Thursday, April 14, 2005

The pursuit of trivia

Slate takes a look at what it sees as the decline of Trivial Pursuit, which I played far, far too much of in college:

Trivial Pursuit became a great repository of middlebrow culture. Flip through a stack of cards at random and you assemble a list middlebrow writers (James Thurber, Gore Vidal), movies (Mutiny on the Bounty, Love Story), and television shows (Gunsmoke). In 1983, a marketing consultant named Linda Pezzano shipped board games to actors featured in the entertainment questions. Pat Boone, Gregory Peck, and James Mason sent back adoring fan letters, which Selchow & Righter used in promotions. When Time reported that Trivial Pursuit had become popular with the cast of The Big Chill—the quintessential boomer flick—the game attained a newfound cachet. To win at Trivial Pursuit was to achieve something greater than mastering a board game. It was to achieve mastery of one's subculture: to have successfully determined which bits of information to retain (anything about Gunsmoke) and which to discard (anything about Rimbaud).

With nothing less than cultural identity on the line, Trivial Pursuit matches became pitched battles. "This game can make you feel incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid," a player told the New York Times in 1984. The social stigma of losing necessitated strategy, even chicanery. In a 1983 volume called How To Win at Trivial Pursuit, author Robert J. Heller suggests that a player memorize all 6,000 answers before his opponents arrive and be prepared to contest the validity of any question in which his answer is deemed to be wrong. He continues, "If your opponents are people with whom you may expect to play again, you will be better served by suggesting that the correct answers not be read aloud." If that fails, a player may attempt to "throw his opponents into a tizzy by providing extra bits of information or alternative correct answers they will have to look up, only to grudgingly agree that he is right." And, finally: "The possibilities are limited only by the deviousness of your mind and the viciousness of your competitive drive. Have fun!"

Trivia lives; it's generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that's ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like "90s Time Capsule" and "Book Lover's," and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group. "What jungle planet do Wookiees hail from?" a Star Wars card asks. Let's say, hypothetically and only for the sake of argument, that I know the answer. Who is supposed to be impressed by that?

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