Monday, December 10, 2012

A Game Design Perspective on Trivia Questions

Nick asks what makes a good trivia question and offers some tricks that writers use to create fun questions.

There are hundreds of games based on answering questions (Trivial PursuitJeopardy!, Scene It?) and hundreds more that incorporate trivia questions as one element of a more complicated system (The Weakest Link, Crossword Puzzles, Wits & Wagers). But if you tilt your head just right, it’s easy to see a trivia question as not just a piece of content in a game but a game in of itself. In other words, writing a good trivia question is the same as creating a good game [1].

Well, a trivia question might be a game, but that isn't enough to answer our question. As game lovers and designers know, it’s almost impossible to pin down what makes a game good or fun. Ralph Koster is one critic who has taken a stand on what makes a game fun. In his book A Theory of Fun, he posits that when we say “fun” we’re actually referring to the buzz our brains get when they learn something new. He explains: “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.”

Of course, it’s a little reductive to suggest that all of the pleasure we get from games is derived from a neuro-chemical addiction to learning, and Koster acknowledges many other pleasurable feelings that games excel at evoking [2]. But unlike most video games or board games, a trivia questions is all about mastery. Answering a good trivia question makes you feel smart, and the act of struggling to answer one is satisfying the way struggling to score a soccer goal and line-up a shot in Golden Eye is satisfying.

This is the job of the trivia writer: making people feel smart. But writing a question that makes people feel smart isn’t as simple as it seems. It’s obvious that you've failed if a question is too hard for anyone to answer. On the other hand if a question’s too easy, no one will feel smart when they get it right. Good questions land somewhere between “Who’s the first president of the United States?” and “What’s the first name of the first president’s father?” The challenge for the question writer (or game designer) is to find the happy medium between these extremes. The most satisfying fun comes when players can figure out (or guess) the answer to an unfamiliar question. It’s impossible for every question to hit this sweet spot, but when you play a pub trivia with friends or watch a quiz show on TV, the goal is for the mix of questions you hear to make you feel smart often enough to keep you engaged.

It’s important to know your audience, but it almost impossible to strike this balance by merely identifying what information is just barely obscure enough to make a good question. Instead of just asking players to identify a piece of information, trivia writers use tricks to help turn information into good trivia. Most of these tricks boil down to making a question more like a puzzle, increasing the chances that player brains can run through pattern identification and identify an answer that satisfies the desire to feel smart, even if a player wouldn’t know the answer if it were asked straight.
  • Limited Options
    • The multiple-choice question is a mainstay of game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, video games like You Don’t Know Jack and standardized testing. There are questions that no one could answer without choices, that become a deductive challenge when presented this way. “Well, I’ve never heard of A, but I know it’s not B, and C doesn’t seem right.” More importantly, multiple-choice questions always allow players to guess. There’s no fun in saying “I don’t know” every turn, and limiting choice guarantees that everyone can take a wild guess. Forcing people to do nothing turn after turn is real drag on player agency. Even when writers don’t give explicit options, they can narrow down the range of possible answers. Instead of “Which animal…” they can ask “Which mammal” Limiting options also gives designers a lot more control since they can make the other options more or less appealing to dial the difficulty of a trivia question up or down. 
  • Make the Answer Common
    • One great way to help players feel smart is to ask questions that sound obscure but have answers that everyone has heard of. Casting around for the answer will feel like a challenge, but it becomes possible to reason it out or at least make a guess. So, instead of asking players to name the title bachelor from the first season of The Bachelor, writers ask “What TV show’s title has referred to Brad Womack, Alex Michel, Andrew Firestone or other men, depending on the season?” Instead of just shutting down and saying “I’ve never heard of these people” your brain starts making a list of shows with names that refer to people and evaluating the feasibility of each response. (And worst case scenario, you can at least cross your fingers and name a show.)
  • Let Them Know When They’re Right
    • Some questions are designed to subtly hint at the correct answer. You see this all the time on Jeopardy! and on Trivial Pursuit cards. These are questions that uses phrases like “appropriately enough” and “aptly named” or even make corny jokes. Instead of saying, “What Radiohead song plays over the credits for Romeo + Juliet,” the writer asks “What aptly named Radiohead song plays over the credits for Romeo + Juliet?” Instead of “What Elia Kazan film came out in 1954?” they ask “What 1954 Elia Kazan film was mostly shot on location at New Jersey docks?”
  • Other information
    • Writers can also provide clues and information from outside the question. Categories are a trivia question mainstay. In addition to giving players a sense of meaningful choice about what questions they’ll be presented with, categories often provide clues that make otherwise unanswerable questions approachable. Categories on game shows narrow in on very specific areas: answers beginning with a single letter, state capitals, colors. Once a player knows what they’re looking for, the question itself needs less information. This is also why crossword clues can be so much vaguer than other trivia: the restrictions of the letters in the grid ensure that players will have other information to go on. Another fun example is online Kennections quiz written weekly by Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings [3]. The weekly quiz features 5 seemingly questions, but there is a connection between all 5. Once you’ve answered 2 or 3, a pattern begins to emerge and it becomes possible to take a guess at a question you’ve never heard before. 

[1. If you really want to quibble with me, we can call it a puzzle instead of a game.]
[2. On pg. 90 of my copy he breaks these down into his aforementioned “fun”, “aesthetic appreciation” “Visceral reactions” “social status maneuvers.”]
[3. Jennings has also written a memoir/trivia-spirit-quest book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs that I highly recommend to trivia fans. Here is his taxonomy of trivia questions, excerpted from the book.]