Thomas Todd is on Facebook at TTodd Virtual Trivia.
This article has been updated.
On March 15, I was a gainfully employed server at an Irish pub in upper Manhattan. The next day, I became part of an entire industry suddenly out of a job — on the eve of the best day of the year to collect tips at an Irish pub. Instead, I’d be pondering a question facing millions of bartenders, waiters, cashiers and others: What skills did I have to offer during a lockdown that is, out of necessity, so inhospitable to the hospitality business?
Trvia questions are highlighted. Hover over them to see the answers.
Trvia questions are highlighted. Tap on them to see the answers.
Trvia questions are highlighted. Hover or tap to see the answers.
My girlfriend had an idea. For a decade, one of my side gigs has been working as an emcee for trivia nights — asking questions such as, “In 1988, who became the first woman to head the government in a majority-Muslim country?” — in pubs and restaurants. She said, “Why don’t you host a trivia night online for our friends?” If they had fun, maybe they’d help out with a few bucks on Venmo. At first, I thought: no way. I knew how difficult it was to get people to show up for trivia nights when they have access to draft beer and table service. Getting them to sign on to play from their couches, instead of watching Netflix or Hulu, seemed unlikely. But I started to talk myself into it — couldn’t be worse than doing a mic check in a half-empty pub where the customers are more interested in the ballgame on the TV. Maybe isolating at home would make people inclined to give virtual trivia contests a shot.
For a dry run, I invited four friends to Google Hangouts and fiddled around with trying to replicate the in-person experience using video versions of “submit an answer sheet” and “play as a team.” The players were eager, but the execution was awkward. Around that time, in late March, Zoom was taking off as a way to gather online, not just for corporate video-conferencing, so I tried it. Zoom’s “breakout rooms,” intended for business brainstorming sessions, turned out to be perfect places for trivia teams to confer about their answers and then submit them to the host by text using the chat option.
The Zoom test run involved a bunch of my college friends who have stayed in touch through sheer force of will despite being scattered across the country. Fifteen screens were filled; I read the questions to everyone, and then three- or four-player teams (with names including “Helter Shelter” and “Quaran-Tina Turner”) would slide into the breakout rooms to discuss questions including: “Which Beatle was barefoot on the cover of ‘Abbey Road’?” “What is the only U.S. state that borders exactly one other state?” and “Cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting make up what Winter Olympic event?”
These were my pals, yes, but it was a raucous two hours of play, steered by my (mostly) playful use of the host’s mute button. The Zoom trivia night felt as though it could work even with a broader network of friends-of-friends, colleagues-of-friends, neighbors-of-friends.
The day I needed to keep a calendar for scheduled games was the day I knew “virtual trivia” was not a hobby; it was a business. Relying mostly on word of mouth and a weekly email blast to my contacts list, I was soon hosting one or two events per evening, a mix of invitation-only group games, all-welcome public contests and private events. I charge a fee for the private events (I’m no hero) but the other games are fueled by donations, usually between $5 and $20. Anyone with tight purse strings — there’s a lot of that going around — is still free join in trying to figure out the answer to questions like “What battle was fought between Feb. 23 and March 6, 1836?”
I have lost count of the number of states that virtual trivia has garnered participants from, though it’s likely approaching 20. Alaska and Vermont are the most geographically distinct, but the California-Pennsylvania linking of a friend who plays with her parents is the most heartwarming.
Two questions that players tend to ask are “Where do you get the questions?” and “How do you know people aren’t cheating?” As a former second-place “Jeopardy!” finisher in 2015, who happily spends hours chasing useless information down wormholes, I suspect that knowing “Which U.S. state has the most breweries per capita?” or “Michelangelo’s statue of David can be found in what city?” may be the thing I’m most qualified to do.
As for cheating, sure, anyone with a smartphone could find answers in no time, but the entire game is built on trust. The idea is that the individuals involved will care enough about the greater good of the whole group not to muck things up for everyone — kind of like, these days, wearing a mask when you go to the store.
I’m lucky enough to have found a way to tide myself over during the lockdown. But I’ll be glad when virtual-trivia hosting becomes obsolete, because that will mean people are getting back to work and spending time together in person. In the meantime, here’s a question for the era of social distancing: What British novelist is noted for the line ‘Only connect!’?