Can trivia teach?

If you’ve played a lot of trivia, you’ve probably learned some things along the way. You might know that Marie Curie is Polish, not French, despite her name, and maybe also that both those elements’ discoveries are credited to women. You might know that Sibelius is a Finnish composer, and the only one that’s ever asked about. You might know that an eagle lives in an aerie and something that looks like an eagle is aquiline. But does knowing any of this really matter?

Well, maybe. Some, including myself, would argue that knowing facts like those enriches your life in general, letting you make connections between things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, which is worthwhile in itself. But as a trivia writer who wants people to know things, I do my best to write questions that inspire to learn things beyond just the question’s simple answer.

The problem that a trivia writer concerned with teaching runs into, though, is that trivia is a game, and in a game people need to be able to compete in order to enjoy themselves. If I want to maximize teaching potential, I ought to ask only questions that no one knows the answer to, right? Ten players per impossible question multiplied by, oh, fifty questions… why, that’s 500 taught facts per game! Well, that pretty clearly wouldn’t be fun, and the players would be so frustrated they probably wouldn’t remember any of the answers anyway.

If I’m writing for a competitive environment, like a high school trivia tournament, writing questions that encourage learning is pretty easy. If I write a category about something that no one knows about, no one gets the points. The teams, realizing that if they want to score points they should know these things, study up on it, and my mission is complete. If I’m writing for a casual audience, on the other hand, the questions need to be interesting enough that players make a connection in their heads by themselves that will inspire them to maybe do some reading, or at least some thinking, on their own.

Let’s take a nice, simple World Capital question as an example. For a competitive environment, the following suffices (highlight the text after ‘A:’ to reveal the answer):

  • Q: What is the capital of Cape Verde?
    • A: Praia

Quick, snappy, simple. Gets the job done. If no one knows the answer, maybe the captain notes that someone should bone up on African capitals, and they move on to the next question.

In a casual environment, though, there’s nearly no point to that question. You know it or you don’t. I might write the same question for a casual environment like this:

  • Q: Taking its name from the Portuguese for “beach,” what is the capital of island nation Cape Verde?
    • A: Praia

Much more fun! For one thing, if anyone happens to speak Portuguese, they can get the answer despite knowing nothing about Cape Verde. But beyond that, this question inspires (or at least, has the potential to)  a player to look deeper: why would a tiny island nation off the coast of Western Africa many people have never heard of have a capital with a Portuguese name? They might hop over to Cape Verde’s wiki page, where they’ll quickly (which is important!) discover that Cape Verde was one of many lands colonized by Portugal in the 15th century, and became an important entrepot in the Atlantic slave trade. Hey, a couple tiny islands just found their rightful, little-known place in world history, all thanks to one little question!

That’s just one example. And when I say that “What is the capital of Cape Verde?” suffices for competition, that doesn’t mean it’s ideal – a quick, snappy, and interesting question is better than a quick, snappy question, even if that situation. But it doesn’t need to be, since the players have a vested interest in knowledge beyond the immediate situation. The challenge is writing trivia that’s fun, informative, and challenging enough to keep players engaged after the game’s over.

Setting off down the road(s)

Hi there. Welcome to the blog of Three Roads Trivia, a Toronto-based agency that researches, writes, and asks original, entertaining, and informative trivia. I started this company, and this blog, as a natural continuation of my hobby/part-time occupation as a trivia writer. I started writing trivia in earnest and for pay after I finished my Master’s degree in 2012 and found myself with quite a bit of time on my hands. My formal education is in Classical Archaeology (that’s the stuff that really old people left around the Mediterranean for us to find and argue about), and although I love it, that’s a fairly narrow field for someone who, like me, is interested in basically everything. So I started jotting down questions about interesting facts as they popped into my head (usually while doing something else), found someone who was willing to pay me as a freelancer, and my semi-career was up and running.

To me, trivia is more than a fact or a datum, some piece of information isolated from its context. Everything knowable can (and should) be imagined not just as a floating bubble suspended in nothingness, but as one node part of a vast web of connections, each of which holds itself up with the support of all the other nodes around it, as far away as you care to look. Every bit of trivia opens a path that, if followed, is inevitably going to lead to some completely unexpected discovery that’s amazing in its own right, and has its own connections to everything else you know. This is, in an abstract and highly simplified sense, how we remember; replace “facts” with “neuronal connections” and you’re on your way to the concrete.

The name “Three Roads Trivia,” then, has a couple meanings. The first and most straightforward is that that’s what the word “trivia” means, etymologically: “tri,” ‘three,’ and “via,” ‘road,’ in Latin (hence that beautiful picture up there. You’ll notice Latin comes up a lot around here – that’s what happens when you major in Classics). It came to its definition a convoluted, not entirely understood, and somewhat disputed path – from “crossroads” to “common” to something like “what anyone ought to know,” and then picked up by a couple nerds in the 1960s to be used for the new general knowledge competitions they were organizing. But that’s just the obvious meaning. As I said before, each piece of trivia opens roads – roads that take an eager learner in one of many possible directions. Follow one of them, and you’ll come to another trivium, another crossroads, where you’ll decide again which to follow. You can keep on like this for however long you feel like. So, OK, three roads is definitely not enough, but it’s better than two, and who could resist such a near-perfect Latin pun?

This website if basically going to be a place for me to expound on the interesting connections I discover while writing my trivia, perhaps mixed with some of my less directed musings as they relate to knowing things. Eventually there will be a page with some rotating examples of questions, and probably several more things that I’m not envisioning right now. If you’re interested in having Three Roads help you with some trivia at an event you’re organizing, you can find out how to do that on the Contact page above. Otherwise, I hope you’ll check back here every once in a while, and that you find the stuff I have to say at least interesting enough to return.