The Misbegotten Design of Trivia

If you don’t know, I teach a class on game making. I do it at a University and it’s great fun and I like it, and I offhandedly joke that every class features two types of games that students are always going to suggest making. The first is a drinking game, and the second is a trivia game with the word ‘bullshit’ in the title. There’s a third type of game, which is a roll-and-move about being a university student, which always makes me a little bit sad, but anyway.

Now, I don’t think I need to point out why Drinking Games are a hard sell to me and I tend to judge them very harshly, but trivia games are their own special thing to me because while it’s a genre of game that clearly exists, it’s not ever one I’m excited to see someone try and design, for three reasons:

1. Trivia is mostly about your personal framing

When you make a trivia game, you are the person making it, and that frame influences what counts as trivia. For me, talking about Shamgar, Son of Anath isn’t really trivia, and neither is Bendan, Delilah’s Alter Ego, but neither of those things are good trivia questions because who else is going to get that. The trivia questions for a copy of Trivial Pursuit that are even 10 years old are sometimes gaggingly weird, because the people who made them frame them. What about trivia that cares about ‘history’? Who tells that story? Your culture moves and your framing moves and writing trivia questions is mostly done by the kind of person who wants to feel they’re the smartest person in the room, which in turn means those questions tend to be more annoying than interesting.

2. Trivia is high-variance in a boring way

You either know an answer or you don’t. When a game presents you with a trivia question, you’re either aware of the answer, or you aren’t, and there isn’t really a space to be ‘close’ and being ‘close’ is more frustrating than anything else. How do you balance that? How many answers in a row do you expect a player to get right? Half? Two thirds? How do you design a catch-up mechanic? Do you make easy questions for that? How do those easy questions represent anything other than not failing? And what’s more, what do you do when you play against an expert, or play against someone with wildly different levels of information? Is it hopeless for a child to play this game? Who does this game let you have fun with?

3. Trivia is really only good at being Trivia

Now, I’ve seen a few games that try and use Trivia as part of a non-abstract game design, like where you cross a bridge and one of the enemies challenges you by asking you trivia questions, but that particular variety of game jerks the whole thing to a halt. Answering a trivia question can’t be a metaphor for fighting a battle or climbing a wall or engaging a plane because the trivia is so actually itself. You’re always answering a trivia question because what else can your trivia question be? It’s like those old Christian videogames, where being able to provide chapter-and-verse memorisation of a Bible verse was a ‘skill’ you were using to ‘do battle’ but the action was so far removed from metaphor your mechanics don’t reinforce them at all.

This isn’t to say there are no good trivia games – I don’t like them but I can at least recognise some basic, interesting game mechanics that work around trivia as their abstract core? But while I can see ideas for using roll-and-move, trivia as a core game experience just seems fundamentally bad to me.

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