’s rise to fame. Miles Surrey, a writer for pop culture website The Ringer, imagines a futuristic, 1984-esque society in which all Americans compulsively play HQ every hour from 6 a.m. to midnight. Winning the game is the only way to obtain food, and refusal to conform results in forced disappearance.

“I made it to question 17,” Surrey writes. “My children will eat today.”

Surrey’s dystopian America is an irrational fantasy, and similar claims that HQ signals a new world order are little more than slippery-slope arguments with no factual basis. Anyone who truly believes that HQ is a “harbinger of dystopia” has been watching too many episodes of “Black Mirror,” the Netflix series composed of hypothetical vignettes describing a world enslaved to technology.

But HQ does represent something more sinister than the games of trivia we grew up playing in the living room with friends, or across the table from aunts and uncles after a holiday dinner. It’s the canary in the coal mine for trivia as we know it, threatening to reduce fun intelligence tests to meaningless displays of instinct reactions.

The app design destroys any focus someone might have when playing the game. When you open the app for the first time, you’re met with a royal purple background with random, brightly colored shapes floating around aimlessly. As the game starts, the HQ logo spins in the middle, adorned with rotating messages like “no smoking.” A countdown begins, interrupted occasionally by old television color bars.

The game starts with nonsensical announcements from the host, usually including puns on the word “quiz.” Comments from players race across the bottom of the screen, often containing obscenities, Star Wars spoilers or “TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP” — all while hypnotic tunes hum in the background.

These annoying details divert HQ players’ attention away from the actual content of the app — trivia questions. These distractions prevent players from focusing on the questions and force them to resort to gut instincts.

Don’t expect HQ to compensate for their ambience with killer questions, either. In most trivia matches, such as “Jeopardy!” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” the easiest questions come first with more difficult ones to follow. While HQ follows this pattern, it takes the difficulties to the extreme.

One recent match, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, began with a question that even the most absentminded quiz-taker could answer.

“Which of the following can be found in a toolbox?” Kimmel asked players. “A hammerhead shark, a hammer, or MC Hammer?”

Around question six, the difficulty immediately ramps up — later questions are often so obscure one can only hazard a guess at the answer. Who knows what singer claimed that Daft Punk played at his house in 2005?

The easiest questions are disarmingly simple, while the hardest questions prove to be nearly impossible. It prevents players from actually exercising any brain power — either someone immediately knows the answer, or they cannot narrow their options from the list of three given choices.

The time limit for each question further prevents players from thinking. From the time the host begins to read the question, contestants have 10 seconds to submit an answer — hardly enough time to process the question, let alone consider each answer.

This is one of the game’s necessary evils, designed to prevent players from Googling answers. If the time limit were increased, players would have more time to find the answer on the Wikipedia page for the topic at hand.

But this strict time frame limits a contestant’s ability to think logically about the question, forcing players to select answers in a knee-jerk manner. This even contrasts with fast-paced, reputable games like “Jeopardy!,” where the contestant has five seconds to answer from the moment Alex Trebek stops reading the question, giving players ample time to process the question.

Even the prizes — the ultimate goal of playing the game — detract from trivia games’ purpose. Though even the smallest prize of $2,000 is a large prize to give out every day, there are often more than 100 winners, lowering the payout per person to under $20. On days when the prize is larger, such as $10,000, more people play, which keeps the payout low. Players can’t cash out until they’ve accumulated $20, so it often takes multiple wins to earn any money. And even by then, the prize is hardly enough to buy a dinner for two at a nice restaurant.

Despite its flaws, HQ has a lot of promise. It parallels the increased presence of technology in our daily lives and isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it brings trivia into everyone’s homes and provides accessibility to everyone with a smartphone.

With improvements to its structural issues, the app would be a great technological version of a trivia game. But until these are fixed, the app only serves to damage the principle of trivia games as tests of general intelligence — and I’m not holding my breath.

Brian primarily writes about politics and the environment. Write to Brian at [email protected].