The decline of Trivial Pursuit.

Dissecting the mainstream.
April 13 2005 10:53 PM

Trivial Pursuit

What classic board game, created in 1979, is on the decline?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

In college, I played Trivial Pursuit. For some, the undergraduate years mark the emergence of a first novel, or issuance of a political identity; for me, they were a chance to win at board games. Trivial Pursuit matches were nasty business. Once, after correctly answering a question about the sequel to The Pink Panther, I found myself accused of cheating, and the whole group nearly came to blows. Another time, my roommate and I were pitted against a guy who was rumored to have memorized all 6,000 of the game's questions and answers. He was doing pretty well there for a while, until he was waylaid by drunkenness; no points for guessing who was bringing him the beer.

Trivial Pursuit still sells briskly, thanks to a 1990s edition and movie tie-ins, but the game seems to have receded as a cultural icon. Today, Trivial Pursuit is a museum piece, a fond reminder of the frivolities of the 1980s. What happened?

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Those who revere Trivial Pursuit for its wit and erudition may be heartbroken to learn that it was created by Canadian hockey fans. The game was hatched by Scott Abbott and Chris Haney on Dec. 15, 1979, when they met for a few hours of Scrabble, noticed some of the pieces had gone missing, and set about creating a game that would test inconsequentia in history, geography, popular entertainment, the arts, science, and sports. In 1982, they brought the game to a New York firm called Selchow & Righter, which manufactured Scrabble and Parcheesi. The boys envisioned something grander than a mere board game. They wanted to make Trivial Pursuit a tony accessory for the baby boomer, like Eagles albums and the Volvo. The price hovered at $40, nearly twice that of most games. The cadet-blue box included a quote from Alexander Pope and no impossibly blond children smiling and rolling dice on the cover, in stark contrast to the cheerier offerings from Hasbro.

For the trivia itself, Abbott and Haney zeroed in on baby-boomer nostalgia. The game concerns itself with useless information, yes, but useless information of a very specific sort: detritus from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, which flattered the baby boomer by making his golden years seem vital, even historic. The theme held for questions ranging from foreign affairs ("Which eye did Moshe Dayan wear a patch over?") to television ("Who was Howdy Doody's twin brother?") to the Beatles ("Who replaced Pete Best?"). Abbot and Haney added just enough happy-hour impishness to keep the game from becoming too earnest. What's the largest diamond in the world? Why, a baseball diamond!

Trivial Pursuit became a great repository of middlebrow culture. Flip through a stack of cards at random and you assemble a list of middlebrow writers (James Thurber, Gore Vidal), movies (Mutiny on the Bounty, Love Story), and television shows (Gunsmoke). In 1983, a marketing consultant named Linda Pezzano shipped board games to actors featured in the entertainment questions. Pat Boone, Gregory Peck, and James Mason sent back adoring fan letters, which Selchow & Righter used in promotions. When Time reported that Trivial Pursuit had become popular with the cast of The Big Chill—the quintessential boomer flick—the game attained a newfound cachet. To win at Trivial Pursuit was to achieve something greater than mastering a board game. It was to achieve mastery of one's subculture: to have successfully determined which bits of information to retain (anything about Gunsmoke) and which to discard (anything about Rimbaud).

With nothing less than cultural identity on the line, Trivial Pursuit matches became pitched battles. "This game can make you feel incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid," a player told the New York Times in 1984. The social stigma of losing necessitated strategy, even chicanery. In a 1983 volume called How To Win at Trivial Pursuit, author Robert J. Heller suggests that a player memorize all 6,000 answers before his opponents arrive and be prepared to contest the validity of any question in which his answer is deemed to be wrong. He continues, "If your opponents are people with whom you may expect to play again, you will be better served by suggesting that the correct answers not be read aloud." If that fails, a player may attempt to "throw his opponents into a tizzy by providing extra bits of information or alternative correct answers they will have to look up, only to grudgingly agree that he is right." And, finally: "The possibilities are limited only by the deviousness of your mind and the viciousness of your competitive drive. Have fun!"

Whether one memorized the questions or not, the original Trivial Pursuit contained a finite amount of entertainment. As the years passed, Abbott and Haney worked furiously to reinvent the franchise, creating new editions like "All-Star Sports" and "Baby Boomer" (which seemed slightly redundant). Purists, though, ignored the new games and gravitated back to the blue box; 23 years after its American debut, the original edition still accounts for a huge percentage of Trivial Pursuit's 80 million units sold.

This runs counter to the spirit of most board games—like Monopoly and Scrabble—which promise endless permutations. Trivia, it turns out, is nonrenewable. The Genus Edition so ably flattered boomers that they saw no need to buy later editions that included questions about, say, Melrose Place. What about children of boomers, Trivial Pursuit's other major demographic? They were warned away from the original—the box declared, "Age: Adult"—which of course made mastering the original game even more enticing. To compete at Trivial Pursuit, and maybe answer a question or two, was to secure a seat at the adult table. I remember my grandparents' astonishment when I correctly answered that Radar O'Reilly's favorite drink was Grape Nehi—a fact I'm pretty sure I learned directly from a Trivial Pursuit card. However sacredly boomers regard their nostalgia, it turns out their children regard it as more precious than their own.

Then came the Internet: How could Trivial Pursuit survive in the age of Google? The Internet has rewritten the rules of the game. The old measure of the trivia master was how many facts he could cram into his head. The new measure is how nimbly he can manipulate a search engine to call up the answer. The ABC show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire included a lifeline called "phone-a-friend," in which a desperate contestant was supposed to call upon the knowledge of a smart companion. Seconds after the contestant dialed for help, you could hear the guy on the other end pecking away at a keyboard—Googling—and I thought, This is it. Trivia is dead.

That's overstating it a little. Trivia lives; it's generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that's ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like "90s Time Capsule" and "Book Lover's," and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us who have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group. "What jungle planet do Wookiees hail from?" a Star Wars card asks. Let's say, hypothetically and only for the sake of argument, that I know the answer. Who is supposed to be impressed by that?

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.