Monday, March 3, 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Here's something I've been meaning to complain about. Has anyone else noticed how the quality of Trivial Pursuit questions has really gone down since we were kids? When I was young, we had the Genus and Disney editions (I always thought it was the genius edition, which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense), and they seemed to be quite well-written. Sure there were an inordinate amount of questions to which the answer was Cyndi Lauper, but overall it was a good, solid game.1

It seemed like it was around 2000 that a fresh wave of Pursuit mania hit and we began to see lots and lots of editions of the game, each with an angle. I played one or two of these, but it never felt the same. Since moving to Athens I've played quite a few times with several different sets, and I finally pinned down what it is about the game that bugs me: the syntax.

Trivial Pursuit questions are horribly worded. I mean they are B.A.D.—to the point that I wonder if they're trying to make things more difficult. How often do you hear someone ask if they can see the card so they might look over the question in writing? How often do you begin reading a question, trip over the order of the words, read it through once to see what it's actually trying to say, and then start again, over-emphasizing the clauses, air-quoting the proper nouns, and offering short explanatory asides?

Shouldn't a game in which nothing has ever really changed since its publication in 1982 except the questions take a little more care to get that one thing right? I mean, I'm sure it takes some time to craft those specialty tokens for each edition—the Trapper Keeper token in the 80s edition, the stock certificate token in the 90s edition, the pewter Scooby Doo in the Warner Bros. edition—but I have just as good a time cramming pie pieces into a yellow plastic segmented cylinder as I do cramming them into something of a more limited edition.2 My happiness does depend, however, on the syntactical construction of six questions per card, a hundredish cards a game.

Let me be specific: On Jeopardy!, nearly every clue is constructed very carefully so that it contains subtextual clues—usually puns and other turns of phrase—that guide a conscientious player to make very good guesses. Crossword puzzles adhere to a strict policy of parallelism; if the clue is plural, or past tense, or abbreviated, so is the answer. There is an intense level of craftspersonship that goes into these things, and it isn't easy. Nine writers create the 14,030 clues for Jeopardy! every year.3 One editor, Will Shortz, edits each and every crossword—366 of 'em this year—for the New York Times, and with an average of, I don't know, 80 clues per puzz, that's approaching 30,000 clues.4 I have yet to see the Trivial Pursuit question that employs clever wordplay to enhance the question. Recently I've had a hard time finding one that had an ounce of real clarity.

How many questions does the Pursuit have to pull together for an edition? A couple thousand? How many Parker brothers do they put on that, or is it just Milton? Bradley?

And yet, a friend just brought over two editions of the game I've never played before that she doesn't want cluttering up her house. I opened one up just to have a peek and the board was folded up on top in all it's 3-crease, 1-slit glory, the familiar old Trivial Pursuit logo etched in gold leaf. I unfolded it and there it was: the classic board design from my youth with its funky colors and creepy black images. Will I be playing this soon, despite my qualms and disappointment?

You bet.

1Other common answers were Michael Jackson, Tomorrowland and that old standby, Otto von Bismarck
2I have even more fun cramming pieces of pie into my big mouth. Anyone up for a little Trivial Pursuit/Pie Party on 3/14?
3Here's my source.
4Don't even get me started on Will Shortz. But since we're on the topic, you might be interested in this and this.


Elisa said...

Craftspersonship? Nice.

Janssen said...

You seem to have two "3" footnotes reference numbers. Can you tell it's been a long time since Writing Fellows? I can't figure out how to describe those things.

Petra said...

Trivial pursuit is a cool enough topic that it can draw even an unknown lurker like me into commenting. And my comments are:

1. Totally agreed about the question wording.

2. Have you ever played the 80s version? I swear that every other answer is Michael Dukakis.

2a. Which is okay by me, actually, given how fun it is to say "Dukakis."

3. Was that a good or a bad "don't get [you] started" on Will Shortz?

David Grover said...

It was a good "don't get me started." There's just so much to say about Will Shortz and what he has done for the world. The man invented his own major in college because he loved puzzles so much.

The Hippo said...

I was told When I lived in Florida that I am No longer alowed to play TP. it is because, as you well know, all I know Is trivial. I have finished a game before any other players have even gotten a Pie. that was on an 80's edition.

Petra said...

Phew. Because I was going to have to hate you if it was a bad "don't get me started," because, really, what kind of person could dislike the king of crossword puzzles?

(And it's no secret that I too would like to major in Enigmatology at Indiana University. Too bad it's a bit too late.)