(500) Games of Sporcle

Darryl Campbell on his personal history with bees, pub trivia, and an addictive online quiz site.


All my life, I’ve gravitated towards trivia games. In middle school, it was the age of the bee. Competitions in spelling, geography, even mathematics: you name it, I competed in it. And lost at it, too. My ability to reel off words like “pharaoh” and “largesse” led me to victory at the county level, but on the big stage — in this case, a literal mainstage at the Oregon State Fair — the doubled consonants and French roots of “reconnaissance” and “embarrassment” were my undoing.

Likewise, I could remember the names of all six Yugoslav successor states and the apparently geographical fact that the point at which condensation forms is called the “dew point” — a stumper that got me into the state finals. But the fourth largest lake in the world? I could only do one through three, and that meant an unhappy exit from the state geography bee, with nothing but a cheap atlas and a verbal pat on the back to show for it.

High school was the age of quiz bowl. Yes, I was one of those nerds who would sacrifice two lunches a month to decamp for the school library to answer thousands upon thousands of multiple choice questions. There, I learned one key lesson about answering by committee: that the person who is the loudest, the quickest, or the most confident will usually get their way, even if their answer is not exactly right. In other words, whenever you know that George Eliot is a woman and Evelyn Waugh is a man, or that the moon Titan orbits the planet Saturn and not Jupiter, you have to say it loud and say it first, or else you’ll regret it for a long time.

And then, inevitably, came pub trivia nights, which in the words of Stuff White People Like creator Christian Lander “enabled white people to establish the intelligence hierarchy in their group of friends while also proving the full value of a liberal arts education.” To me, if the strained undercurrent of passive-aggression didn’t annoy me, then the trivia categories that ranged from the age-inappropriate (I wasn’t born yet when The Cosby Show and Golden Girls premiered, to my eternal, trivial regret) to the lazy (the category “mass nouns for animals” — a murder of crows, a pride of lions — once came up twice in the space of a month) certainly did.

By that point, I’d been bruised from a lifetime of minor victories and major disappointments. I still loved to exercise my trivia muscle — any of my officemates can tell you that I’m always ready with some random bit of useless knowledge — but spending time around other people who shared these interests was a bit much. You have to remember that these spelling bee champions and mathletes are the sort of people who grow up to fact-check The Simpsons and edit Wikipedia 8 hours a day. After a while, you begin to wonder whether the 13-year-olds playing Halo online might make for better company. So where else could I turn?

There is only so much studying you can do during your senior spring of college, even during finals week. There is also, sadly, a limit to how much mindless recreation — Mario Kart and 24 being prime contenders for my unthinking time — I could put in before I wanted to do something a little more challenging.

It was one of these post-Xbox, pre-sunrise nights when my roommate Josh, ever the resourceful time-waster, flipped open his laptop and started typing away. I knew he wasn’t doing anything constructive when he started asking me questions about countries that I hadn’t thought of since the seventh grade: Belarus, Cape Verde, and Micronesia — those sorts of ones that just manage to slip the mind.

He explained that he was on a site called Sporcle, which was basically a repository of random quizzes. It looked pretty bare-bones: a low-res map of the world, a ticking timer, and a text box. No flashy animations, no twitch-based shooting activities, just him and a bunch of blank countries that he had fifteen minutes to fill.

I couldn’t stand feeling like I had a second-rate knowledge of the countries of the world. So of course, an hour later I pretended like I was feeling tired and headed into my room, where I went to Sporcle and started playing myself.

The Countries of the World quiz was the first step down the rabbit hole. At first it was just the standard stuff: countries, capitals, presidents. The occasional foray into this-day-in-history quizzes or past Billboard Top 40 lists. After all, I’d built up quite the store of useless knowledge in the course of my college career. No need to stuff my brain even more.

The interesting thing about Sporcle is that after every quiz, you get a breakdown of your score against the curve. Not just what percentile you ranked in based on your number correct: you can also see the percentage of people who got the answer to a specific question right, to see if you got the low-hanging fruit or if you were, in fact, smarter than the average Sporcler.

Over time, though, I started to enjoy the more esoteric aspects of Sporcling as well: trying to remember the modern names of ancient Roman cities, for example (which one is Eboracum, again? Lugidunum?); teasing out which countries produce the largest tonnage of beans, or spices, or chickens; trying to remember the Modern Library’s Top 100 books. Suddenly, Sporcle became not just an excuse to regurgitate stuff from my mental repository — it became a way to reinforce my hoard of trivia, and to train myself to deduce certain things that I didn’t know about to begin with. For example, you can guess most of the words to any given lyric or passage if you just start typing in random articles and pronouns. And if you pay attention to the produce stickers at your local grocery store you can probably do pretty well on most of the economic quizzes.

Seven years later, I’m well on my way to the thousand-quiz mark. On a good day, I can get through four quizzes of moderate length — and even on an average week I get through no fewer than fifteen. And I’m happy to say that I’m still comfortably ahead of the curve on ones like Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and state capitals. Call it revenge for that failed geography bee.

So this is what I’ve been looking for all this time. To beat the curve in under five minutes. To keep playing the countries of the world until you can get all 200-some, even South Sudan and Timor-Leste. To know that “Kyrgyzstan” will be an answer on probably one out of every three quizzes I’ll ever play. To know that I can get my daily dose of mental exercise without having to deal with the over-serious trivia player in the next booth or the sniffly test-taker several desks over. To me, the happy solitude of Sporcle is the true Platonic ideal of inquiry.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.