LAP

What makes a quizzer?

I wrote a few months ago about the issue of gender bias in quizzes from a writer’s point of view. The question has reared its head again recently in a somewhat blunt and unhelpful way. I have little to add to what I wrote then, beyond saying there would be a few more things I might amend slightly, a few further issues I could take into consideration, but that the more valuable perspective at this stage is being expressed by women who are describing the particular treatment they receive when they go on quiz shows, and that the main responsibility as a writer and editor is to write and put together shows with interesting and entertaining questions which are fair to all participants. Quite simply there is value to the likes of me, as a male writer, putting conscious thought into whether we’ve got this right in the past and whether we can do more to make quizzes balanced going forward. That’s all really.

So what I’d like to write now is a little tangential, and more about the nature of what it takes to be a good quizzer generally. When people express the view that quizzing is a more “male” thing because men are more likely to make lists and remember facts, I think that shows a significant misunderstanding and underestimation (misunderestimation, as Dubya might say) of what it takes to be an all-round good quizzer.

The idea that doing well at quizzes is all about factual recall has always bothered me. There is so much more to it than that. Of course, there is a scale. As far as I can see, University Challenge and competitive quiz leagues (both of which, I should say, I have never participated in) do ask of people that they have excellent general knowledge and can recall what they know under competitive pressure and time pressure, but even within those settings, other skills are required. I think of that old joke about University Challenge: if you’re not a scientist, and a complex science or maths question comes up, you’ve got a pretty good shot if you buzz in and answer “Zero” or “One”. What would that require? Bravery? Chutzpah? Common sense?

I’ve run and written for a lot of corporate quizzes and pub quizzes. I’ve also written for a fair few TV shows. In all of these, there are a range of different assets which mean it is far from a given that the one who “knows” the most will always win.

A good pub quiz will demand of a winning team a combination of knowledge, lateral thinking, numerical ability, common sense, facial recognition, puzzle solving, humility (i.e. knowing when you’re not right and bowing to a team member talking sense), teamwork, strategy, and an often overlooked empathy with the quiz writer.

Of the shows I’ve written for, the one I had the most control of, and whose format I loved, was ‘The Code’. It required players to choose one of three answers as the correct one, while the other two answers were wrong. Without going into the nuances of the format, while knowledge was, of course, helpful, it was possible to win through a combination of luck and good judgement while actually knowing very few of the correct answers.

Furthermore, I pondered, as I watched the recordings in the studio, that it was possible for smart players to try to get inside my (the writer’s) head, to constantly ask themselves, “What are they trying to do here?” “How is this question structured?” “What is most likely from these options, based on the scraps of knowledge I have?”. I envisaged, as the show progressed, a real battle of wits between writers and participants.

A pretty good rule of thumb for writing pub quizzes, corporate quizzes and TV quizzes for the mass market (i.e. that won’t leave people feeling disinterested and excluded, and that aren’t intended as a pure test of who knows the most) is that the actual answers should be something that, when read out, they’ve heard of, and not something obscure or arcane. I mean, there is certainly a place for the obscure and the arcane, but, mostly, a great question might give people the feeling they’ve dredged up a bit of knowledge they didn’t know they had, or something that, though they didn’t get, they really might have if they’d thought a little more.

And, you know, that’s a massive part of ‘Only Connect’ too. Sometimes I hear people saying it’s meant to bamboozle people, and it’s really not, certainly not all the way through. It may be a forest, but it’s a forest with a clearing, and we (we being me, one of the ‘Only Connect’ Question Editors, along with everyone involved in the show) hope anyone can get to that clearing if they keep their wits about them.

We want people to get the answers. That means the people playing in the studio, and also people at home. We want people to feel clever, to have worked out something that seemed impenetrable to start with and then suddenly became apparent. That’s the essence of the show. We’re happy that the scores achieved by the teams nearly always reflect that. Teams score well.  They get most of the answers eventually, one way or another. And, on twitter, you can see the joy of people at home saying “I got that one” or “That one was easy, can’t believe the teams didn’t get that”. Sure, it’s a clever show, but we really do hope it’s inclusive, and doesn’t shut out people who don’t have massive general knowledge.

Overwhelmingly, my experience is that successful quizzers are not merely people who can learn, remember and recall (under pressure) lots of stuff, but all round clever people. Lots of people probably don’t think they’re good quizzers because they don’t know which battle took place in which year, but when it came to it, they’d be a far more valuable asset to a quiz team than they think.

So, relating it back to the gender issue, I’m not overly concerned with the hornet’s nest of whether men are “better” than women at knowing trivia and memorising stuff. I certainly don’t think so, for what it’s worth. But more importantly, for me, doing well at quizzes is about so much more than that, and is something that different kinds of brains can achieve. A good quiz team might well contain a memorizer, but it should also contain a puzzler, a calm head, a celeb spotter, a mathematician, a strategist, a newspaper reader, a twitter follower, an academic, a music fan, a psychologist –  a veritable breakfast club of talents and personality types.

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