That which cannot be googled

How do you create an online trivia game when everyone lives on the Web, which has made cheaters of us all.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

The Web has made cheaters of us all. It's why I don't play online Scrabble anymore. I like to play honestly. It's more of a challenge. Until I find myself getting smoked by my 11-year-old nephew with "Zymurgy" on a triple word. Right. Then the gloves come off and the anagram generator comes up, you little squirt. But where's the fun in that?

The tendency for people to cheat online is one of the reasons I initially told Jeremy Toeman I wasn't going to cover his Twitter quiz game, Trivia On Twitter, which rewards fast answers to Twittered trivia questions with real prizes. What's the challenge here? Anything you can ask can be googled. The best players would be those who are able to read search results pages the fastest. No fun.

Google knows. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

But, Toeman told me today, he's trying to come up with trivia challenges that rewards more than google skills. Some of the questions involve calculations, or multiple steps, such as "How many U.S. states are there with only four different letters in their names?" He's also looking at creating picture questions, in which players have to identify an image. He'll be running the pictures through an image editor first, modifying them so image-matching engines like TinEye are not likely to find them.

These methods have their flaws. The first type of question might turn off pure trivia buffs, and the second penalizes players who are using the service via mobile devices (since the pictures are viewed on linked Web sites).

So straight-up trivia will remain the focus of the game. And for those standard trivia questions, Toeman says, the nature of the Internet means that the trivia team has to reverse-engineer questions (culled, often, from their own google queries) to reward people with actual knowledge, compared to those who are speedy googlers.

The team has to make clear trivia questions into bad google queries. But the game rewards speedy answers. The idea is to craft questions for which only people with their own knowledge are likely to be first. "The goal," Toeman tells me, "is not to make questions more time-consuming, but to reward the people who actually have the knowledge." If you really know something, you can still be faster than someone who has to look it up. Toeman says that the typical response time for the first right answer on the game is fifteen seconds. The slowest time-to-correct-answer is still under one minute.

Trivia On Twitter's business model includes running sponsored giveaways so there's some motivation from users to employ all means possible to win games. To date, the prizes have been in the Bluetooth headset range, keeping organized "cheating" to a minimum, but if this business succeeds and gets bigger, it will end up with bigger prizes, raising the motivation to win at all costs by gathering teams of people, poised at their computers--some on Wikipedia, others on IMDB, others at search engines--ready to look up questions in particular areas. The game currently has fewer than 3,000 followers, so there's a lot of room left for growth.

From a business perspective, Toeman isn't sure if trying to foil the googlers is the right way to go. He says, "Maybe the right way is to make the questions easier, so more people play." There's less fun in that model, I think. Although probably more money.