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The Pleasures of LearnedLeague and the Spirit of Trivia

What makes for a good trivia question? There are some common-sense requirements. It should be clearly written, accurate, and gettable for at least some people. (Acceptable degrees of difficulty vary.) It must be properly “pinned” to its answer, meaning that there are no correct responses other than those the questioner is seeking. (This can be trickier than you might think.) In the opinion of Shayne Bushfield, the creator and sole full-time employee of LearnedLeague, an online trivia community that he has run since 1997, people should recognize the answer to the question as something worth knowing, as having a degree of importance. “Trivia is not the right word for it,” he told me recently. “Because trivia technically means trivial, or not worth knowing, and it’s the opposite.”

The idea that the answers to trivia questions are worth knowing is a matter of some debate, and has been more or less since trivia itself was born. The pop-culture pastime of quizzing one another on a variety of subjects as a kind of game is fundamentally a phenomenon of the past hundred years or so: its first appearance as a fad seems to date to 1927, when “Ask Me Another! The Question Book” was published. As the “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings notes in his book “Brainiac,” “Ask Me Another” was written by “two out-of-work Amherst alumni” living in Manhattan, who “were shocked to find that, despite their fancy new diplomas and broad liberal educations, the job world wasn’t beating a path to their door.” Their book was a hit, and newspapers began running quiz columns, a follow-up of sorts to the national crossword craze of a couple of years before. Quiz shows came to radio and television about a decade later. But none of these games were called trivia until a pair of Columbia undergraduates, in the mid-sixties, shared their version of the game, first in the school’s Daily Spectator and later in their own popular quiz book, which really did prize the trivial: the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew, the name of the snake that appeared in “We’re No Angels,” and so on. This version of trivia was all about the stuff one had read, listened to, or watched as a kid, and its appeal, according to one of the Columbia pair, was concentrated among “young adults who on the one hand realize they have misspent their youth and yet, on the other hand, do not want to let go of it.” The purpose of playing, he explained, was experiencing the feeling produced when an answer finally came to you, “an effect similar to the one that might be induced by a pacifier.”

Presumably, it has always been satisfying to know things, but the particular pleasure of trivia seems to depend on two relatively recent developments: the constant relaying of new information (i.e., mass media) and the mass production of people who learn a lot of things they don’t really need to know. (College attendance began steadily rising in the nineteen-twenties, before booming after the Second World War.) It is sometimes asked whether the popularity of trivia will diminish in the age of Google and Siri, but those earlier developments have only accelerated, and trivia seems, if anything, more popular than ever. In contrast to the mindless ease of looking up the answer to a question online, there’s a gratifying friction in pulling a nearly forgotten fact from your own very analog brain.

Bushfield writes and delivers nearly six hundred and fifty trivia questions to LearnedLeague players every year, distributed over the course of four twenty-five-day seasons. In his view, the last component of a truly excellent trivia question, after accuracy and importance, is that it offers multiple ways to come up with the answer. Such questions have an element of noodling that results in a wave of delight at the eureka moment. For instance: “A book from 2013 by design expert Jude Stewart is subtitled An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. What is this book’s main title, which is the name of a made-up person also associated tangentially with the pattern that appears on the LGBT pride flag? Note, full name with middle initial required.

With this type of question, Bushfield told me, he wants to make it seem almost as though he’s at your side, saying, “You can figure this out, you know this, don’t get discouraged!” He tries to calibrate his questions such that LearnedLeague’s collective batting average will be just below fifty per cent; that way, he has said, “really good players still are challenged occasionally, and the very bottom players still get some right.”

One can easily despair at the amount of information we are exposed to every day and at the amount of stuff we forget. Trivia, when it’s done well, offers little moments of mastery, in the form of a game—often one with low individual stakes or none at all. (There are no cash prizes in LearnedLeague.) In Bushfield’s conception, trivia is a more generous game than it sometimes gets credit for; it prizes curiosity and reminds us that the world is much bigger than our immediate personal concerns. Perhaps the detail in a question doesn’t matter to you, but it may very well be important to some other set of people—and thus, arguably, it should have value for the rest of us.

In December, Bushfield showed me, over Zoom, a thick sheaf of papers containing two seasons’ worth of question drafts. He was sitting in a rented office in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, two sons, and a bulldog puppy named Jim. To come up with questions, he flips through one of the reference books he keeps in his office, notepad in hand; when a fact catches his eye, he’ll write a question based on what he’s found and tuck the draft back into the book. Eventually, he has a big stack of books with papers sticking out of them. “Here’s Mornay sauce!” he said, holding up the scribbles and notes that ultimately became a question about what results when a cook adds cheese to béchamel.

Bushfield grew up in a small town outside Indianapolis. He was nine years old when Trivial Pursuit came out, in 1981. An only child, he’d play the game by himself, writing out his answers to the questions, flipping the cards over to see what he got right, and tracking his performance in each of the six categories to see how he was improving over time. He covered his bedroom walls with maps and memorized the names of U.S. states and their capitals. He joined a quiz-bowl team in high school; when he was a senior, they won the championship on “Brain Game,” a local weekly quiz show that aired on WTHR-13. Bushfield went to Notre Dame, majoring in history and economics, then moved to Hoboken with some friends and got a temp job at the Manhattan law firm Chadbourne & Parke. He wound up overseeing a team of temps handling monotonous tasks in a satellite office. The firm represented a major tobacco company, and he and his colleagues spent much of their time going through subpoenaed medical records in search of evidence that people suing those companies had previously known the health risks of smoking. “We assuaged our own guilt in a few different ways,” Bushfield told the Ringer last year. “One was by working a lot of hours but not working very hard.”

Using the office’s whiteboard, Bushfield began conducting a version of the board game Balderdash, in which players anonymously make up definitions for arcane words, mix them with the actual definition, and then try to guess the true one. This diversion evolved into a series of other games: Balderface (name a random person in the law firm’s photo directory), Baldermovie (name a film’s title based on its plot description), and Baldercheese (this involved sampling fancy cheeses). Bushfield’s crew of temps became “a little fiefdom away from the evil corporation,” his friend and co-worker Bill Lambertson told me, laughing. At last, there was Baldertrivia, which turned into what is now considered the first season of LearnedLeague. It had twenty participants. The following season, Bushfield gave it a new name, inspired by a high-school friend and Hoboken roommate, Eric Learned, now a freelance photographer. (“I had the right name at the right time in the right place, I guess,” Learned told me.)

Bushfield left the law firm for business school in 1999. But, when he needed to learn HTML, he taught himself by building a Web site for LearnedLeague, and the game continued. It expanded, too, solely on a referral basis: because LearnedLeague runs on an honor system, Bushfield insisted that new players be invited by an existing member. (In the years since, he has very occasionally had to kick people out for cheating. He wouldn’t tell me how he caught them.) Bushfield took jobs at Pfizer and later Microsoft, which brought him to Seattle, and he kept his hobby going. In 2004, LearnedLeague had a hundred players. Eight years later, it had a thousand. Five years after that, it had ten thousand. By then, Bushfield had been profiled in the Washington Post—under the headline “The Coolest, Weirdest Internet Community You’ll Never Be Able to Join”—and LearnedLeague had become his full-time job. He’d introduced a suggested annual membership fee of twenty-five dollars, which later became a standard thirty-dollar fee for all returning players. (Players can choose to pay more, and receive little perks if they do.) He remains the league’s only full-time employee, but he solicits feedback on questions from volunteers, and, between seasons, the site hosts one-day themed quizzes (“Apples,” “Dumpster Fires”) and multiday mini-leagues (“Gen X Pop Culture,” “A History of Diseases and Pandemics”) written by members. Players can also volunteer for a variety of paid and unpaid gigs, such as proctoring the championships, trawling for contenders for the season’s “Best Wrong Answer” prize, and serving on committees dedicated to league rules and the like.

The league now includes more than twenty-three thousand people, divided into a hundred divisions, each of which has five brackets—or “rundles,” in league parlance—that are sorted by skill level. (There’s an additional group for first-timers.) Each day during a season, players are paired off against another member of their rundle, round-robin-style. Matches have a defensive element: though all players receive the same questions, the point value of each question is decided by a player’s opponent for that day. Typically, you can see your opponent’s username, gender, location, and alma mater. You also see their stats across eighteen different trivia categories, including classical music, world history, television, and math. The truly competitive can dig into the opposition’s full question history, to determine precisely which decades of T.V. they know best or whether their knowledge of sports is likely to extend to cricket. (When designing the LearnedLeague Web site, Bushfield was partly inspired by the ultra-granular baseball-reference.com.) Depending on your performance, you might move up or down a rundle at the end of the season.

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