Catch the craze: HQ Trivia

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Every night, at 9 p.m. sharp, Phoebe Chamberlin, Spencer Emerson and their crew answer the call.

The call is just a simple phone alert, letting the gang of six know that it’s time to play HQ Trivia. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, the four young men and two young women will work together, answering random questions on their phones in a unified quest for riches.

Riches being a relative term.

For the first couple minutes, it seems as though this going to be a winning night for those gathered at the Chamberlin-Emerson house in Lewiston – the first couple questions don’t require any discussion or mental sweating at all.

Cheese is considered a part of what food group? Easy.

Which movie monster terrorized the populace by scaling the Empire State Building? Come on. Who misses that?

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But HQ Trivia, with more than a million people around the world playing twice a day on their phones and tablets, has no intention of just giving away money.

“The questions,” Chamberlin says, “get progressively harder with each correct answer.”

She’s not kidding. After that nonsense about King Kong, comes a more difficult question pertaining to fighting synonyms. Is it fracas? Donnybrook? Galumph? By the time they made sense of the question, time was running out. Chamberlin and most of the others failed to answer the question correctly — I think we all can agree photographer Russ Dillingham’s suggestion was truly meant to help. And that was that.

“Once you’re out,” Chamberlin says glumly, “you’re out.”

Next to her on the couch, though, Emerson is still going – he’s still in the game even after a dubious question about the proper terminology for the two sides of a coin.

He’s still going after correctly identifying “Fences” as the movie that earned Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination.

Emerson, a math teacher, was in fact in it until the later rounds, when he got tripped up by a grammar question about the object of a sentence. The last man standing, he succumbed just a few questions shy of HQ Trivia riches.

You know. Relatively speaking.

A GAME SHOW IN YOUR POCKET

As Chamberlin and her cohorts gave it their all, millions of others around the world were doing the same, trying to answer 12 multiple-choice questions in order to split the nightly pot of $2,500.

“I think winning would be more about the feat than about the money,” says Emerson. “I mean, you’re going to win maybe 10 bucks. I’d take a screen shot and put it on Facebook, maybe.”

“I mean, if you’re playing just for fun anyway,” says Cameron Bradbury, also knocked out in the third round, “winning money would be just gravy.”

It seems unlikely that anyone is playing HQ Trivia solely for the money, but people ARE playing and they’re playing in vast numbers.

The game, played through a phone app, was rolled out just six months ago, but every day and night, between 600,000 and 2 million jump in to take on the latest round of a dozen multiple-choice questions.

Why the popularity? Is it the psychedelic graphics on the app? The funky throbbing music? The cheesy game show feel?

It really depends on who you ask.

“Instead of just watching game shows on television, it is a real-time game show where everyone who logs into the app at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. can win money daily,” says Chamberlin. “What also makes the app appealing to me is the host. While there are some mixed reviews about Scott Rogowsky, he keeps the game relevant for the younger generation who is playing the game, while many game shows on television are geared more toward baby boomers.”

Ah, yes. Scott Rogowsky, the bearded former comic in a suit who hosts the show in a format similar to a stand-up act. He presents the questions, expounds on the answers and cracks a few jokes when the opportunity arises.

The first time I played HQ Trivia myself, Rogowsky struck me as a metropolitan vampire moonlighting as a car salesman. He annoyed me. He talked too much.

Then he grew on me, the way he grew on millions of others, turning Rogowsky into at least a small-time celebrity.

There are three other hosts who occasionally fill in for Rogowsky. When they do, it’s the same “Running Man” type enthusiasm as the daily questions are unveiled.

“The hosts are way too happy,” says Carolyn Tucker, of Greene, “but that’s what they pay them for.”

Tucker is not part of Chamberlin’s group. In fact, she’s not part of any group. She plays HQ Trivia alone and prefers it that way. Like so many others, Tucker has advanced to the late questions, but she’s never made it all the way through 12.

“The questions start out incredibly easy and get progressively harder,” she says. “I always miss the pop culture questions, especially about rap artists.”

HQ Trivia was created by Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, best known for the absurdly popular video app, Vine, which launched in 2012 – and which was almost immediately acquired by Twitter.

Although an official breakdown of HQ players is not yet available, as Chamberlin suggests, the game seems to appeal to young professionals.

ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL

While the HQ Trivia jackpot is generally $2,500 to be split among the winners, that amount is boosted to $25,000 on Sundays and some holidays. There have been rumblings that show developers may one day hike the daily prize to a cool million dollars.

Which might make the scene at Chamberlin’s place more tense around 9 p.m. each night – it’s one thing to play for the potential of a few dollars. Playing for seven figures would surely provide an adrenaline boost.

“I’ve never won, but every time I play I joke that ‘this will be the time!'” says Emerson. “All of our roommates play as a group with the idea that if we win big, we will all split it.”

They play as a group, yes, but not as a team per se. There is no true team play in HQ Trivia. Everyone at Chamberlin’s place is playing his or her own game on his or her own phone.

The group has developed a system, however, in which each player tries to help the others, even if it means sacrificing himself to the greater good.

“If it’s a sports questions, one of the guys will just yell out, ‘I know this, I know this, I know this,'” Emerson says. “If we have no idea, three of us will pick three different answers and try to increase our odds of going to the next round.”

It doesn’t matter which member of the group wins, in other words, as long as one of them does. None of them has won yet, but they’ve come close, and coming close makes the desire to win even greater.

“They make you feel like, OK, I did pretty well tonight. I’m going to win it tomorrow,” says Larissa Montminy, occupying the end of the couch at Chamberlin’s house.

It’s a strange game, HQ Trivia. Some nights you’ll get knocked out on the second question. Some nights you’ll make it to the ninth or 10th only to have your heart broken by a “savage question” about the third most common element on Jupiter’s second-smallest moon. Which you might take a logical guess at if you didn’t have that 10-second time limit breathing down your neck.

And if you do win it? You’ll get a few bucks, you’ll get bragging rights and, maybe, just maybe, Scott Rogowsky himself will give you a shout-out for all the world to hear.

That latter appeals to Spencer Emerson, who watched as Rogowsky named off the winners at the end of the game.

Such glory. Such recognition.

“One day,” Emerson said to his friends with admirable conviction, “that’s going to be us.”

Tuna the cat presides over the HQ Trivia game Monday night at the Lewiston home of Phoebe Chamberlin and Spencer Emerson. Chamberlin, far right, is playing with, to her right, Emerson, Cameron Bradbury and Larissa Montminy, Tuna’s owner. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Tuna the cat presides over the HQ Trivia game Monday night at the Lewiston home of Phoebe Chamberlin and Spencer Emerson. Chamberlin, far right, is playing with, to her right, Emerson, Cameron Bradbury and Larissa Montminy, Tuna’s owner. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Larissa Montminy, left, Cameron Bradbury, center and Spencer Emerson think about the answer to one of the questions during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Larissa Montminy reacts after getting a question wrong during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Friends wait for the first question during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. From left to right are Alphonso Belnavis, Tim Mains, Larissa Montminy, Cameron Bradbury, Spencer Emerson and Phoebe Chamberlin. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Alphonso Belnavis ponders a question during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Phoebe Chamberlin watches her screen scroll along with fun messages just before the game starts during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Players watch the answer to a question being revealed during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Alphonso Belnavis ponders a question during Monday night’s HQ Trivia game in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

HQ Trivia: How are they making money?

Call me crazy. The first time I played HQ Trivia, I thought I smelled a conspiracy.

The whole thing is probably a government mind-control operation, I reasoned. Or at best a black budget psychological experiment.

It’s bigger than all of us.

I’m not the first to question the nature of the game. There are no advertisements to be seen anywhere during its play, after all. The game asks for no personal information from its users other than a simple email address.

So how are the developers making any money at all of the game? What is their motivation for offering nightly cash prizes to the trivia-crazed masses?

“I’ve always wondered,” says Lewiston HQ player Spencer Emerson. “What’s the catch?”

You know what they say. If you’re not paying for a product, then you ARE the product.

And then there is the weird vibe of the game, which to me is half “Running Man” and half “Black Mirror.” The game calls people to their phones like dogs to the feeding dish twice a day. Clearly something sinister is afoot.

And then more rational theories began to surface.

“Maybe,” offered 24-year-old Cameron Bradbury, of Auburn, “they plan to start charging for the game.”

As a business plan, it makes perfect sense. Give away the app for free until millions are hooked, and then start charging a dollar. Or 2 dollars or 10. It doesn’t matter. The way people froth over HQ Trivia, it’s pretty clear that they’ll pay if they have to.

Around the web, it’s also been suggested that the developers of HQ Trivia might simply have a big buyout in mind. It’s a business venture that’s worked for plenty of others, including the mobile app development company Scan, which was founded in 2011 and then bought by Snapchat for $54 million dollars just three years later.

Could it be that HQ Trivia is just a money-making scheme and not a CIA program aimed at turning half the population into Manchurian robots?

It’s too soon to say, really. We’ll have our answer when either HQ Trivia is sold for millions or the robot revolution gets underway.

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