The Living Hell That Was TikTok Trivia

Like the golden age of online trivia gaming, but way dumber

$149.84. That’s apparently the cost of my soul, which I could feel leaving my body every night last week as I settled in for five straight evenings of TikTok Trivia, an utterly moronic exercise that seemed to serve very little purpose other than to waste $500,000 of Lionsgate’s “John Wick 4” marketing budget and make us all a little dumber in the process.

Let’s back up. In 2018 I wrote about competitive trivia apps, a semi-lucrative hobby for many of my friends and me. Don’t go looking for any of those games mentioned in the article; they’re all long dead, their parent companies either bankrupt or quite sensibly looking to produce cheaper forms of entertainment. You can still make a little money on online trivia here and there, but the days of five- and six-figure guaranteed prize pools were long gone…until last week

In conjunction with “John Wick 4,” certainly the first movie that comes to mind when one thinks of trivia, TikTok was giving away $100,000 a night in a series of live trivia games, culminating in two weekend “survivor” games: 40 questions instead of the standard dozen, the prize pool split between whoever was left at the end. The good old days were back! And so word spread in the trivia world, as grown adults who should frankly know better installed TikTok for the first time.

Almost immediately, technical difficulties began to mar the whole affair, arbitrarily booting people out of games. Host James Henry, a popular influencer-type, kept looking off-screen for guidance. (“Drink every time he touches his earpiece!”) The scripts were corny. The chat box scrolled by madly, full of teens and non-Americans furious that they couldn’t play. Distracting graphics flashed. The trivia itself was either poorly written, poorly sourced, or the kind of entry-level stuff that wouldn’t trouble a junior high kid. It was more annoying than circa-2018 apps like Confetti at their absolute worst, and Confetti had mimes. And yet: thousands of people answered “Chicago” when asked where the Red Sox played.

So we weren’t exactly dealing with the nation’s best and brightest here. The thrill of winning, whether it was five bucks or more than a hundred, is still as ineffable as it was in 2018. I missed it. The actual money being handed out wasn’t life-and-death stuff. It’s just nice to know that there’s still money in this at all.

The basic problems are still the same. The whole point of this was presumably to advertise “John Wick 4” and keep people glued to their phones; they did surprisingly little of the former, and there’s no real reason to watch one of these streams once you’re out. It also takes very clever writers to stay one step ahead of cheaters, and they didn’t hire any of those. On Twitter, a few people even moaned, inaccurately, that a question asking which city was the first to host the modern Olympics twice was wrong, “[eliminating] many trivia contestants because of failed research.” (“Failed research” should be read here as a euphemism for “I Googled it and got the wrong answer.”) Bots were everywhere in the latter days of HQ. Inevitably they’ll be an issue for TikTok if they ever do this again.

One could also forgive people for being slightly paranoid about the actual motivations in play. A circa-2018 app, “Beat the Q,” was part of TopBuzz, which itself was, by all accounts, a means of distributing pro-Chinese government propaganda to the English-speaking world. TopBuzz and TikTok share a parent company, ByteDance, which has grown exponentially since then and become a major global media player. Like most of the apps back then, TikTok Trivia would seem to be a proof of concept for ad-supported interactive video tech more than a self-sustaining new product. But there’s also no telling what kind of data it was harvesting the entire time.

I’ve always wondered if the live trivia boom wasn’t just a victim of poor timing. Imagine a world where HQ wasn’t a chaotic mess, where they spent a couple years of serious work tuning the technology and building a better anti-cheating system. If the boom had happened in the early days of the pandemic, when people had nothing much to do but stare at their phones all day, would it have become a viable form of entertainment? Could it still become one?

Now that the experiment is over, there are no more games on the immediate horizon. It’s possible that Lionsgate feels overjoyed with the engagement numbers, that this is the new frontier in interactive marketing. Given the amount of money required to make this a regular feature, I’m not holding my breath. I hate to admit it, but it was still a pleasant diversion despite its many flaws, a memory of those days when I could almost think of trivia as a second job. When it was over, I cashed out my $149.84 and deleted the app, like the 40-something that I am.

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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