At 9 p.m. last Sunday night, nearly 90,000 people simultaneously pulled out their iPhones to play a round of trivia with a guy named Scott.
HQ Trivia, which launched this summer, is the third offering from Intermedia Labs, the company started by two of the founders of Vine. As host Scott Rogowsky explains every night, HQ is “the trivia game show on your phone where you answer tough questions to win real money.” The app goes live twice a day on weekdays, at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. EST, and once a day on weekends. You’re summoned by a push notification, and then for 12 to 15 minutes, Rogowsky bellows trivia questions (“Where was Frederic Chopin born?” “Which of these celebrities has Sean Penn never married?”) enthusiastically at you from your screen. Tap your answer from a choice of three, and if you’re left standing at the end of 12 questions, you split the cash with the other winners in the pool, with everyone getting anywhere from $3 to a couple hundred bucks paid via PayPal.
When someone first showed me the app in October, my reaction was somewhere between horror and fascination. Something about it felt wrong, like electricity running somewhere it shouldn’t. I’ve shown the app to other people who’ve described it as “like finding a dinner plate-sized spider in your shower,” “like coming up on E,” “insane hallucinatory tech death,” and “the worst Philip K. Dick novel for my phone.” The app falls into an uncanny valley of unbalanced interactivity, with Rogowsky reading questions and improvising bits, while you tap multiple choice answers in response. The whole thing has a The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, locked-in feel about it: Rogowsky seems to be interacting with you, but you can only click A, B, or C in response.
Down at the bottom of the screen is a manic torrent of text called the “chat,” where players can post comments. It’s impossible to follow and there’s no way for players to directly address each other. Mostly people post strings of emojis, HELLOs from wherever they are or shouts of LAG LAG LAG LAG when the feed gets glitchy. Because it is the internet, it can always get worse. When Rogowsky was temporarily replaced by two female hosts, the comment scroll devolved quickly and predictably into all caps cries of WHERE’S SCOTT and misogynistic commentary on the hosts’ breasts.
Rogowsky, a rumpled stand-up comedian from New York, is the human hook for the HQ. Given Intermedia Labs’ lack of a website or even a Twitter feed, he’s really all the humanity they’ve got, and the playerbase is very attached to him. When he took a few days off last weekend, the throng called for Scott so loudly that apparently he cut his vacation short to come back a day early. He only ever appears from the waist up, staying fixed in the middle of your screen. He moves around, but the effect is that of a slightly more animated TSA hologram. The experience is claustrophobic. While there might be tens of thousands of people tuning into the game with you, as an individual player you have no meaningful ability to interact with any of them; the chat moves so fast that it’s impossible to respond to anyone directly. There’s just Scott, stuck inside your phone screen, making bad jokes, not blinking too much. Talking to you, but also not talking to you.
Down at the bottom of the screen is a manic torrent of text called the “chat.”
The graphic design of the app plays up this off-ness, perhaps inadvertently. If you’ve seen Black Mirror, you’ve seen the aesthetic at play in HQ: simultaneously highly polished and incomplete. The tumbling shapes in the animated fireworks of the introductory sequence are modeled in three dimensions, but have no shading. They’re three dimensional shapes that look flat until they move. The brightly colored animated countdown glitches out artistically when it hits sixteen seconds to go. The peppy background beat converts to a high pitched whine, while the lava lamp pattern drifting in the background freezes into a yellow, teal, pink, and purple test pattern. But, along the lines of the classic science fiction show, The Outer Limits, there is nothing wrong with your smartphone, do not attempt to adjust the picture. The glitch is all part of the slightly off experience of HQ Trivia, stuck in the uncanny valley of quiz shows.
HQ isn’t the first foray into interactive TV, or even the first interactive quiz show. The quiz show format has always enticed audiences to play along, shouting answers from their living room couch at the TV during Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In 2009, Microsoft launched a massively multiplayer Xbox Live version of a show called 1 vs 100, which pitted one player against a crowd of 100 other players. Like HQ, 1 vs 100 aired live, letting players join in in real time. Winners were awarded sweepstakes tickets and later Microsoft Points instead of cash, and players were represented by Xbox Live avatars, all crammed inside an animated television studio that looked like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire meets Hollywood Squares via Reboot. There was live color commentary, but no human host to get attached to. 1 vs 100 was pulled after a year. Another attempt, YouAre.TV, was founded in 2011 with a plan to let viewers use their webcam to videochat live with hosts. It featured shows like “Box or No Box,” where a single player picked which of eight colored boxes contained cash instead of foot powder while a live chat scrolled on the side of the screen. The whole thing had a ChatRoulette feel, but with fewer dicks. YouAre.TV rolled on for a few years before folding in 2014. (Its founder, Josh Weinstein, is currently running a “New York’s largest legal cannabis industry community,” CannaGather.) The difference between these earlier versions of interactive TV and HQ Trivia boils down to the video broadcast quality, which is high, the cash money prizes, which are plentiful, and Scott.
But after all this, the glitchy, hollow, noninteractive interactivity of HQ feels like a distraction. From what, I don’t know, because I don’t know what Intermedia Lab’s monetization strategy is. HQ has attracted “a few million dollars” in venture funding from Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, previously known for his early investment in Snapchat. Presumably, this is the kitty HQ is paying out from (the FAQ says, “The prizes are sponsored by Intermedia Labs, Inc. and sometimes affiliates, marketers, and partners”) but Intermedia Labs never answered the list of questions I sent over. I see a few potential monetization strategies for HQ: advertising, sponsored questions, endorsements. HQ itself could just be a particularly popular proof of concept, with Intermedia looking to build out as a platform or license the show format. I just don’t know, and as a rule, I don’t trust fanged pits spitting money at me for no known reason. The tech press has called HQ “craveable,” and it’s not surprising. By placing front and center the tantalizing idea of real money winnings, HQ trips a lot of the same risk/reward circuits that gambling does.
Another friend of mine called HQ the “embodiment of the futch.” A few years ago, Joanne McNeil wrote a short essay called “Postcards from the Futch,” describing the un-factcheck-able brand of futurism sold at tech conferences by “idea-ators…who instructed us to keep looking toward the horizon and never look down.” The futch (pronounced “fyooch”) takes complexity and renders it into simplistic opacity, shined up with gee whiz techno glitter. The futch takes the idea that the future should be legible and transforms it into the dictate that the future should be easy. Interactive TV is up there with flying cars and meals in pill form as far as idealized visions of the future have gone. Everything about HQ, from its push notification demands for attention to the flat plasticky graphics to the well-groomed holoman at the center feels like a gloss on complicated questions about how we want to interact with technology and how we want technology to interact with us. It holds out the promise of interaction while reverting back to broadcast model of attention scheduling and one-to-many communication. It sucks you deeper into your phone with the promise of cash, holding your attention and yourself in place for… something. We’re familiar with the new-old adage, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. So what does it mean when the product is paying you?