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The Agony and the Ecstacy of Pub Trivia

In Awesome Things on May 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm
I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this yet.

For a bit over a year now, I’ve been sort of obsessed with pub trivia. I enjoy competitively answering questions about historical, literary, and pop culture minutiae to probably an unhealthy degree. There are two here in Portland that I go to with some sporadic regularity: Geek Trivia (which is about comics and such) and Quizissippi, a weekly trivia night about a block away from where I live. I’ve been to others, but those two are the only ones consistently good enough to keep me coming back. I have done decently well at both of these events- it is because of Geek Trivia that I now own a few Hellboy trade paperbacks, given away as prizes.

Pub trivia is kind of like reading Ulysses or watching The Simpsons. Both of those works of fiction serve as reward systems for knowing lots of stupid arcane factoids. With Joyce, it’s fun to see how much of the mythological and literary allusions that you can pick out from the narrative. With The Simpsons, pop culture references abound. In either case, the reader or viewer can say “Hey, I know what that is! I recognize that! I know exactly what you’re referencing here!” It’s a carrot for knowing useless things, and one can pretend that the various factual flotsam bubbling about inside one’s brain actually is good for something after all.

Of course, trivia can also poke ungently at your store of knowledge and mercilessly show the cracks therein. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard a question and been at least a little familiar with the answer. It is something I’ve heard, something I’ve encountered before. The answer is swirling about just under the surface, and I know that I’ll recognize it when I hear it aloud, but cannot give it real form. That feels, in a way, worse than not knowing the answer at all. At least when you don’t know you can blame simple unfamiliarity. When you know something, but cannot summon it up from memory’s basement, that is when you feel ignorant. There have been plenty of times where I’ve blindly stabbed at an answer, crossed it out, and blindly stabbed at another, only to find that the original guess was correct. The crossed out wrong answer is probably the most wrenching sensation one can experience, and a slap on the forehead usually ensues.

Another pitfall is overthinking the possibility of trick questions. Those certainly happen, but far too often I am my team mates have thought “that can’t be the answer, it’s way too obvious.” Probably the most telling example of this was at Geek Trivia some time ago where the host asked who wore the Iron Man Mark IV armor. My teammates and I thought that Tony Stark was way too obvious an answer, so, assuming that the question was trickier than it really was, we assumed that it was James Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine. We ended up being quite wrong. It was not a trick question, it was merely easy.

These hazards are, of course, entirely necessary, and I find wracking my brain and conferring with my friends about obscure details of, say, Civil War battles to be fun, especially in the face of a time limit. Without the potential of teeth-grinding defeat, it wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling, and there is not shortage of schadenfreude one gets from seeing other teams implode due to wrong answers.

Trivia is not really about how smart you are. That is part of it, but moreso it is about how good your memory is and how good you are at guessing. Being able to conjure up possible answers from the depths of the brain and pick the one that is probably right is the key to winning most of the time. Nevertheless, winning still makes me feel smart. External affirmation is always nice, and pub trivia can be something like the adult equivalent of getting an A on a paper or exam.

I know that I wouldn’t be nearly as into it if I didn’t take some narcissistic pleasure in my status as a know-it-all, but it is nice to put all those facts and things and details to use, to turn them into a game. That’s not a small thing. Deriving a certain amount of pleasure out of all that useless effluvia of information gives it all a sort of ad hod form and meaning. Every time I go to pub trivia, science and pop culture and literature all seem to matter. It’s like all of those details are suddenly doing something besides sitting in archives. Paying attention and clarity of thought seem important and valued, and there is an immediate use to all of one’s nerdery and disparate interests. For the time being, each evening the contents of one’s head seem slightly less trivial.

  1. I really like Quizissippi, too (though you're a sight better at it) but I don't know if anything will compare to the adrenaline of high school and college Quiz Bowl. It was the same combination of instinct, guesswork and recall, but you had 15 seconds, you had to be the first one to get the right answer and (crucially) you were allowed to break into a question before it was over.

    It's this last part, ironically, that makes Quiz Bowl such an aesthetic experience. There's nothing in trivia (and almost nothing in gaming) like the joy of listening to a well-crafted question slowly unfurling one hint after another. And there's nothing like the communion you feel with your teammates and opponents and the author of the question while you're all plugged in, all lit up, together. I don't know if I'd be any good at it any more — easy recall seems like a young person's game — but I still miss it.

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