All’s Fair in Love and Canon

The blank space in 'traditional' trivia knowledge - and why we shouldn't shake it off

Published October 2, 2023

What’s the easiest trivia question that you think everyone should know? Who was the first president of the U.S.? How many sides does a quadrilateral have? What artist is currently on her Eras tour? 

Your opinion about which of those is easiest for you, and which is likely to be easiest for others, is totally influenced by your experience as a human and as a trivia player. As question writers, we’re always considering what is fair game to ask, and what might be beyond what’s considered “general knowledge”. But general to who? Who are we writing for and what can we expect them to know? What types of questions are actually fair, especially if we’re writing for quizzers who are diverse in every way (region, gender, race, age, interests, etc.)?

Back in September, Taylor Swift was the subject of a kerfuffle in a Facebook group for players of LearnedLeague, a massive invite-only online trivia competition. The previous day, there had been a question about Ms. Swift’s rerecording of her old songs and releasing them with the parenthetical “Taylor’s Version”. A quizzer who did not know the answer sarcastically responded, “Who Cares?” and bragged about it in the Facebook group, which prompted a series of posts about whether the question was good or valid or fair. And if it wasn’t, why not? 

I am of the opinion that essentially any topic that doesn’t require highly specialized, technical knowledge is fair game for trivia. But the conflict over Taylor Swift brought up something that has always bothered me: Especially at high levels, some “trivia people” can be awfully gatekeepy about what counts as “worth knowing.” And what’s ”worth knowing” to these folks is almost always focused on Western Canon, American History, STEM, and American culture of the mid-20th century. Current events are also often considered acceptable, but only if they ask about people and places who are imagined to be “important.”

This is the issue with asking about Ms. Swift; these gatekeepers think that she’s frivolous, therefore no “serious” competition should contain questions about people like her. But this reveals a blind spot on the part of the gatekeepers; just because they don’t pay attention to her, no one should? It’s not fair to ask about a person whose current tour is estimated to generate $5 billion in consumer spending in the U.S. alone, but it IS fair to ask about Buddy Holly (which LearnedLeague did, a couple seasons back)?

If you go just a little deeper into the question of what topics are considered legitimate, it doesn’t take long to see that there’s plenty of bias here. I talked to Andy Saunders, follow Questionist columnist and founder of The Jeopardy! Fan, about how these issues come up on the most-watched quiz show in America. He said that back in the day, especially before the late 1990s, the questions were fairly narrowly tailored for the type of person who was “an English major at a liberal arts college.” Fortunately, Jeopardy!, other shows, and online competitions like LearnedLeague have all broadened away from the assumed knowledge of that specific guy (yes, guy), but his shadow still lingers.

Questions about Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner abound in “general trivia games,” and folks with an educational experience that emphasized such literature will have an advantage in many games. Andy did mention, however, that as the questions have gotten more varied, that type of advantage is less and less likely to help. These days, being an English major from a fancy school will only get you so far; the modern successful quizzer needs to be able to learn through osmosis, not just recall what they memorized during their days at Oberlin.

This is a good thing, of course, because it starts to make space for people who haven’t traditionally been included in trivia spaces. Women and especially quizzers of color are still dramatically underrepresented in trivia spaces, but asking about a wider variety of topics begins to level the playing field for all kinds of smart people with all kinds of interesting backgrounds and experiences. If we love knowledge, and we love the game, shouldn’t we want to share it with more people who might know things that we don’t? Don’t we also want to expand our own horizons beyond our specialized areas of expertise? We play games to test what we know across a broad variety of domains and to grow our knowledge base; there’s more than enough room for George Washington, four-sided polygons… and yes, even Taylor Swift.

Nicole Holliday is a linguist and professor who writes the monthly Questionist column, Vibe Shift.

One thought on “All’s Fair in Love and Canon

  1. Ken S says:

    Well put. I agree that one person’s trivia is another individual’s “completely useless tripe.” A group of us play almost every week at a trivia night (sadly, our local watering hole that did our beloved Geeks Who Drink discontinued it last November; the closest Geeks is now 35 miles away) and we regularly debate afterward if some of the questions like “How much does it cost to use a 60-watt LED bulb for a year?” is really trivia. The quizmaster made it multiple choice, and we tried to suss it out in discussion, but we really were just guessing in the end.
    I will never do well on pairing rap and hip-hip artists with their songs (in fact, I’ll be abysmal), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a trivia question.
    We should all have a Taylor Swift question once in a while.

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