QuizQuizQuiz: The App

In 2009, in association with Four Door Lemon, we wrote and released our iPhone app, cleverly titled ‘QuizQuizQuiz’ (we spent millions on focus groups to come up with that).

Without making us rich beyond our wildest dreams, the app was a very pleasing success, making it to the Top 5 on the App Store in the UK and all over Europe. We put a great deal of thought into it and feel it was a cut above the usual quiz apps. If we do another app, we’ll do a few things differently, and there were certainly a few things we’d improve upon, but generally we were very happy with our debut effort.

We made the choice to make it stand out by being a little offbeat, injecting as much humour as we could into it, by having odd categories, a few unexpected question types, etc. Generally, feedback on that was extremely positive. The delights of the App Store comments section meant that we came face-to-face with any objections and negativity. Beside the standard topics, our ‘Infinity’ topic included all manner of random categories, like ‘Biscuits of the 80s’, ‘The Big Lebowski’ and, to the rage of one commenter ‘The Life and Times of Ryan Giggs’ – even a pre-moral purdah Ryan Giggs was too much to bear. Imagine now!

Fair enough, really. Some people will get a quiz app because they want a straight serious set of quiz questions. Well, most people will. Our app had plenty of those, around 5000 questions in total (and that’s just in English: thousands more in French, German, Italian, Spanish), founded in good hard fact and general knowledge. The fact we injected a bit of fun, silliness and eclecticism into the game made it more enjoyable to write, hopefully more enjoyable for most people to play and, we think, more successful.

We may well build a new app very soon. What would be your dream quiz app?

Oh – and do read the blog post by Four Door Lemon about the app: it makes for interesting reading on the economics of a quiz app (or indeed any app).

Five Points Available

The most popular feature of the Friday Quiz that I put together every week is the fifth question: the multi-answer question (usually worth five points). I tend to feel the success of each week’s Friday Quiz is defined by how good Question 5 is. It can be hard to come up with a good one.

The Friday Quiz (you should sign-up for it if you aren’t on the mailing list!) is almost 4 years old, and as such we’ve asked around 200 Question 5s. Now, we did, of course, already have a good stock in our database from our years of writing questions for pub quizzes and corporate events, but it’s always necessary to generate more and more, and I give as much care as I can to writing them.

The ones for the Friday Quiz have to be a little easier than ones we use in a quiz night, as people generally do the Friday Quiz on their own, rather than in teams (although we know that some offices come to a standstill at 12:30 every Friday to do the Friday Quiz together). Apart from that, the idea is roughly the same (also, I do generally avoid sport questions in the Friday Quiz, for reasons already discussed in a previous post about sport quiz rounds.)

There are a few things to try and achieve, and a few things to avoid:

1. It shouldn’t be a “know all or nothing”. There is a question I really like, which is  fun question but can be a little unfair: Name 4 of the things Alanis Morrisette’s other hand is doing in the song ‘One Hand in My Pocket’ – it’s a well known song but not that well known, so the chances are plenty of people will know it, if they know it they’ll probably remember all of them, but if you don’t know the song, you won’t get any. 0 or 4. This question will have too much undue influence over the results of the quiz.

2. Following on from that,questions should, ideally, be on a topic that can be answered with general knowledge, about something that doesn’t turn a large number of people off.

3. There are some questions where people will instantly know 2 or 3 of the answers and then may know/be able to recall/ work out a few more out e.g. Name 5 cities in Scotland, but I prefer questions where in the instant it is asked, you don’t necessarily know any, but then they come to you. A good one is ‘Name the 5 countries in the world whose name ends with the letter L’ – most people or teams will work out four or five within a couple of minutes, but it will take a little bit of time to get there.

4. The one tiny issue (though it’s a great question) with the above question is that once you’ve got those 5, you should be 100% confident you’ve got the points. I prefer something where you can’t be 100% sure until the answers are revealed, yet most teams or people trying to answer it will still get most of the points. One of my favourite examples is: ‘Name the five largest islands, by area, in the Mediterranean.’ – I love this question – most teams will end up with 3 to 5 correct, but they won’t be sure they have. Almost everyone will be able to come up with 5 answers as there are lots of options, and lots of viable incorrect alternatives, and a real sense of excitement and satisfaction when the correct ones are read out. That’s ideal, really.

5. Having something too easy is almost as bad as something too hard. Say (we’ve never asked this): ‘Name the four members of the Beatles from 1962-1970’ – everyone will get it, obviously, but also there aren’t viable alternatives – there’s no sense of jeopardy.

At this stage, I might ask if anyone has any really good multi-answer questions, but I realise that’s a little cheeky and might seem like I’m touting for material! (I’m not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send any to me at, but only if you would be happy for us to use your question(s)!)

So, do you enjoy these kind of questions? Do you ask them yourselves? What do you think makes a good multi-answer question?


Mainstream Knowledge

I’ve already written in a previous blog post about how much I enjoy the BBC show ‘Pointless’ – one further positive I didn’t mention is that it actually serves as a fairly effective market research tool. So yes, I can watch the show as part of my job, which is nice.

The show’s premise is based on finding out how much a group of 100 unseen people know about a certain category. So, for me as question-writer of both corporate quiz events and databases of quiz content for multiple choice “quiz game” projects, finding out what people will name within a category can give me a reasonable idea of the extent to which subjects and things within subjects are common knowledge.

The results can be a little surprising initially, but make sense when you think about it: extremely high results might be (these are examples i vaguely remember, though not necessarily exact):

  • Name an English footballer beginning with D, and 95% will say David Beckham,
  • Name an American city, and 97% will say New York, that kind of thing.

Knowledge of Geography, household matters, popular TV from a few years ago, extremely famous celebrities, very general knowledge, tends to be pretty good.

There are striking gaps in knowledge though – the first one that amazed me was actually when, of the 8 studio contests, 6 of the 8 of them could not name one, not one, Robert de Niro film. The same pattern followed for Robert Redford films and films starring the Fiennes brothers. Seemingly huge gaps in knowledge, both for the survey of 100 people and for the studio guests.

Likewise, when people were asked to name a song by either Coldplay, Snow Patrol or Muse. Pretty odd, you might think, since those are, for better or worse, as big as British rock bands get these days.

But it does make sense, when you think about how culture is compartmentalised these days. You don’t need more than about 50,000 sales in a week to have a number 1 album. If you follow a band, and see that they’ve got to Number 1, you might think they’ve crossed over into the mainstream, but, even if an album’s sold 200,000 copies, or indeed a single (that’s an awful lot for a single), that’s 2% of the people watching Coronation Street every week, and a fraction of a per cent of the people who learnt a few capital cities when they were at school, or whatever.

Likewise with films. A massive blockbuster will be watched by a few hundred thousand or maybe pushing into the low millions at the cinema. That still leaves the vast majority who haven’t seen it, and there’s no particular reason why knowledge of it will filter into people’s lives.

And there’s no Top of the Pops anymore, and the concept of TV film events, where we’d all sit down and watch a premiere on terrestrial TV, has pretty much gone.

A tiny number of modern films and songs really cross over into mainstream popular consciousness these days , and this is noticeable when I do an Entertainment or Music round at a corporate quiz. Everyone will recognise, say ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, or ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (when i say everyone, in this example, I mean a majority of people between 20 and 40), people will get a question about ‘Avatar’ or recognise the theme to ‘Lord of the Rings’, but even something like a Red Hot Chili Peppers single (from their biggest album), or, say, the theme to ‘Inception’, will have quite a small percentage of correct answers.

On the other hand, knowledge of stuff from the past, where there was Top of the Pops, where we did all watch films and they’ve been on TV lots of times, is excellent. ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain? ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Die Hard’  or ‘Big’? Widespread recognition.

It’s all pretty obvious stuff, but only when you actually take time to think about it (which is my job), but for me, it was a lesson to learn for me starting out running quizzes and writing questions.

First of all, what I’m into, even if I think they’re quite big, like a band I go and see where the audience is 5000, they’re still, in the scheme of things, tiny. Likewise, with films. If you’re a film fan, Robert de Niro or Robert Redford is about as big as it gets – you wouldn’t think they were minority subjects at all – but actually it’s still going to be quite a small percentage of the population who have both seen and can remember seeing any/many of their films.

That’s why Entertainment and Music rounds, though absolutely key to a fun quiz in my opinion, need to be carefully handled to avoid blank looks.

Have you ever come across really surprising gaps in knowledge at quizzes? Times when you’ve thought “How can you not know this?”

What other factors affect how one thing is in popular consciousness and another thing isn’t? I’m sure I’ll have missed a few key things.

Quiz Master Bingo

Some things come up every now and then at QuizQuizQuiz events, some more than others. Let’s have a look at some of things people say at a quiz night…

In no way am I mocking the use of these phrases, in no way am I saying these are phrases people shouldn’t use or that in any way cause me to bridle or sneer, they’re simply phrases one hears, and part of the fun and games of being a professional quiz master. Do they ring any bells?

So, in no particular order, here are the phrases that I’ve heard once, twice or maybe even rather a few times:

  1. If I slip you a tenner can I see the answers?
  2. Do you need them in order?
  3. Do you do weddings?
  4. Can I have a P, please, Bob?
  5. They won last year. Can you make sure they don’t win again?
  6. I wasn’t even born in 1980. How could I know that?
  7. Do you need the name of the song or the name of the artist?
  8. Can you repeat Question 4?
  9. If there’s a sports round, there should be a fashion round too.
  10. This is by far and away the best quiz I’ve ever been to. QuizMaster, you’re a genius, and I’ll definitely recommend you and your company to all my friends.
  11. Sorry, it’s on two sheets.
  12. We’ve written on the back of the sheet, and put PTO at the bottom of the first sheet.
  13. Where do you get your questions from?
  14. Can you tell me where the toilets are, please?
  15. What happens if you leave it blank?
  16. Can you tell that team to stop using their iPhone?
  17. We should get a higher number of points because there’s only four of us.
  18. Sorry, there’s beer on the sheet.
  19. Your flies are …wa-hey, made you look.
  20. Are they all from the same year?
  21. Do we need to answer all of the questions on the picture handout sheet?
  22. Can you give us an update on the overall scores?
  23. Is this your actual job?
  24. Shouldn’t we get a half mark for that?
  25. You said it would be General Knowledge. Geography isn’t General Knowledge.
  26. Can I have a bonus point for getting it in first?

Anything else along these lines that you hear people saying at a quiz night? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

A Very British Thing

My colleague Jack has written a couple of entertaining posts in this blog about the variations in the pub quiz night around the world, and down the years we’ve been in contact with quiz companies as far afield as New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, India and the US.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt that the pub quiz night is, primarily, a British phenomenon. It’s rare to go past a pub in the UK which isn’t advertising some kind of quiz night. They’re as much part of British culture as overpriced music festivals, phone hacking and cricketers born in South Africa.

And that Britishness, of course, informs content – every nation has its own exclusive reservoir of shared knowledge,  that moment when something is mentioned that a person of that nationality will respond to instantly with a knowing smile, and a foreigner will be entirely bemused by – and it’s only natural that questions in a pub quiz tap into that. As I’ve written before, you want people to know the answers to your questions, but you want them to feel that they’re part of an elite club in knowing those answers – this is an aspect of that phenomenon.

But, for our Corporate Quizzes, it’s not so easy. We’re responsible for doing more than run a competitive, accurate quiz with some fun quizzes, we’re responsible for giving all the staff of a company, who have paid us as professionals, an enjoyable evening, an evening where they don’t feel left out, disinterested or stupid. And bearing in mind the pub quiz – which is basically what we do, with a few significant bells on – is such a British thing, one has to work hard to avoid the risk of making non-British employees feel left out, disinterested or stupid.

This effort to make the quiz a hospitable environment for all runs right through our process, from finding out in advance who it is for, to judging how much needs to be explained at the start (from very little beyond the fact people need to write a team name to a very clear explanation of what the quiz is and how it will work) to changing the questions we are going to ask while the quiz is going if we realise the crowd is more diverse than we’d thought. You can also right wrongs. You might have asked a question about British TV and then overhear a mildly vociferous “How am I meant to know that, I’m German”. Well, then, we can throw in a few questions about Germany – we’ve got a huge database of questions and they’re ready to be used.

There are different scenarios, and we try to arm ourselves in advance by finding out as much as we can about who is taking part. In some ways, it is easier to prepare the quiz if you know it is a hugely cosmopolitan crowd – I did a quiz recently where I was told that 50% would be Indian, the other 50% from all over Europe. I could simply discount anything Anglocentric in my preparation, do a bit of research to write some Indian questions, it all worked pretty well.

When there is a large crowd of whom you know the majority are British but there are a fair few of other nationalities, the balance can be harder to strike. The fact is, a lot of our best question are on British culture, those little things we as question-writers remember that we are pretty confident our participants will remember or work out too – that can be one of the great joys of a quiz. If, as quizmaster, you know that the question works for 80% of the people there, surely that’s fair enough? Well, yes, but it’s got to be balanced out with international questions, even questions that people not from Britain have a better chance of knowing every now and then.

It can be tricky – if you make a quiz too universal, do you run the risk of making it bland, not much more than a general knowledge test? e.g. What is the capital of Sweden? Where were the 1996 Olympics? (yawn) Not if your questions are good enough.

At QuizQuizQuiz, there are two main sides to our business, and that need to write “international” material is even more prevalent in our question-writing business than in our quiz-running business. I’m not going to say too much about this now, just touch on it briefly. We do big projects where the target market is British, or American, European, wherever. We have writers and translators of lots of different nationalities to make sure we can cover pretty much any enquiry that comes our way. When you’re asked to write 10,000 questions and the target market is “international”, it can be a little tricky to know where to target it. Who is this putative “international” quiz player to whom all my questions will be suited? Sometimes I can’t help but visualise some translatlantic man of mystery who holidays in Monte Carlo, has homes in London and New York, spent a year travelling through Asia, and spends their time reading National Geographic and watching the Discovery Channel. This is the 21st century modern quizzer… well, perhaps not, but we hope that our skill is, over time, working out how to write questions which prove that quizzes are not just a British thing.


Putting together a quiz night (Part 2)

Rather belatedly, I’m going to follow up the post from March 30th on putting together a quiz night. Apologies for the delay – a long gap in time between blog entries is a sure sign that the question-writing side of things is extremely busy. So a rare free hour presents itself, and it’s time to see if I can remember what I was talking about.

A recap: so far, I’d covered ‘How long should it be? How many rounds? How big should these rounds be? ‘. Next up on my list of topics – How hard should it be? What subjects to include?

How hard should a round be?

On this subject, I’m happy to be pretty firm in my opinion. Not too hard is the answer. Hard quizzes are for hardcore quizzers, not for inclusive events. Anyone can come up with a set of questions which most people don’t know the answer to. Where’s the skill or fun in that?

As an example, I ran a quiz recently which generally went very well, but I ran one round out of 12 where the top score was 8 and the bottom score 5.

I consider that round a failure on my part (a relatively rare one, I hope!) – certainly not on anyone else’s.That was the only round where I felt the level of engagement dipped slightly, as there was a sequence of 2 or 3 questions which few of the teams got right. In general, I am aiming for something  pretty specific, which is a range on any given round from 60% to 100%. If any team does not know more than half the answers, that is a shame. Some Quizmasters might prefer to avoid teams getting full marks on their rounds, but I don’t mind it all. You certainly don’t want more than a small number of teams getting full marks, but it’s actually pretty rare that anyone does, and if it happens I think I’ve done my job well, not badly.

People like to know stuff. They don’t want to feel stupid. Simple as that. And the thing is, if one team has one really bad round, that can be really insidious for the overall atmosphere.

A further note – however easy I try to make a quiz, no team has ever got close to getting 100% (I’m not sure there’s even been over 95% and over 90% is fairly rare) overall on any quiz I’ve ever run. It just doesn’t happen. The desire to test and to throw in a few testing questions comes naturally, so telling yourself to remember to keep it easy will only balance that out in a positive way.

What subjects to include?

I’ll answer this in two ways and here, I’m much more aware that personal preference is key, rather than having a definitive answer. The two ways will be ‘what subjects to include in the quiz as a whole’ and ‘what subjects to include within each round’. Up to a point, the answers to both questions is clearly ‘whatever you like’ and ‘as wide a range as possible’. Simple as that, up to a point.

Another important point about what to include as a whole is you have to consider your demographic. For QuizQuizQuiz, running events, this can mean we’ve had specific instruction on what to include (which we might run with or perhaps adapt a little), or we tailor what we’re asking according to the age/nationalities of the players. I could write pages about this (and indeed, I have, in our treasured and exclusive QuizMaster Guide), but suffice to say, some quizzes are more suited to questions about 80s British TV than others. I’ve already written a long blog about whether to include sport, and many of the points made there apply across the board.

Of course, for a standard pub quiz, you may be less aware of your demographic or, indeed, there may be a more ‘standard’ demographic (ie people who like to go to the pub and people who quite like quizzes) so you have to worry less, but hopefully, some of these points are still relevant.

The issue of whether to include Entertainment and Music is less rare than the issue of whether to include Sport, but still there are times when those are best avoided. [I probably include TV/Film/Music to a fairly large extent in about 95% of the quizzes i run, however].

Beyond that, we’re careful about being too specific, and more often try to make each round a mixture. A Food and Drink round, a Fashion round, even a Geography round, all run the danger of becoming boring in themselves if they are not subjects people are interested in. If people don’t know what the next question is going to be about, all the better. So more than half our round formats do not have a specific subject or give anything away about the subject matter in the title. That’s the way we prefer it. If your questions are good enough of course, you can have a truly great quiz which includes say, a TV Round, a Sport Round, a History Round, a Science Round, a Current Affairs Round and a special guest Fly Fishing round.

So, i’ve pretty much answered the second question, which was ‘what subjects to include within each round’. Mostly, our rounds are a mixture, flitting between subjects. Even when they’re not and we do do a sport round, say, or an Entertainment round, mix it up, don’t have too much football, have TV and Film evenly spread, American TV, British TV, don’t have too many questions where the answer is a number, or too many questions where the answer is a name. All pretty obvious stuff, but the cardinal sin for a quiz is to be boring and entirely predictable, I think.

Do you attend a difficult quiz, and do you disagree with me on how much fun they are? And how is your quiz structured? Are there regular rounds? A wide range? What’s the best quiz round format/title you’ve come up with, or come across?

Putting together a quiz night (Part 1)

Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we don’t currently host any weekly pub quizzes, concentrating instead on corporate quizzes and question writing (as well as a few pretty exciting ideas in the pipeline). However, we put together hundreds of quiz nights every year and have written many, many pub quizzes in the past, so feel pretty well qualified to talk about how to put together a jolly good quiz for any kind of crowd.

In this post, I’ll limit myself to talking about quiz rounds as a whole, rather than specific questions (and their balanced distribution within a round and a quiz), which I’m sure we’ll come to at a later date. I’m talking about the overall construction of a quiz rather than the details.

How long should it be? How many rounds? How big should these rounds be? How hard should it be? What subjects to include? What should I avoid? What kind of rhythm should I establish within each round? What embellishments add to the magic?

Having listed all those questions, I realise that there’s rather too much there for one blog post. It goes without saying that these won’t be prescriptive answers, and that I, and no doubt you, will have been to plenty of excellent quizzes where the format was very different from what I lay out below. However, these suggestions reflect personal preference, a bit of common sense, and generally speaking, what we at QQQ have, over the years, discovered works best for us.

So, first of all, how long should a quiz be? Well, we get asked to run quizzes lasting anything from 20 minutes to 3 1/2 hours, and we like to think that, whatever the length, we’ll give our client just what they’re looking for (i.e. top notch quiz entertainment). However, quite often these shorter ones use the quiz as just one part of a bigger  showcase event or to be fitted in between courses of a formal meal, so I’ll concentrate on those where the quiz is the main focus of the event.

If you have an evening devoted to a quiz, whether a corporate event or a pub quiz, somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours is ideal – I’d probably plump for 2 hours of quizzing with a break in the middle. This is enough time to fit in a wide variety of question types and subject matter, to build up a real momentum, to make people feel they’ve got their money’s worth, yet can be broken up into convenient chunks so participants who feel desperate for a cigarette or something radical like a conversation with their colleagues have an opportunity to do so.

If it’s less than an hour and a half, I often feel there are things we’ve missed, and more than two and a half hours, well, maybe for real enthusiasts, but it can be tiring for everyone (think about a film that is 2.5 hours long – tiring, and you are just sitting back and relaxing…), and if half the participants aren’t extremely drunk by the end, you’d be surprised.

And, on a similar topic, how many rounds should there be?

Somewhere between 5 and 8, I think, bearing in mind that one round should nearly always be a table round (pictures/puzzles, that kind of thing). 4 can sometimes feel like too few, like someone’s speciality will be missed out and they’ll feel unfavoured. This can be addressed by including plenty of different subjects within hybrid rounds, but nevertheless, I’m in favour of a good spread. You don’t want to have too many rounds though – people will forget what came where and just feel a little confused. It’s quite hard to answer this question, though, without moving to the next, which is

How big should these rounds be?

Here, I think the important answer is that it can, and should, vary. Although it might make practical sense sometimes, 6 rounds of 10 questions ad infinitum is rather a shame. Think in terms of time rather than number of questions – I don’t think a round should be much less than 15 minutes and I don’t think even the meatiest of rounds should be much longer than 25 minutes. In this range, this will give you 10-15 questions, but there might be quite a few multi-part questions with lots of different points available.

It’s very much part of our modus operandi to keep players on their toes – so you know roughly what’s coming, but not exactly – mixing up the the pace of the rounds and the number of questions and points per round is one technique that we use to achieve that.

Lots more to come, but for now, what’s the longest/shortest quiz you’ve ever been to? What is the ideal length and structure of a pub quiz?


Cheating in pub quizzes

This is the big topic for anybody who runs or attends any kind of quiz night these days. Once upon a time it was about people sneaking a look at reference books in their bag. Then it was about texting friends to ask them for help, or indeed for them to look something up for you. But nowadays it is like an arms race between quiz teams who cheat, quiz teams who don’t cheat, and the quiz master. There are so many tools available to the quiz cheater, and so many people seemingly willing to use them.

So in this post we’re going to look at who is cheating, why they are cheating, and how they are cheating. We’ll also look at a selection of counter-measures that can be used by quiz masters. As always we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Who is cheating at pub quizzes and why?
I have seen all types of people cheat at quizzes – old, young, male, female, clever, stupid, and people from all nationalities and social demographics (actually, people from countries without a pub quiz culture are more likely to cheat from my experience, probably because they don’t know and therefore are less able to respect pub quiz convention). The most obvious explanation is that people cheat, or try to cheat, because they don’t know the answer and want to know. But it is more than that.

People cheat because they are too lazy to work out the answer – because we live in a world in which you can hear something that you don’t know much about (be it on TV, in a conversation or anywhere) and within seconds have full details on the subject on your smartphone to read some background. This means that we have become accustomed to always knowing the answer in real life. If you are a smartphone user, or someone who spends a great deal of time with access to the internet (and let’s face it, this applies to most pub quiz goers) you are incredibly rarely in a situation where you can’t very rapidly get hold of some information you don’t know in your head. In other words, we no longer cope with a situation of “not knowing”, and for many people the solution to that situation is to look something up. And that of course is fine in a social/work context, but it defeats the point at a quiz night.

You could say that the sort of people who cheat at quizzes are those who don’t care about the conventions of a quiz night – or more likely simply don’t care about the quiz at all and don’t want to be there. They don’t want the mental effort of thinking because they have become so used to instant technological access to answers. This tends to be more of an explanation for attendees at corporate quiz events – to which non-quizzy participants will generally go because of social pressure from work colleagues – compared to pub quiz nights which most of the participants are enthusiastically and voluntarily attending. Yet cheating is a problem in the quiz at your local pub just as much, if not more, than at a work quiz night. So this “not interested” explanation doesn’t cover a big chunk of quiz cheating.

We can cover some of the remaining cheaters as people who should know the answer and don’t want to look stupid/want to look cleverer than they actually are in front of their team mates or rival teams (which could often be friends/foes/work colleagues).

In this category are people whose response to being challenged with wikipedia in full flow in their hands is: “I used to know that/I read that the other day, so looking up isn’t cheating, it’s refreshing my memory.” This brazen response usually comes from people who are supremely self-confident and can justify to themselves and to their teammates that this is entirely “acceptable cheating”.

At a pub quiz, where you might not really know the other teams (except by repute or frequent attendance at the quiz night), there is no shame in getting a question wrong that other teams get right. In fact, at some quizzes the opposite is true. It is indeed very common to see teams gleefully boasting that they know nothing about “Glee” and are pleased to have got it wrong (whether they actually feel this, or are just making their excuses for not winning the quiz is academic here: my point is that there is a way to cope with lack of knowledge that does not reduce teams to cheating). So do people ever cheat at a pub quiz to avoid looking stupid? Yes they do, but it is just as likely to be one rogue individual on a team cheating without the knowledge of his/her team mates. If a question comes up on a team member’s “specialist subject” then the pressure is on. I would suggest that a large number of cheating incidents at a pub quiz are committed by one or more members of the team, unbeknownst to their team mates. And as such any accusations against that team can be quite easily denied – it only requires one person on the team to be a good liar. My conclusion here is that a team that cheats may in fact be an honest team with one bad egg that the team itself is not aware of.

At corporate quiz nights (which is very familiar territory to us) it is perhaps easier to understand why people might cheat to avoid looking stupid. Most workplaces are very competitive, even if not on the surface. Put people into teams, and make them compete on anything and the competitive juices start flowing. This is emphasised when the people are work colleagues and the real prize for winning the quiz is not the cheap bottle of champagne but gloating rights for months (or indeed years. Who can forget the time in 2003 when Bill’s team of shelf-stackers from the warehouse came from behind to win the work quiz night on a tie-break against the team from Accounts?). So we sometimes see people trying to cheat at company quiz nights to avoid the ignominy of coming last, or to take the glory of coming first. In short – to avoid looking stupid in front of work colleagues.

The most obvious reason for cheating at quizzes ought to be a desire to win the prize. There are pub quizzes out there with £500+ jackpots, £100 bar tabs etc. People might see the (albeit relatively modestly sized) dollar signs in their eyes and end up using subterfuge/fraud to get their hands on the prize – but is this really different from a drugs cheat in the Olympics or a benefits cheat? Not really, and when the prizes are large it isn’t just “a bit of fun” but actually it is just fraud. Wikipedia, that great quiz resource, defines fraud as “intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual…defrauding people or entities of money or valuables is a common purpose of fraud… [as is]… to gain prestige…”. Clearly the consequences of pub quiz fraud are unlikely to be more serious than being booed or banned from the pub. It is a fairly well known phenomenon that winning anything, however small, stimulates a buzz, so this could explain people who cheat for even small prizes.

How do people cheat at quiz nights?
Once upon a time cheating was looking something up in a book or nipping out to the phone box to call a friend, but technology has advanced dramatically. We’ll look at some hi- and low-tech cheating methods.

At school, cheating will often mean “copying” from another student. This definitely still happens in quizzes: teams try to sneak a look at other teams’ answer sheets. I’ve seen this done very surreptitiously and very conspicuously: someone goes to the bar, but weaves their way round a few tables glancing towards the answer sheets; someone talks to the quiz master and tries to sneak a look at his computer or question sheet; a player leans over to talk to their friend on another team, all the while casting their beady eyes towards the answer sheet; a team sends a scout to try and steal another team’s answer sheet (yes, really, I’ve seen this!).

Then there is cheating by eavesdropping / overhearing. The former is, I would say, cheating. The latter is, I reckon, carelessness by the team speaking too loudly! If you genuinely hear another team say something, then it is really impossible not to at least throw that answer into the mix for your team. I’ve run a handful of quizzes in which several teams have all put down the same unlikely and uncommon wrong answer to a question, although there are explanations other than mass cheating for this phenomenon (like shared experiences at work places). The flipside of this is that you get teams saying comedy wrong answers deliberately loudly to try and put other teams off the scent (although occasionally they’ll say the correct answer out loud having completely missed the point of the question).

Send a text to 63336 and they’ll text you back the answer (this is the phone number for AQA, Any Question Answered). Or send a text to your friend or just sneak outside and call them. They can look the answer up for you. Not much more to say about this really. If your friend is so good at quizzes that they can tell you the answers without looking up, then they should be with you at the quiz night…and if they are looking things up online for you, then that is much naughtier.

I reckon that you could have most answers to most questions at most quizzes answered pretty easily with Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Goggles and Shazam. Assuming a pub has 3G access (and many even have Wifi) then most smartphone users will be able to do their cheating under the table or in the toilet or outside whilst “taking a phone call from their dad”.

  • Wikipedia – well I think most people know about Wikipedia, the single greatest knowledge resource ever known to man. For even faster mobile access try the Wikipanion app.
  • Google Maps – an underused but stunningly powerful quiz research (and hence quiz cheat) tool, and not just for Geography questions
  • Google Goggles – finally, a way to cheat on picture rounds. It works best on pictures of celebrities, logos, paintings – I believe it works on anything that Google can look up in its database and see if it has the same picture in its database.
  • Shazam – a way to cheat on music questions. Shazam only needs to hear a short snippet (less than 10 seconds) of some music and it can compare it to its database and tell you what it is.

The other higher-tech cheating technique I have seen combines the good old “text your mate” with Twitter. This works particularly well for celebrity quizzers with vast twitter followings. We ran a Hallowe’en quiz with Paul Daniels in 2011 which had an almost entirely celebrity audience (TOWIE type celebrities). During the quiz, the Twitter feeds of the participants were buzzing with requests for help from their followers.

How to stop people cheating

For every reason that people cheat, and every method people use to cheat, I believe there is a counter-measure, or combination of counter-measrues. There is a lot of crossover in preventative techniques, as well as some general principles, all of which should combine to reduce or eliminate cheating. So here we go. This is how you stop people cheating:

Fire up the mobile phone jammer and configure any available wireless networks not to accept connections from mobile devices for the duration of the quiz, and/or monitor all network traffic on your wireless network so you can see what sites people are visiting and what they are looking up.

OK, this is a bit unrealistic, and probably illegal. Let’s try some realistic ways to stop people cheating:

1. The quiz master should start the quiz night with a firm instruction about phones. Try this: “Before we start, a very important announcement about iPhones, Android devices, Blackberry phones, or anything else: keep them out of the way, keep them off the table, and in your bags or pockets. If they are seen at any point during the quiz, it will look like you are cheating, even if you are not. We don’t want anyone to be unfairly accused of cheating, so keep your phones out of the way. Turn them off if you dare.”

If you see someone using their phone during a quiz, pick them on it very rapidly, and do it publicly and humorously. Even if you can see they aren’t cheating, you need to emphasise the message about phones being kept completely out of sight. Mobile phones in quizzes are just an unacceptable as phones in the cinema or theatre, albeit for very different reasons.

2. If the prize is large, you could consider adding to the announcement above: “We’ve got a big prize tonight, and as such we will treat any attempts to win it using anything other than the brains of your team as fraud. Please don’t make our life complicated. Keep your phones out of the way and switched off. If you can’t trust yourself not to use them, then you can hand them in at the bar for safekeeping.” This is a bit extreme, but seriously – if people are cheating to win large sums of money off other punters at the pub, then why is that any different from another type of theft/fraud? I don’t recommend using this line unless you have a genuine, evidence-backed concern about the integrity of your participants.

3. Make the first 5-10 questions of the quiz quick and easy. Every team has to feel that they could have got 10/10 on the first 10 questions. As soon as you throw in a question that teams could never have got (because it is too hard/specialist etc.) then you risk people cheating. It’s ok if they end up getting 6 or 7 out of 10, as long as they feel they could have got 10 out of 10. People cheat if they feel that is the only way to get to an answer.

4. Ask some questions early on that every team will get or get close to, but that they have to go through some easy to identify thought process to work out. e.g. ‘In the ‘Wizard of Oz’, which one of Dorothy’s three main companions does she encounter first on the Yellow Brick Road from Munchkin Land to the Emerald City?’ Why does that work? Well, pretty much everyone has seen the film. They might not remember it that well, but they will be able to establish that it is multiple choice. They know they can at least make a guess. They have some options to discuss. You have to ask questions that people can get their teeth into. If you ask a question and see that nobody is making any progress on it, then give them a little handle to be working on.

5. Get some answers and scores given out within the first 15-20 minutes of the quiz. Show people that they are getting things right.

Points 3-5 are about showing people early on in your quiz that the questions will not be so difficult that they need to consider cheating to get answers. It gets people into the habit of answering questions from their knowledge (because the questions are accessible). It shows people that the fun of the game is in using your brain, not in looking things up, and by giving some answers and scores early on your provide positive feedback for this, correct, way of the participants getting to answers. Which brings us onto the next one…

6. Don’t ask questions that are too difficult or boring. Each question that you ask that nobody in the quiz knows or finds interesting massively increases the chances of people cheating. If you don’t let people interact with your quiz in the way you want them to because your material is unsuitable then you push people towards using their technology. Yes, I am saying that a badly set quiz is often a reason why people cheat.

7. Don’t give people longer than they need between questions. Keep an eye on your audience and understand the difficulty of a question. If a question is easy, move on to the next one quickly. If it is hard, give them enough time to get into the question, but not so long to start looking things up. You can tell how teams are getting on by watching them, and seeing the level of their thinking/discussion. If you give them more than a minute or so to work out the answer to a question not only will they get bored but it then gives them time and space to start on the dirty deed. If you keep the momentum going, then any effort to cheat on a question will be interrupted by the next question coming along, and so and so forth. The net result is that any sustained cheating effort will become more and more obvious as a player will have to be permanently attached to his/her phone to keep up.

8. Ask some cheat-proof questions, like lateral-thinking questions, or connection questions. Actually, totally cheat proof questions are difficult to set week in, week out, what with all the tools available to the well-prepared and determined quiz cheat. And indeed a whole quiz of puzzles, observation questions, and backwards-music clips could quickly become tedious. You need the variety, and you need to reward honest quizzers for their knowledge.

9. To counteract Google Goggles cheats on picture rounds there are a few options. First – you can add some kind of fuzziness or scrambling to your pictures. Second – use non publicly available pictures from paid-for picture libraries (although this can be expensive). Google Goggles generally doesn’t cope with those, but it is an expensive option. Thirdly, and most fun (but regular quiz teams and indeed any regular quiz cheats will catch on to it, so use it sparingly and intelligently) put in a high quality picture of someone not famous or recognisable but who has a significant online profile, e.g. an academic, or a very famous popstar from another country who has no profile at all in this country. Any team getting it right is probably using Google Goggles.

10. Ask teams to identify a famous phone number. “Which service would you reach by calling the following number…” and then give them a SkypeIn number you have set up specifically to divert to a cheapo pay as you go mobile phone that you have bought. Anybody who calls…well, ring them back and when their phone rings expose them as cheats.

11. Play music between questions to stop teams overhearing each other.

12. You could consider offering two prizes at the quiz: one prize of £5 or a single pint of beer for teams that wish to use their phones during the quiz, and the proper main prize for everyone else who plays honestly. Set a simple rule that as soon as you see a phone on a table, or being got out of a bag or a pocket that is automatic entry into the “cheats” competition. The danger with this approach is that you risk tempting people to try and cheat without detection, but I have heard of this system working well in some pubs, particularly ones in which there are a few very strong “real teams” and a lot of weaker teams. You then actually have some fun seeing if the technology can overcome the real quiz teams.

My best advice to prevent cheating is a combination of a firm, but good natured, warning at the start and engaging, gettable questions. As we wrote back in December in a related post:

“There is far more to preventing cheating than having Google-proof questions. In fact, counter-intuitively, one of the techniques used by our QuizMasters to prevent cheating is the exact opposite of having Google-proof questions. If you can start the quiz with a selection of questions which would be easy to find on Google (or any other cheating means) BUT are engaging enough and interesting enough and gettable enough that players and teams realise the enjoyment is in working out that they know them, then you are onto a winner. Players discover that the fun is in the challenge of working out that they know the answers (or can work them out) without resorting to naughtiness.”

This is a big topic…we would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, and indeed any other cheating counter-measures you have tried or seen used effectively.

My Pointless Friend

“It’s like Family Fortunes. In reverse” – not the most promising tagline for a quiz show, and I do admit I have some difficulty explaining the peculiar magic of my current, indeed probably all-time, favourite quiz show, ‘Pointless’, to people. But it is clearly a show with a burgeoning fanbase, after its switch from BBC2 to a later slot on BBC1.

It’s not my intention to compare other shows unfavourably to ‘Pointless’ – different people want different things from quizzes. I know my colleague is a big fan of its ITV rival ‘The Chase’, a show on which you get plenty of questions for your money, and having watched it in full for the first time recently, I agree it’s a pretty good format. Since the end of ’15 to 1′ I’ve shared the feeling that a lot of the big shows don’t give a real quiz fan enough questions to get their teeth into, so why then am I so enamoured of ‘Pointless’, which really only has four questions all show?

Well, for starters, I think it’s a very nice premise and a very nice format. Obscure knowledge is rewarded, which appeals to the quizzy quizzer, but there is a sliding scale of reward, so just knowing something about the given category can be good enough. There is right and wrong, but not just one right answer (or one wrong answer). The knowledge starts off very general, but becomes more and more specific as it moves on, so that you tend to actually have to be pretty smart AND lucky to win the jackpot, which is just what you want.

But who am I kidding? Why is ‘Pointless’ great? Because of the banter. I may be wrong, but Alexander Armstrong is one of those genially funny men who is thoroughly undivisive. Who could hold it in their heart to loathe him? He’s funny, of course, and very charming to the contestants, albeit sometimes in an ever so slightly bemused, superior way.

But he’s not even the star of the show. In the standard role of quiz sidekick, we have “my pointless friend” Richard Osman (brother of Mat Osman from Suede, fact fans) who, unless i’m very much mistaken, is a genuinely hilarious man. Ben Miller needs to watch out, as this is a great double act – both are clever and prepared to mock the contestants, but always in a gentle, good-natured way.

Add to that the fact that the show provides great opportunities for viewer participation, as you’re not in a race against the contestants – there’s plenty of time to think about your answers, and to feel pleased and smug if you better them.

I haven’t been this excited about a teatime TV show since ‘Home and Away’ returned to our screens on Channel 5!!!

Have you seen ‘Pointless’? Any flaws? Not a fan of Armstrong? Or Osman? And are there any other quiz show gems out there I’m missing?


Wikipedia for Quiz Question Writers

In the olden days (well, 15 years ago) books were still the main way to check quiz questions. Even 5-10 years ago, the volume and quality of content available online wasn’t the same as it is now. Almost every famous person, film, band, TV show, organisation etc. now has an official site of some sort for a very reliable way of checking facts – but even then you find factual errors on official sites.

In the last few years, the biggest development for quiz writers has been the evolution of Wikipedia and its accuracy and reliable use of good citations. It is the fastest, most varied, most detailed and most well organised resource for quiz writers in the history of quiz question writing and to spurn Wikipedia is a very bold decision by any quiz writer (or at least a quiz writer who wants to work efficiently). Of course there are mistakes in Wikipedia, but there are also plenty of mistakes in other, supposedly/traditionally more reputable sources (both online and offline).

However, there is lots of nonsense on Wikipedia, and it does take a fair bit of experience/underlying knowledge/common sense to be able to spot the degrees of nonsense you might encounter. For example, with Wikipedia you always need to check the citations and external references, but no more so than with another source. The big difference is that Wikipedia is well enough organised, such that you almost always have citations and external references.

Oh, and of course Wikipedia is free. Anyone who writes pub and trivia quiz questions would, in my opinion, be a  fool to ignore Wikipedia. But you would also be a fool not to check everything in at least two sources, regardless of what your starting point is for the fact.

Do you use Wikipedia as a tool for quiz question writing? Is anything else as good?