A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
For a brief period in the mid-1980s, trivia games were some of the hottest coin-ops in America.
Capitalizing on a trivia craze sweeping the nation, these games expanded to locations that conventional video games could not. They were so popular in bars that several companies made adults-only question sets.
While this phenomenon quickly fizzled out, trivia games were important in the history of several gaming companies. It might have even kept them going during a tough period.
“Whether or not the rumor that the first coin-operated trivia game was created by one of Al Capone’s drivers is true, that first rotating wheel of questions and answers was the prototype of a game concept that has survived several decades and six or seven generations of expression.”
– The lead paragraph in Play Meter’s cover story on trivia games. I can’t find any additional information about that Al Capone anecdote, although the mob does have a long connection to coin-ops. A “pinball mafia” in Seattle attempted to assassinate mayoral candidate Gordon Newell with a car bomb.
“What Killed Video Games?”: The Trivia Boom
The mania for trivia games can be seen as a subset of the wider trivia craze blanketing the United States in the early 1980s. Trivia, especially the type that dwells in low culture, first became popular in the 1960s with competitions held at Columbia University. One of the organizers, Ed Goodgold, would go on to publish a book titled Trivia. He’d also serve as the first manager for the band Sha Na Na, which adopted the same ironic nostalgia for Boomer childhood as Goodgold’s trivia questions.
By the 1980s, the Canadian board game Trivial Pursuit had brought this type of trivia into tens of millions of American living rooms. It was so popular that by 1984 three separate copycat board games were being marketed under the identical title of “Texas Trivia.” Scores of trivia books were published. Jeopardy got a reboot, ditching old host Art Fleming for Alex Trebek. 150,000 people participated in a nationwide Trivial Pursuit contest in 1985. The operators of the Queen Elizabeth II even staged a Trivial Pursuit-themed cruise.
The timeline of the video arcade game largely parallels that of the trivia boom. In fact, quiz games were important moneymakers for Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. Nutting Associates, the company that manufactured Bushnell’s Computer Space, scored a big hit with a game called Computer Quiz. Atari and its secret affiliate company Kee Games partnered on Quiz Show in the mid-1970s. More on both games later.
The timeline diverges in the famous video game crash of 1983. Although this crash applied more to home consoles than arcades and home computers, this in-depth review of gaming revenue per year from Ethan Johnson at Gaming Alexandria notes a significant decline in overall arcade earnings in 1983. Newspaper columnists widely proclaimed “videos” to be a fad.
With the crash, coin operators had an obvious incentive to find new revenue streams. And for a few years, it was the trivia game.
How did trivia coin-ops become such a phenomenon? For one, new form factors helped them make inroads into prime bar real estate. Full-size arcade cabinets had long been installed in bars—_Pong_ was famously tested at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale. By 1984, game components had shrunk enough to fit into the “bartop” or “countertap” format. One operator told Play Meter magazine that bar owners placed higher premiums on smaller machines since “too big is scary.” If you want one of these neat devices today, you can find them on eBay.
As trivia games piled up on bartops, some manufacturers responded by making machines that catered to the adults-only audiences of these establishments. The Kinky Kit and Game Company released a whole line of risqué trivia games as seen in this flyer.
Beer companies themselves even ventured into trivia coin-ops. Anheuser-Busch officially sponsored a machine called the LA Trivia Challenge, showing up alongside kid-size “moppets cabinets” at the 1985 Amusement & Music Operators Association Expo in Chicago to promote it. A few years later, Anheuser-Busch would experiment with another high-tech trivia medium, the VHS tape, with “Your Alcohol I.Q.” This tape could be rented for free from your local video store to test your “awareness on the importance of responsible drinking.”
Another factor in the rise of the trivia coin-op was that it provided on-demand solo play. Whereas Trivial Pursuit required a group of friends and a quiet environment, the only requirement for these games was a quarter.
Peter Feuer, the president of the company that made Trivia Whiz, told Play Meter that trivia games will endure because “There will always be people in the playing public that like to exercise their minds without risking their egos.” (Not mentioned is the fact that a low-tech trivia paperback does this just as well.)
Trivia’s positive associations with education and learning helped these games enter spaces forbidden to standard video arcade games. In an era where several municipalities tried to limit arcade hours or ban them entirely, trivia games could be installed in virtually any “family friendly” environment.
In a Play Meter feature on Exidy, Pete Kauffman notes how trivia games such as Exidy’s Fax had wide enough appeal that “You could put this game in the Hyatt Regency. And if you take a Fax game to show your legislators or local council, you can say this is the direction our industry is going with technology—it’s fun, but it’s also education.”
Of course, astute legislators might instead bring up Death Race, the infamous Exidy game from a decade earlier that was the subject of the first moral panic in video gaming.
The downside of trivia’s “smart people” reputation is that some arcade owners thought the machines were too advanced for their clientele. Lila Zinter, Exidy’s marketing director, claimed that an operator in an impoverished New Jersey city initially didn’t want a Fax unit because “he didn’t think people in his area could read or write, much less like a question-and-answer game.” But after installing it, “_Fax_ is his second highest earner—only $5 behind Pole Position.”
The Tech of Trivia Games
Most trivia games have a straightforward gameplay loop. The player is shown a question, usually multiple choice, and then gets points for how fast they correctly answer it. Later games would dress this up with new scenarios like escaping from a dinosaur’s jaws (see screenshot). Capcom’s Quiz & Dragons added an RPG-style quest. Other games bolted on puzzle minigames.
The most interesting variant during the trivia boom were Name That Tune games, much more difficult to pull off in era before CD-ROM audio. Although I can attest to this still being fun. In the late ‘90s, my friend and I would quiz each other on MIDI versions of pop songs and game soundtracks to great amusement.
Nevertheless, the standard computer quiz game did not have much variety. But some have pushed technical boundaries.
Case in point: Kee Games’ 1976 Quiz Show. Most arcade games of the era relied on discrete circuits rather than microprocessors. It was prohibitively expensive to include enough ROM memory for the thousands of questions needed. The engineers at Kee Games got around this by a clever design using 8-Track tapes. This YouTube video from propcycle shows how it works, including a neat way to shuffle questions using the inherent randomness of an 8-Track deck.
Another advantage of Quiz Show’s tapes was that they could be swapped in to provide new questions. When no tape replacements were available, arcade operators adopted a lower tech approach: Just switch games. Play Meter’s cover story noted that, “most trivia operators own lots of the games … they monitor their machines by keeping track of how high the percentage of correct answers gets. When the percentage is too high, they know it’s time to change questions. They can shift question software from game to game.”
By the 1980s boom, arcade manufacturers were providing new questions via new PCB boards. They were also providing conversion kits to swap out “stale” video games such as Pac-Man and Track and Field with quiz games.
Arcade owners dreamed of even greater interoperability via arcade “systems.” The most famous such system, the Neo Geo MVS, wouldn’t be released until 1990. But “systems” talk was in the air enough that Frank “The Crank” Seninsky’s article on how to repair trivia games also contains one of the earliest reviews for the _Nintendo VS._ system. Frank preferred Hogan’s Alley over Ice Climbers.
Before Quiz Show, there was Computer Quiz, a cabinet dating to the late 1960s. Its questions were written by Stanford students and stored on film reels. It was popular enough to appear at golf courses and fashion shows. And it is credited with several arcade firsts.
As per The Golden Age Arcade Historian, Computer Quiz may have been the first coin-operated machine to move to the “one quarter one play” paradigm. Previously, most “penny arcade” amusements ran on dimes. (Japan, meanwhile, would coalesce on the more-expensive 100-yen coin as the standard price for arcade games such as Space Invaders.)
And like Tic-Tac Quiz, Computer Quiz represented a break from gaming’s electromechanical past. Here’s the Golden Age Arcade Historian again:
As significant as the addition of quarter play was, a subsequent change may have been even more important. Like most, if not all, coin-op machines of the time, Computer Quiz relied on electro-mechanical technology. According to Ball, the game’s copper relays were a maintenance nightmare, so he approached a company called Applied Technology to design a circuit board that used plug-in relays (Ball n.d.). In the summer of 1968, Ball and Applied Technology, along with a Nutting intern, created a new version of the game that replaced the relays with solid-state, semiconductor-based circuitry (Ball n.d.). Ed Adlum thinks it may have been the first coin-op amusement machine with an all solid-state design (Kent 2001).
Other games innovated on form factors less suited to the arcade. In addition to the countertop designs, some cabinets were made to look more like jukeboxes and stereo equipment like in this ad for Fax:
One final form of innovation is in what scholar Eric von Hippel calls user innovation—novel uses outside the original intention of the manufacturer. For this example, we go back to Computer Quiz.
Under the headline “Computer Quiz Goes College Bowl!”, Cash Box magazine reported how the 1969 Trinity University College Bowl Team used Computer Quiz to cram for an appearance on the College Bowl TV show. This is the earliest example I know of where quizbowl teams used the now-common quizbowl technique of studying via flashcard software.
Coin-op trivia games declined in popularity by around 1986 as the general trivia bubble was bursting. A 1993 review of Mo’s Caribbean Bar & Grill in Manhattan implied that “multi-screen, multiple choice” quiz games were deeply uncool. But this didn’t mean “computer quizzing” disappeared entirely.
Consoles and computers have seen their fair share of quiz games, mostly licenses of game shows. Long-running computer trivia series You Don’t Know Jack even got a short-lived TV adaptation in 2001. And for an in-depth look at the sub-genre of Jeopardy adaptations, see this piece in Ars Technica by Kyle Orland.
Some dedicated trivia machines lived on in bars thanks to a company called NTN that rolled out a nationwide online trivia game in the late 1980s. These units were some of the first networked arcade machines. (NTN’s story is fascinating, by the way. Somehow it went from offering an interactive live football experience to becoming the memestock Brooklyn ImmunoTherapeutics.)
In Japan, a more robust arcade scene kept coin-op trivia games alive well into the 2000s. To me, the most intriguing Japanese quiz game is Derby Quiz My Dream Horse from 1998. As far as I can tell, it’s devoted to equine trivia. But the MAME emulation is spotty so I can’t tell if the horses are just a theme or if players were actually being quizzed on their knowledge of breeding, grooming and other horse concerns.
Smartphones mean we all now have “computer quizzes” in our pockets, should we want to play them. The most recent quiz game fad, HQ Trivia, built on live-streaming tech to soar to a $100 million valuation in 2017 before quickly crashing back to earth.
And if history is any guide, that won’t be the last trivia craze.