Game Theory

Designing the perfect game show

How trivia is currently played

Here are some facts: The sun is an average of 93 million miles away from Earth. The elemental symbol for gold is Au. Phantom Of The Opera is the longest-running musical of all time.

These are the kinds of facts taught in schools and found in bars on a typical night of trivia. People gather teams with friends; each person with a different category of expertise waiting for their moment of usefulness. Jeopardy asks it’s contestants to remember the names of people, the dates of battles, and the ages of history. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s questions are designed to be so abstract and irrelevant that they give the contestant the answer, they simply have to choose the correct one. All of these games attract the best and the brightest—the people we perceive as having high intelligence and vast amounts of knowledge. But this isn’t how intelligence works.

We’ve made a habit of defining intelligence and knowledge as the speed at which one can recall a fact or pull a unit of data from their memory. The problem is intelligence doesn’t work this way. Memorizing facts is useless without the ability to understand the context and think critically. Furthermore, the facts above aren’t interesting. Nothing about them inspire further discovery or suggest there’s more of a story to be learned. We’ve been taught that trivia is just a collection of facts as if stored in a box to be committed to memory. We’ve been taught to memorize for the sake of memorization and to be satisfied with not understanding the deeper story.

How trivia nights have gotten this way is fairly straight forward. Bars have an obstacle of scalability. The format has to work for an unknown number of participants while the answers have to be specific enough that they’re either correct or not; no shades of gray in between. Each answer has to be short enough that it can be written on a small sheet of paper and read quickly as the host tallies the scores. The goal for the bar is simple: create a game of trivia that allows the greatest amount of people while decreasing the most amount of friction. Does it work? Sure, but it’s boring. And when it’s over, do the participants feel enlightened? Was the experience more remarkable than any other trivia night they’ve attended in the past? Probably not. So why do people attend? What about trivia attracts a crowd?

When asked, people give two main desires for attending these events: it’s a fun excuse to hang out with friends and they get to test their knowledge and see how smart they are. Hanging out with friends is a desirable benefit, sure, but can be done with any hobby or activity. If hanging out was the main objective, there are simpler ways to achieve that goal that don’t involve spending money and traveling to a local bar. So what about testing their knowledge makes the difference? Why does the perception of intelligence determine if they Uber downtown rather than visit their friends at home?

Let’s consider another observation: themed trivia nights are more successful than non-themed trivia nights. In just the past few weeks, local bars have sold out trivia nights with themes including Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Office, and Disney. These events have been so successful bars are having to turn customers away because there’s no more physical room left in the building. And yet, in spite of their success, they follow the same rudimentary formula as all other trivia nights: memorize facts, write them on a piece of paper, and tally them quickly. So why does having a theme draw a larger crowd?

Themed trivia succeeds in three ways. The most obvious one is it targets a specific audience. Bars are able to focus their marketing efforts by targeting enthusiasts—people most interested in a particular subject. With this in mind, why would one want to go to Star Wars trivia if they already know so much about Star Wars? If they wanted to learn more, they would go to trivia with a theme they didn’t know. If they just wanted to hang out with friends, themed trivia wouldn’t be more popular than non-themed trivia.

The second way themed trivia succeeds is it provides the perception of intelligence. Remember, culturally, we’ve defined intelligence as quickly remembering facts. By creating themed trivia, we’re asking questions they most likely already know. When the user answers the questions, they feel empowered—able to demonstrate their intelligence to their social circle and the rest of the bar.

The third method themed trivia succeeds is by removing fear. By asking questions the trivia-goer already has expertise in, the chance of failure is low. They don’t have to fear being perceived as less intelligent than their peers nor are they concerned about being a burden to their group. Instead, they are able to comfortably sit amidst their tribe knowing that after the night is over, none of their insecurities have been exposed. So what’s wrong with this model? If people enjoy it, what’s the problem?

We’ve made a habit of defining intelligence and knowledge as the speed at which one can recall a fact or pull a unit of data from their memory. Interestingly, if asked to define intelligence, most would agree this statement doesn’t meet the full criteria. People instinctively know there’s more to intelligence than the citation of facts. Yet, our schools have tests requiring us to fill in the correct bubbles to pre-filled answers. Game shows, like Jeopardy and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, ask questions that rely on the memorization of names of people and the dates of battles. Trivia nights at local bars ask us questions we already know so we can feel better about ourselves. This isn’t intelligence, it isn’t knowledge, and it certainly isn’t interesting. Trivia has the potential and opportunity to be so much more, we simply don’t know any better.

Designing A Better Game

There are several key factors in creating a better trivia experience. Based on desires of those who enjoy trivia today, we know several key factors in their decision to attend an event: they want to feel smart, they don’t want to be perceived as unintelligent or unhelpful, and they want to hang out with friends.

Feeling Smart

Providing the ability to feel smart is relatively straight forward. If they know the answer, they’ll feel smart. If they don’t, they won’t feel smart. Typical trivia might solve this by asking easy questions, however, this directly inhibits the ability for the questions to be interesting. The more generally known the answer is, the less interesting the question becomes. Therefore, the more unique and challenging the question, the more interesting the question.

Objective: Ask questions that are unique and challenging but still capable of being answered.


Perceived as Unintelligent

Preventing someone from being a burden on a team is a tricky problem to solve. Nobody enjoys being unable to participate because they don’t know the answer to a question. Trivia nights at bars have solved this by creating themes and only attracting those with enthusiasm in the subject. While this can certainly help, this isn’t a full solution as it doesn’t fully remove the fear that one may not be helpful to their team. However, if the answer could be deducible, the challenge of answering questions pivots from how much one knows to how much one can figure out. With critical thinking as the tactic of answering questions, the fear of seeming unintelligent is reduced.

Objective: Create questions that are designed to be deducible and prioritize critical thinking over current knowledge.


Hanging Out With Friends

Gathering friends to partake in a themed trivia night can be a lot of fun. The hurdle is not all your closest friends might be interested in the same theme. While themed trivia nights may attract a larger crowd, the crowd itself is typically less personal. Teams are created with those who have the most knowledge and interest in a particular subject, not with those of whom one feels closest to. If one can’t find acquaintances interested in the theme, it’s likely they won’t attend at all.

While it seems counter-intuitive from a crowd-size perspective, the better solution is to simply not have a theme. By keeping the questions random, those who attend can re-prioritize spending time with their closest friends rather than building a team with people they only somewhat know. This also further removes the fear of being a burden to the team as everyone is now equally ignorant on what questions are being asked as well as enabling them to feel comfortable by being among their closest friends.

Objective: Don’t limit the questions asked to a theme. Focus on personal relationships.

Ponder This

Ponder This is a trivia-based game show that prioritizes critical thinking over memorizing facts and data. It redefines intelligence by forcing players to focus on solving puzzles rather than recalling ambiguous information. Most importantly, Ponder This believes the conversation surrounding the questions are more important than the game itself. By focusing on creating a game based around thought-provoking deduction, allowing one to feel comfortable with not knowing an answer, and promoting personal growth amongst close friends, Ponder This captures what has been missing from regular trivia.

The format is simple: ask a hard question and slowly give clues allowing the question to become more easily solved. The fewer clues needed, the more points rewarded. The first team to guess the correct answer gets the points and the game moves on to the next question. However, while answering questions correctly is the main method gaining points, any team can earn additional points if they’re able to speak about the answer in more detail and share their wisdom with the rest of the group. By promoting conversation, the game becomes less about winning and more about enjoying good company while learning along the way.


Lastly, Ponder This doesn’t take place at a bar. Because the game relies on more intimate conversation and general comfort, Ponder This is designed to work as a private event; usually taking place in one’s home. By being mobile, Ponder This targets those more interested in hosting events in a casual setting on their own timeline rather than being limited to whatever events are happening downtown on the same nights they’re free.

In summary, Ponder This is a game show designed to be more interesting, more comfortable, more fun, and more convenient. It adapts to the desires of those truly interested in learning and growing and transforms trivia into an experience worth remembering.

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