Brains And Buzzers

An examination of quizbowl’s technological evolution, from radio broadcasts to question archives and Discord tournaments.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Michael Bentley of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence, a major figure in the world of quizbowl. He shares with us a piece on quizbowl’s long evolution. Read on!

Today in Tedium: Technology and trivia may not be obvious bedfellows. But trivia enthusiasts in the postwar-trivia boom of the 1950s would surely look in envy at technologies we take for granted today: word processors, search engines, wikis, videoconferencing services. In today’s Tedium, I take you through the technological evolution of a trivia format called quizbowl from the radio age to the Zoom age. — Michael @ Tedium

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51

The number of years that Mac McGarry hosted the It’s Academic televised high school quizbowl on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. McGarry’s involvement in quizbowl starts even earlier than the first season of It’s Academic in 1961. He was a referee for the Georgetown team on a College Bowl radio match from 1954 in which the Hoyas ended a 4-game winning streak for Syracuse University. According to his obituary in the Washington Post, McGarry’s half-century-long broadcasting career also had him serving as a straight man for Willard Scott’s variety program alongside a young Jim Henson. (Scott himself played Ronald McDonald in the 1960s but was supposedly fired by McDonald’s for being too fat.) According to The “It’s Academic” Quiz Book published in 1989, the show was adapted into several local markets, including Hong Kong. Ronald Reagan even taped a promo for the show for its 25th anniversary, but I’m unable to find any footage online.

Its Academic

Mac McGarry (standing, left) on the It’s Academic set sometime in the 1950s. Source: Regis High School.

Radio quizbowl lessons for the COVID era

Like many of you, my pet hobby, quizbowl, has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person tournaments on hold for the foreseeable future, I’ve been both playing online tournaments and revisiting quizbowl’s past.

Quizbowl (also spelled quiz bowl) is basically a team version of the game-show Jeopardy! (or University Challenge or Reach for the Top for you Brits and Canadians). It’s widely played from the middle school to university level and has a growing open circuit.

Although quizbowl is related to other trivia formats like Trivial Pursuit and bar trivia, it differs in a few ways. Most importantly, quizbowl tossup questions are designed to be interrupted in the middle when a team knows it. Question writers seeks to reward the teams that know the most about a topic rather than the fastest on the buzzer (although buzzer speed is still important). The clues in the tossups appear in descending order of difficulty. Here’s an example of a tossup I wrote a few years ago for a tournament on technology:

Chances are you didn’t know most of the early clues in that question unless you’ve studied the history of blood transfusions. But by the end of the question almost everyone will be able to answer it.

Online quizbowl tournaments, once done over IRC or Skype but now commonly run on Zoom or Discord, have existed for a few years. But their true lineage goes back decades to the earliest intercollegiate quizbowl competitions.

Quizbowl Modern

Spectators at a modern quizbowl match: no social distancing, obviously. (courtesy PACE)

In fact, College Bowl, an NBC radio program begun in 1953 that’s the ancestor of modern quizbowl, didn’t even feature in-person matches until it moved to TV. Instead, Alan Luddon “live from Radio City, New York” read the questions to two teams playing in front of cheering audiences at their own universities. Each episode of the radio program began with the announcer describing a “special electronic selector” that allowed “the team that signals first, even by a split second” to light up a board in the New York studio that “makes it impossible for the other team’s light to flash.”

(A quick aside: Even earlier radio quiz shows like Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour (1934) pioneered some of these distance-quizzing practices. These shows, which were popular enough to spawn a toy line, often featured contestants calling in via phone.)

During the pandemic, I’ve been binge listening to these old College Bowl episodes. Many are available at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library. A selection of episodes from GE College Bowl TV show are also on YouTube.

Some of the appeal of 1950s-era quizbowl for me is the cultural differences from today. The topics are much more parochial. Whereas a modern quizbowl packet will have many questions on Asian, African and Latin American topics, the best one could hope for from a 1950s-era match was a question like “Where is Timbuktu? ANSWER: Africa.”

The knowledge base of the typical player has changed—and not only because the journalism majors have largely given way to aspiring software engineers. Most modern quizbowl teams would struggle with one of College Bowl’s favorite question types, completing lines from Shakespeare. And a modern quizbowl tournament isn’t likely to have the moderator appealing to listeners to donate to Radio Free Europe to “keep the Reds from taking over Eastern Europe.”

College Bowl Vintage Image

A vintage College Bowl team. (The Escanaba Daily Press/Newspapers.com)

For a time in which women constituted a distinct minority on college campuses (see Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s history “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation), women (or “girls” as they were patronizingly called on the show) made up a surprising number of College Bowl contestants. The University of Minnesota team that went on the show’s first winning streak was anchored by Colleen Helgeson Nelson, who was joined on a later victory run by Eleanor Daill. The most famous match in College Bowl history is the 1966 victory for women’s college Agnes Scott over Princeton.

Behind the scenes, Nancy Folds wrote questions for the program. Sophie Altman was both a question writer and creator of It’s Academic, a high school rival to College Bowl. Disappointingly, quizbowl these days is much more male dominated and is still working through its own #MeToo movement.

College Bowl the TV program went off the air in 1970. Its British spinoff, University Challenge, still airs on ITV. An organization called College Bowl Incorporated (CBI) continued to run tournaments until its bankruptcy in 2008. By the 1980s, many college teams had already broken with CBI over its draconian rules, poor question quality, and self-plagiarism. Under the independent Academic Competition Federation and other organizations, quizbowl has evolved considerably. This excellent overview of quizbowl’s history in Slate traces how quizbowl developed to emphasize classroom-based “real knowledge” over “trivia.”

1965

The year in which a young Hillary Rodham served as an alternate for the It’s Academic team at Maine South (still an active quizbowl program), her high school in the suburbs of Chicago. Other famous quizbowl players include Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Star Trek: Picard showrunner Michael Chabon (whose novels like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are well within the quizbowl canon) and Community’s Erik Nielsen.

The Judge Suitcase Buzzer

The Judge Opened

“The Judge” opened and closed. Notice the bomb-like case and unusual foot pedal buzzing units (Joe Feldman/Long Island QB)

Suitcase buzzers, wikis and PlayStation controllers: a brief history of quizbowl and technology

Producing, running and playing a quizbowl tournament is a blend of both high and low technology. The following is a concise survey of how quizbowl has and has not kept up with the digital age.

Quizbowl buzzers, the devices that indicate who rang in first on a tossup question, remain bespoke and relatively low tech. The most notorious set of buzzers is “The Judge” (shown above) which is an unusual combination of foot petals, lights, and a briefcase. What it most closely resembles is a bomb prop in old movies and has been known to cause issues when going through airport security. The Judge has a reputation for being the most reliable buzzer system. Having played on several broken Judges, I’m of the opinion this reputation is completely unearned.

At least four people (including myself) have independently written software that converts buzz controllers originally designed for the Buzz series of games on the PlayStation 2 to work in the quizbowl format. These buzzers conveniently use a standard USB port.

PACE Buzz

About screen from PACEBuzz, quizbowl software for PlayStation 2 buzzers.

Reading questions and keeping score often remains stubbornly low tech. National quizbowl tournaments all still rely on paper packets of questions and hand-written scoresheets. Stats moved from hand calculation to software in the late ’90s, but the most common stats program, SQBS, hasn’t evolved much since the early 2000s as you might notice from the retro interface in the below screenshot.

Sewells Quiz Bowl Statistics

SQBS (“Sewell’s Quiz Bowl Statistics”): The standard for quizbowl stats since the early 2000s

Question writing is the area that has changed the most due to technological advances. The earliest independent college tournaments in the 1980s tasked each team with writing a packet of questions. In these days before the widespread availability of word processors—much less Google or Wikipedia—questions were usually written from encyclopedias, typed on typewriters, and then physically mailed to tournament editors who’d (literally) copy and paste packets before xeroxing them.

The questions were short, usually no more than 2 or 3 sentences. Here’s an example from the 1982 National Invitational Tournament, one of the first independent college tournaments:

Compare this to a tossup on the same subject from the 2019 iteration of the Early Fall Tournament, an event targeted at newer collegiate players:

What changed in the intervening 37 years?

For one, it became a lot easier to do in-depth research from your room. No longer was a trip to the university library required to request a biography on Andrew Jackson. This type of information could now be found in a multimedia encyclopedia like Encarta. (I still use an out-of-print DVD version of Encyclopedia Britannica when I want to write questions but not pay for Wi-Fi on flights.) By the early 2000s, internet resources such as Google, Wikipedia, Google Books, JStor and more let writers go much deeper much quickly into a topic. I no longer necessarily need to read the Mayan epic the Popol Vuh in its entirety to find a passage from it that could be used for a “common link” question on blood in world mythology.

Google Books

An example Google Books search for “blood” in the Mayan epic Popol Vuh. This edition lacks an index. Without a search engine, finding references to “blood” in the text would be extremely laborious.

Equally important, archives of questions from old tournaments moved from stacks of boxes in someone’s dorm room to being freely available online. This means that I can search all previous questions on Andrew Jackson to assess the difficulty of each clue in my new Jackson question. (Repeating exact clues is a big no-no, but the same subjects do come up again and again across quizbowl tournaments.)

The logistics of writing a 16-packet (640 question) question set were also improved through technology. In the mid-2000s, some question writing teams started using MediaWiki (the same software that powers Wikipedia) to collaboratively edit packets. The rise of tools like Google Docs made this even easier. Specialized question writing software was also developed.

QEMS2

A screenshot from QEMS2, an online manager for collaborative question writing

You may be wondering: Did the questions just get harder? Is anyone actually buzzing on these early clues? Yes, clues in tossup questions definitely got harder since the early days of quizbowl (although the answer lines arguably have gotten easier). But tech has allowed the best quizbowl players to get even better. Quizbowl’s elite players are routinely reading questions from old tournaments on the question archives. They’re using powerful flashcard software like Anki to make thousands of flashcards of clues that have come up before. They’re listening to recordings of old matches. They’re having bots read questions to them. All these options weren’t available, at least at this level, as recently as 20 years ago.

Technological changes have also brought changes in how the quizbowl community keeps in touch with each other. Physical mailing lists gave way to webrings and a Yahoo! group. The Yahoo! group fell out of fashion and was largely replaced with hsquizbowl.org, originally a forum for high school quizbowl that now covers all levels of the game. Younger members of the community have moved to social platforms like Facebook Groups, Discord servers, and others I’m too old to know about. There’s even the QBWiki which documents quizbowl achievements and terminology.

$413,612

The amount of money earned on his original 13-game winning streak on Jeopardy! by Matt Jackson in 2015. Jackson, who has subsequently appeared in several Jeopardy! championship tournaments, led the Yale team to three quizbowl national championships. The all-time winningest contestant in gameshow history, Ken Jennings, also played quizbowl, although his quizbowl career was less accomplished than Jackson’s. Jennings himself has written how quizbowl serves as an unofficial minor-league for Jeopardy!

Quizbowl has come a long way since the earliest radio quiz programs of the 1920s. Questions are longer and more diverse. Virtual matches no longer require expensive radio studios. Thousands of teams are playing quizbowl worldwide. The largest high school quizbowl tournament in the US attracts over 300 teams and even got its own failed Spellbound-style documentary.

What might be next for custom quizbowl tech? The COVID-19 lockdown has already inspired one company to change their business model to asynchronous quizbowl matches you can play at home. I’d love to see more development of quizbowl-specific audiovisual platforms. Discord, Zoom and the like work okay but all have certain disadvantages as a quizbowl platform.

One possible glimpse into the quizbowl of tomorrow is an AI model like GPT-3. I spent a couple days experimenting with its applications for quizbowl. GPT-3 is predictably great at answering questions. It’s not as good as the best human players, but it did successfully answer 80% of the tossups from the difficult Fall Open question set, beating the existing state of the art.

More practically, GPT-3 can be a helpful tool in writing and editing questions. While it won’t be generating questions from scratch any time soon (results were predictably filled with factual errors and non-sequiturs), I’ve already found it helpful in some of the more tedious aspects of the writing process. I got it doing a better job than I could automatically adding phonetic spellings to words (most readers are going to need help pronouncing an Irish word like “Matholwch” without it being spelled “math-oh-looch”). And I had a lot of fun giving it existing whimsical answer lines like “fleeing to Canada” and getting question ideas like “a dead person coming back to life.”

Quizbowl has in many ways been a test of knowledge, but also a cultural phenomenon that has changed with the technical tides.

In its own evolutionary way, that might be what helps keep it buzzworthy for years to come.

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Michael Bentley is the VP of Editing for the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. He also works as a data scientist in Seattle.

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks again to Michael for sharing his first-hand knowledge of an interesting subject area.

Michael Bentley

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Michael Bentley is the VP of Editing for the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. He also works as a data scientist in Seattle.

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