My life as a Trivial Pursuit question writer


There was an unfortunate mistake on a question card in a recent edition of Trivial Pursuit. On behalf of Hasbro I’d like to take this opportunity to formally apologise to the board game-playing public for any confusion this egregious error may have caused during otherwise pleasant family game nights and the like.

The question was: “What did climber Aron Ralston lose at a mountaineering trip in Blue John Canyon?”

The answer read: “His lower left arm.”

Of course, the answer should have read: “His lower right arm.”

Again on behalf of Hasbro I’d like to take this opportunity to formally apologise to Mr Ralston, and his family, for any confusion or upset this egregious error may have caused, especially in the already upsetting circumstances surrounding the loss of said lower right arm.

For five years I’ve worked as a question writer for Trivial Pursuit – a gig that I lucked into after months in the freelance copy writing wilderness – and that one instance of a misidentified limb is about as exciting as it gets.

I should say that the job entails much, much more than just writing questions. There’s editing questions, for one. Fact-checking questions – that’s another. Proofreading questions, rewriting questions, selecting specific questions for specific markets, road-testing questions for board game-worthiness, coordinating the question writing efforts of others, re-rewriting questions, pondering the precise arrangement and distribution of questions…

Occasionally I’ll get so immersed in the job that in day-to-day conversation I will unintentionally inflect regular statements as questions?

All of the above might be easy, except that every now and then I also have to supply the answers.

The Trivial Pursuit brand has had some minor revamps in recent years. One edition took a strangely innuendo-laden turn for the physical (“Point to a fellow player’s epidermis and explain what it is”). And obviously, there are quite a few more questions about Lady Gaga and Game of Thrones and pop culture questions passing off as Geography questions, like (1) In The Simpsons, whose statue is located in Springfield’s town square?

But, at its hexagonal heart, it’s still the same board game that has incited quarrelling players to spontaneous acts of bloodshed for generations. Players move around a gameboard, fielding questions in categories determined by the colour of the spaces they land on – Geography, History, Entertainment, Art & Literature, Science & Nature, Sport & Leisure. Players obtain pieces of pie for correct answers on certain coloured squares, with the aim of obtaining all six coloured pieces. If Monopoly is designed to illuminate single taxation theory, Trivial Pursuit is designed to illuminate the extent of one’s own stupidity.

There are ways for a question writer with lofty literary aspirations to indulge a creative side. One time I wrote an entire card of questions on the theme of facial hair. It encompassed Blackbeard the Pirate, famous toothbrush moustache wearers, Groucho Marx, Marcel Duchamp, walruses, and London’s venerable Handlebar Club. I even pulled off a pleasingly meta card on which every question was related to board games. It was possibly the only time anyone’s ever been grateful for the existence of the musical Chess.

But to be honest, the lot of the question writer is one of drudgery, and can make the life of a recluse sound gregarious and glamorous by comparison. The bulk of it is trawling the information superdump, hunting bowerbird-like for any sign of that shimmering exquisite fact, or factlet, that’s surprising to learn, fun to contemplate and thoroughly useless. For example: (2) What animal did ancient Romans call a camelopardus because it looks like a cross between a camel and a leopard? There’s a reason you don’t learn that kind of thing in school.

Naturally, you draw on stuff you know, rummaging around your own trusty repository of arcana. But, however begrudgingly, you must eventually acknowledge that you risk alienating some players with several dozen increasingly esoteric questions on the back catalogues of your favourite bands along the lines of (3) Which of these is not a Beach Boys album: Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA, Surfin’ Summer or Surf’s Up?

Mostly, you begin by stalking the waterhole of knowledge that is Wikipedia, then following its most tantalising trails outwards. Before long, you’re desperately hauling your eyeballs over pages dedicated to notable bones in the human body, names of characters in Tolstoy novels, baseball rules and terminology, exotic bird species, official state pies, actors who have been Batman, extinct bird species, Cockney rhyming slang, the disputed origins of pavlova, John Mellencamp lyrics, celebrities who have changed their names, celebrities whose names have stayed the same, bird species that are both exotic and extinct… Until gradually you get the feeling that you’re running out of Internet to read.

Before long you start scouring the real world for its question potentiality. You turn into a question-seeking cyborg, examining everything you encounter, mentally breaking it down to ponder its pure informational data: the precise etymology of the word ‘breakfast’; various cereal inventors through the ages; what the deal is with milk. By the end of what might have otherwise been your morning meal you’ve compiled a mental list of 17 topics to look into and the Weet-Bix is soggy.

I’d love to tell you that I actually learn something. And it’s true that for the briefest while you can impress your date by knowing the answer to: (4) Who is the fourth musketeer? should that question come up in between main course and dessert.

But of course, there’s less ingestion of matter going on than straight-up regurgitation, and very little nutritional value absorbed whatsoever. You become a knowledge bulimic. I mean, you could try to mentally horde all this new rubbish in your memory palace, but it would probably mean other more important things getting pushed out, like the lyrics to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ or whether you’re supposed to put your trousers on first or your underpants.

That said, it’s possible to overestimate the value of trivia. Even the most delightful factoids are intellectual dead ends. As far as dinner party conversation starters go, (5) “What is the common name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy?” is a bit of a fizzer. You risk being remembered not so much as the guy ‘with all human knowledge at his fingertips’ as the guy ‘with the thing for cows’.

In the end, I’m no better at playing the game than the rest of you dimwits – which really does make the whole thing a trivial pursuit. It was only revisiting my files for this piece that I was reminded, as if learning it for the first time, (6) Which Bond actor once came third in a Mr. Universe body-building contest? Though it does seem like the kind of thing you’d remember.

In any case, I’m more of a Scattergories guy.


(1) Jebediah Springfield (2) Giraffe (3) Surfin’ Summer—In case you thought the Boys were abandoning the theme, they also have an album titled Surfer Girl (4) D’Artagnan—Porthos, Athos, and Aramis are the first three (5) Mad cow disease (6) Sean Connery—In 1950.

This feature originally appeared in Smith Journal in October 2014.


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