Trivia Found a Way in the Pandemic

Back in early 2019, Missy Steak started hosting Drag Trivia, a twice-monthly event in the Boston area featuring performances by her fellow drag queens.

Between acts, Missy would pose questions to the audience about pop culture and current events, gently teasing those who hadn’t been keeping up with the latest on, say, the General Motors worker strike.

When Covid-19 began to spread around the country, Drag Trivia fizzled out. (Zoom can miss the finer points of live drag shows.) Trivia itself, however, began to flourish.

Throughout the pandemic, people have been hosting virtual events on videoconferencing apps, livestreaming sites and social media platforms.

Bucktown Pub in Chicago announced a pivot to virtual trivia within days of initial lockdown orders. The King County Library System in Washington State has been on a cartoon kick. An online trivia series hosted by the Pajarito Environmental Education Center in Los Alamos, N.M., kicked off this January, starting with “New Mexico fun facts, snow and winter wildlife”; the organization is now gearing up for an Earth Month edition. Of course, there have been plenty of pop culture-themed games, too.

Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” champion, observed in his book “Brainiac” that trivia tends to thrive in times of prosperity and leisure. But Missy said she’s not surprised by the surge of virtual versions in a year of uncertainty, political polarization and disinformation campaigns.

Before the pandemic, Heather White “was not a trivia person at all.” But, she said, “over the past year, uncertainty was the biggest thing we had to learn to live with. Any moment you’re presented with a concrete, hard fact, there’s a safety in that.”

Ms. White, who is the C.E.O. of Trillfit, a fitness studio in Boston, hosted trivia during a virtual “Brunch & Burn” event in January. “We knew it was going to be pop culture, fun,” she said. “We knew it was going to be super Black.” Attendees identified hip-hop songs by their first few seconds and answered questions about local landmarks and civil rights heroes.

“If we put trivia as a class on the schedule, I’m sure people would sign up,” Ms. White said.

Trivia, like exercise, may deliver a kind of release that people have craved. Claire McNear, a staff writer for The Ringer and the author of “Answers in the Form of Questions,” said the appeal of a show like “Jeopardy!” is that it’s a “pure” space, “where things are right or they’re wrong.”

“There aren’t a lot of corners of public life that feel that way,” she said. “Of course it’s comforting.”

That feeling is part of what makes “Jeopardy!” such a popular show. For a week in November 2020, 10 million viewers tuned in every night, making “Jeopardy!” TV’s most watched syndicated program. The quiz show saw the same numbers back in April 2020, when people, newly locked down, were just looking for something to do.

“Jeopardy!”, like the virtual trivia games hosted over the past year, provides both entertainment and lessons. This was always Sarah McAnulty’s approach when she hosted trivia in person, and it still is now, as she presides over a virtual, science-focused series on Thursday nights.

The goal of these events is to promote Skype a Scientist, her pro bono service that matches scientists with such groups as “journalists, artists and folks in correctional facilities,” Ms. McAnulty said. “Before the pandemic, the reason we did trivia was to meet people where they are with science,” setting up in bars and showing that, technically, everything is science. People could pull from their own experiences to answer the questions; similarly, the answers themselves could be real-life solutions.

“That’s the great thing about trivia — you never know when it will be helpful,” said Pat Young, an owner of the company Trivial Matters, which hosts events in Atlanta.

“I have a Leatherman that I carry with me,” said Mr. Young, referring to a tool he uses for various construction projects. “I never know when I need it, but when I do, I’m so glad that I have it. That’s how I see trivia.”

As bars and restaurants have increased their capacity, in-person trivia has re-emerged. In October, Trivial Matters temporarily resumed in-person games at the restaurant where they’d been held for three years. The restaurant has since closed.

At the end of February, after months of Twitch-streamed games, Tappers Arcade Bar in Indianapolis hosted its first in-person event since the pandemic began. The next game is slated for May, said the bar’s manager, Austin Howard, when staff members are expected to be fully vaccinated.

There were trivia regulars in prepandemic times, Mr. Howard said, and some of them attended the bar’s virtual stand-ins. “Hopefully we’ll see them come back,” he said.

Given everything that’s happened since Missy’s last Drag Trivia event, in March 2020, the questions she once asked players feel outdated. From a September 2019 game: “On Sept. 20, what popular internet plan actually took place in Nevada?” Answer: the Area 51 raid. Missy laughed at how relevant the news seemed at the time; she’d since forgotten about it.

When she read a question from an event in January 2020 — “How many articles of impeachment was Donald Trump just charged with?” — she laughed again. A year later, she could have asked the same thing. But the answer would have changed.

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