How HQ Trivia Became the Best Worst Thing on the Internet

Posted January 5, 2018 6:32 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 6:36 p.m. EST

On New Year’s Eve, I went to dinner in Los Angeles to close out 2017 with friends. Naturally, the meal ended with me white-knuckling my phone, my eyeballs glued open and my mind laser-focused on spitting up ephemeral internet trivia like who is the most followed celebrity on Instagram (Selena Gomez) or which book topped Goodreads’ best-of list in 2017 (“Little Fires Everywhere”). That’s because, just as the check arrived, HQ beckoned: The live trivia app had announced a surprise game, and if I wanted a shot at answering 12 multiple-choice questions and vying for a share of the $18,000 pot, I had to tap in instantly.

For the next 15 minutes, I was not exactly human. I was a slave to HQ.

HQ blasted out of obscurity this fall to become the best worst thing on the internet. It’s the most popular app that barely even works. The questions (“How many times does the word ‘sex’ appear in the U.S. Constitution?”) can be so obscure as to be meaningless, and the wording (“What is the more common plural form for octopus?”) is often indecipherable. (The hugely controversial “correct” answer: octopuses.) Some questions (“Which retro fashion style did NOT make a comeback this year?”) basically test opinions. Others stink strongly of advertorials.

Then there’s the app itself, which is riddled with glitches and lags. Players are regularly booted from the game without explanation. The live host’s face is frequently obscured by the wheel of death. Sometimes, the whole game is scrapped for mysterious technical reasons — including one high-stakes game scheduled for 11:45 p.m. EST on New Year’s Eve, which was unceremoniously aborted, then rescheduled for 45 minutes later — the game I hopped into.

And yet, as many as half a million people are tuning in for each session. It’s maybe the only real appointment viewing across all of entertainment right now. Why?

HQ’s failures are, I believe, crucial to its appeal. Consider the warm sense of accomplishment you get from completing the crossword puzzle, which is meticulously crafted by professionals and is built on basically consistent branches of knowledge. HQ provides an even more beguiling sensation: the feeling of being aggrieved.

The game pulls you in by dangling a cash prize, offers manic highs and seething frustrations in quick succession, then dumps you out, usually empty-handed. But the HQ refractory period — six to 18 hours — is just long enough to relax you into a state of optimism about playing again. It’s dystopian “Jeopardy!”: not the trivia game we wanted, but the one we deserve.

HQ is based on an enticing proposition: It turns our phones, those founts of infinite knowledge, into a rare site of human recall. (Because questions are set on a 10-second clock, answers are generally un-Googleable.) But while the game purports to test legitimate knowledge, the questions are so frequently absurd that it comes closer to testing your undivided attention to mindless tapping. If you answer a question correctly, you still get that high of intellectual superiority. The Darwinian aspect — watch hundreds of thousands of people get eliminated as you rise — fosters a gleeful arrogance for as long as you’re on top.

But when you get a question wrong, you’re granted plausible deniability. If you can’t finish the crossword, it feels like a personal failure. But when you lose HQ — which the vast majority of players do the vast majority of the time — it often seems arbitrary and unfair, the fault of the unskilled question writers or the unsophisticated technology. It’s not you. It’s the game. And even if you do win, the prizes — $1,000, $2,000, $10,000 — are often reduced to pocket change when split among the sometimes hundreds of other people who also won. HQ is a little app that channels big feelings about the fundamental lie of the meritocracy. Every session becomes an opportunity to rail against life’s injustices.

The avatar for all those feelings is Scott Rogowsky, the game’s usual host and its breakout star. Scott — players know him on a first-name basis — has been nicknamed Quiz Daddy by his fans. He calls his players HQties. On first viewing, Scott can come across as incredibly annoying. The moments in the game between the presentation of questions — when Scott is explaining the rules, making jokes, or dropping Phish references — can be excruciating. But after a few plays, Scott ingratiates himself into your psyche in a third-grade crush kind of way. Only after playing a game without Scott — a crew of lackluster substitute hosts occasionally fills in — does his brilliance at his job become obvious: his unwavering eye contact; his punning proficiency; his confidence and coolness under pressure; his belief in himself, and in the game. Even when HQ crumbles, Scott is our rock. Scott’s folk hero status was cemented by yet another unforced error by the HQ team. When a Daily Beast reporter conducted an anodyne interview with Scott, Rus Yusupov, the co-founder and CEO, exploded at the “unauthorized” conversation, called the reporter and threatened to fire Scott if the story ran. The bizarre exchange only endeared players to Scott more. He may play our trivia overlord onscreen, but on some level, he, too, is a slave to HQ. Whenever a not-Scott host appears, the chat that unspools beneath the game erupts in displeasure: “NOOOO.” “It’s not Scott.” “Where is Scott.” “Free Scott.” “#NOTMYHOST.”

The chat is itself a fascinating artifact. When hundreds of thousands of people try to communicate at once, the only messages that scan are flashes of identity: “MAGA,” “OBAMA,” “BUSH DID 9/11,” “BUY DOGECOIN.” In the chat, griping about HQ has become as popular a pastime as actually playing the game. The slightest glitch produces a flurry of complaints like “LAG” and “NOT WORKING” and “WOW SCOTT.” The game’s failings have crystallized into inside jokes. After incessant complaints of the app’s video stalling, Scott acquired a new nickname: Lag Daddy. The octopus question spawned its own in-game meme. Now the chat swims with octopus emoji.

HQ’s most impressive achievement lies in its re-establishment of appointment viewing in the Netflix age. You can watch pretty much any TV show or movie whenever you want, but when your phone buzzes with an HQ notification, you have only a few minutes to enter the game. If you miss the window, you’ll be forced to watch helplessly, tapping in vain, as it unfolds without you.

HQ is a throwback to TV scheduling in the pre-DVR era, the digital equivalent of NBC’s Must-See TV lineup. (Scott is our Ross and our Rachel.) And the app has pulled it off by cultivating an unexpected sense of community amid the digital swamp. All the Darwinian competition, frustrating glitches and impossible questioning actually bring HQties together, bonding us through our performative trauma. The idea of actually downloading and playing the copycat app, The Q, is preposterous, even though its relatively minuscule traffic increases players’ chances of winning bigger sums. It’s not really about the money, after all.

HQ has the power to create bonds outside the app, too. I won that New Year’s Eve game — I wrote this whole column so I could brag about that — but only because my dinner party happened to include representatives of the film industry (who knew that “Beauty and the Beast” was the second-largest-grossing movie of 2017), an actual rocket scientist (who knew that the technology used to peek inside the Great Pyramid of Giza involved subatomic muons), and me, a possessor of meaningless facts concerning Selena Gomez. We won $59.41, an unusually generous prize, and got digitally foisted onto the internet’s shoulders: I heard from a colleague, a Twitter follower, my friend’s mom.

But when my phone buzzed the next day, summoning me to play, it was as if a spell had been broken. I no longer feel the itch to play twice a day, at work and at dinner. I am free. Maybe I’ll check in from time to time, though. Just to see how Scott’s doing.