In the Worthing lido on the West Sussex coast, which I’d visit in my youth, there was an amusement arcade. Amongst the fruit machines and dusty air-hockey tables stood an interactive version of the once hugely popular TV gameshow Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
It cost about fifty pence to play, and I’m not sure there was even a cash prize on offer for reaching the jackpot. It didn’t matter; the fun was in putting ourselves in the shoes of whichever casually-suited everyman or woman ended up sitting in front of Chris Tarrant. I remember the whole family biting their nails in unison and cheering when, once, my little brother gleefully jumping up and down, we progressed to some fantastical £64,000 before eventually, inevitably, faltering.
A decade or so later and my brother is again ecstatic at a family quiz triumph, only this time the returns are real. We’ve just won at HQ Trivia.
For the first time in my quiz-playing life, the exhilaration of getting question after question right was not just an end in itself – we have actually come away with a prize. Our twelve successive correct answers have earned us an almighty £13.10.
If you don’t already know, HQ Trivia is the phenomenally successful gameshow app that launched in the US in late 2017. Founded by Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, who also made the short-lived and even-shorter-video app Vine, HQ Trivia is already valued at $100m. It is unquestionably, the next big thing.
It took off in the UK in late January 2018 and regularly gets close to 100,000 viewers tuning in to its 15 minute ‘episodes’. During these, each player has ten seconds to answer each question, which is just the right amount of time to type a question into Google and not be able to read the answer. If you get it right, you go to the next question. If you get it wrong, you’re out.
The prize money for each round is split between whoever remains after answering all 12 questions correctly. The total pot is usually around £550 (in the UK) but rises well into the thousands on some weekends, so individual winners can earn anywhere between my unspectacular £13.10 to a rather more significant $8333.33. On 12 April 2018, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson even hosted an episode sponsored by his latest film where the grand prize was an almighty $300,000. Two million people watched and played.
Where do they get all that money from? Mostly through venture capitalists, who have thus far invested over $15 million into HQ, and are happy for the game to lose money so long as the app keeps pulling in users. And there’s nothing like giving out free cash to lure people in.
The app is bizarre to look at and, as others have pointed out, feels exactly like that Black Mirror episode where Daniel Kaluuya rides a fake bike in order to win a place on a reality TV show. Many of HQ Trivia’s attributes – the forced, incessant enthusiasm of the hosts, the loud hyperactive music, and the inane nattering of the onscreen chat – make it feel like a hand-held window into a dystopian future.
It’s a world where general knowledge rules supreme and our trivia-happy minds can be ranked, exhumed and rewarded based purely on the random facts they have absorbed.
The look of the game, as well as its format – live shows that don’t wait for you, encouraging you to take breaks during work – have made HQ rife for criticism. Writing in the New York Times, Amanda Hess described how while playing, “for the next 15 minutes, I was not exactly human. I was a slave to HQ”, which she calls “the best worst thing on the internet.” The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost goes as far as to say that the speed at which the questions must be answered “feels like [HQ] tests the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. In the app, trivia breaks its bond to reason, memory, and community. Instead, it tests instinct.”
This idea of an enslaving, instinct-rewarding platform is of course nothing new. It’s merely the latest iteration of Big Tech’s attempt to infect our minds with flashy, addictive software. As Tristan Harris (a former Google Design Ethicist) puts it in his popular TED talk, “all of our technology is basically only asking our lizard brain ‘what’s the best way to just impulsively get you to do the next tiniest thing with your time’.”
But I don’t think that HQ’s success comes solely from its ability to hack into our ugly, instinctive, lizard-brain. Unlike almost everything else in our on-demand, stream-heavy, new media landscape, the quizzes are scheduled in advance. If I check the time and it’s 8:50pm, I’ll think to myself: “Ooh, not long until HQ”. It creates that sense of anticipation for a live event that has been lost along with the demise of most traditional TV. In a similar way, it capitalises on the demise of great gameshows in the age of stream. Curled up in bed alone is not the same as shouting answers at the telly with the whole family.
We all devour episodes of Netflix series because we know that these are part of the golden age. There will never be anything better to watch so we gladly spend several months of our lives staring at Walter White staring grumpily at a flask. But there’s never been superstar Netflix gameshow. No one wants to binge-watch Eggheads when they’re hungover.
Despite this, for a few years now, it’s been received wisdom that platforms like Netflix represent both the future and the present of TV. But for all its clever recommendations and billions spent on original content, Netflix is still not a truly personalised media experience. It hosts traditional TV shows and films, and delivers them in a slightly new way. The viewer is still just the spectator.
But HQ allows the viewer to be the star, while also creating the group participation that comes naturally with gameshows. For example, in February, at the end of a slow, pleasant, yearly family dinner, I got the whole extended family playing at the point at which, on any other year, we would normally all start playing a board game like Boggle or Cranium.
But I had recently discovered HQ Trivia, so I started proselytising about it. Before too long, everyone around the table was looking down at their phones, all glued to screens in unison. The sound blared from all the eight or nine phones at once – ever so slightly out of sync – giving all the small-talk and puns which fill the spaces between questions a ghostly delay.
You can picture the scene, and the first reaction is probably one of “how weird!” or “kids these days!”. But it wasn’t antisocial: we were sharing the correct answers with one another, hedging our bets across the room when we were uncertain. We were playing together, but at the same time we were each in the hot-seat, each living out the fantasy of being the star of the quiz show, the mind under the microscope.
HQ Trivia represents the future of TV because it reinvents that boundary between viewer and star. The fourth wall is torn down, not in post-modern irony, but in sincere empowerment. Media theorists have long known that celebrities fill in for viewer’s fantasies, with their incredibly relatable personalities juxtaposed alongside impossibly unattainable lifestyles. But now we can all be stars, we can all be celebs, we can all be the player. When someone says: “who wants to be a millionaire?” You can shout: “me!”
The potential for similar such shows is huge. Imagine X Factor, but you are the judge, your on-screen comments replacing Simon Cowell’s pre-watershed verbal abuse. Imagine Big Brother, but you can tap in and watch any room of the house at any time on your phone and evict people on a whim. Imagine Bake Off, but Mary Berry has to eat two million macarons on the spot, all 3D-printed from recipes sent in by the viewers at home. By empowering those watching, TV could become more of a dialogue between creators and spectators and less of a lifeless drip-feed of canned entertainment.
But of course, I would be in favour of that. After all, I have won at HQ Trivia. And it was an exhilarating experience. The closer you get to that final round of questioning, the more intense the challenge, the more meaningful and weighty each split-second tap becomes. And then you’re there, with £13.10 in your PayPal account. A champion, your name amongst a few dozen others, on the screen for a matter of seconds.
This might be the next step of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame – a measly 15 seconds. You feel special, important, for a short moment, but there’s not even anyone else there to acknowledge it. You’re just famous in your own head or your own living room. The thing is – if everyone becomes a celebrity, if everyone becomes the star – there may be no one left to watch.