Indian Quizzing Has a Problem, and it's Not Just the Lack of Women Taking Part

The quiz as we know it has reduced itself to a brute memory game in which deductive reasoning – and the fun of participation – is taken out.

India is one of the few countries in the world where quizzes conducted in a city can make it to the next day’s newspaper and generate a lot of social media chatter. For all its popularity, however, there has been surprisingly little introspection – by participants and audiences alike – about the state of quizzing in the country. In a recent article on Scroll, Sowmya Rao took a stab at one aspect of the quizzing culture, arguing that it excludes women. Her views have been contested by others. What is incontestable, however, is that the direction quizzing in India has taken is excluding larger and larger numbers of people, both women and men. The quiz as we know it has reduced itself to a brute memory game in which deductive reasoning – and the fun of participation – is taken out. It is this problem that we need to debate.

In its barest essentials, quizzing is a form of entertainment. But it differs from other forms of entertainment in one key respect: a part of the audience (i.e. the members of the quizzing teams) is also a part of the performers along with the quiz master. For everyone involved to be entertained it is essential that all stakeholders – the quiz master, the quizzers and the audience – enjoy the battle of brains playing out onstage. The other major difference is that all three stakeholders here need to have put in a lot of preparatory work, sometimes years spent accumulating knowledge, before they can enjoy the quizzing experience, unlike many other forms of entertainment, where the audience needn’t have gone through this process to have a good time.

Weakly gamified

Then again, this isn’t an arena reserved for people who know a lot about a lot of things. Being familiar with less-known facts about a movie that released recently can help you win quizzes as much as knowing about Babe Ruth’s home-runs from an era long gone. The pursuit of gaining a knowledge-base and the excitement of deducing answers from ostensibly obscure bits of information has inspired people of all age-groups to take to quizzing. But having said this, it’s true that quizzing is also only weakly gamified: whether you find it rewarding depends on you, as a person, being able to take pride in knowing. This isn’t a judgment – it’s just the way it is. And if only by this virtue, it can’t be for everyone because the more weakly gamified it is, the higher the entry barriers will be.

India has a very strong quizzing culture in schools. With easy access to information thanks to Google and Wikipedia, many schools have their own quizzing clubs and intra- and inter-school competitions. And for the same reasons, the quizzing culture in colleges is also quite robust. From my experience, I’ve never heard of any complaints of misogyny or any other sort of discrimination in both my undergrad and post-grad quizzing clubs. And in both places (Guindy College of Engineering, Chennai, and the Indian School of Business, Mohali), I have seen active participation from women as well as a bunch of other not-so-serious quizzers.

But outside of educational institutes, there are very few avenues for a casual quizzer to pursue her or his interest in quizzing. There are a lot of online opportunities but they lack the social interactions that an offline club can bring. The online clubs can at best be a good back-end channel to connect with other quizzers after quiz-meets are over. The offline clubs are mostly for the pursuit of serious quizzing, and are open to everyone. However, the level of quizzing will require a participant to put in a lot of effort, taking the trouble to know and remember things and events far removed from her or his daily life. At this level, as judged by the topics the questions are based on and the level of preparation required even if only to keep up with the quiz, most rookies will be left bewildered – bored at worst – and they will most likely not pursue quizzing after.

A discouraging metagame

Take the flow of people in and out of a typical open quiz. There’s usually the preliminary written-round followed by a final round on the stage. Assume 1,000 people participate in the first round of a major quiz – from what I’ve gathered, attending quizzes for over a decade, about 70% of them will be first-timers (for that quiz). The demographic of the crowd would be fairly diverse with respect to age and gender. And on average, 18 people will go on to the final round. These 18 would be veterans, mostly all male, and definitely among the best quizzers in the country.

The 982 people left in the audience will gradually dwindle by the the end of the last round until only about 50 are left. These 50 would be quizzing enthusiasts who would have most likely missed out on making it to the finals by a narrow margin. A dwindling crowd is an indicator that the audience didn’t sufficiently enjoy the quizzing experience and most likely won’t turn up again for a quiz. This is the more common case, and the quiz itself will have failed to engage a good many of the participants.

We need to view the current quizzing scenario in India with this context in mind. And it is a sad fact that right now the scenario is dominated by a handful of people and there are not many women among them. One reason for this disparity might be that quizzers are a close-knit community, especially the offline groups, with a large entry barrier created by how much they already know. Anyone outside such groups will find it hard to understand the jokes, stories, the social code of these groups. So not just women – it’s tough for anyone to break into that.  

The problem here is that the level of quizzing in these major open quizzes and quizzing clubs is so specialised that it is usually very difficult for everyone to be able to enjoy it. The questions cannot be answered by deductive reasoning; the metagame has become skewed in favour of just remembering hard facts. Only an audience that’s as passionate about quizzing as the quizzers on the stage can enjoy the experience. As of today there are not many quizzes to engage audiences of all levels of quizzing passion.

Engage everyone, not just women

The larger picture here I feel is that the quizzing culture has failed to keep many people engaged, and not just women. Viewed from this perspective, Sowmya Rao’s suggestions might not be very feasible in real-life for the following reasons.

1. Finding teammates who are seasoned quizzers is tough. This is not just for women but for anybody outside of the small group, the quizzing elite. As a counter-question: why would anyone want to team up with a bunch of professional quizzers? It will be a very frustrating experience for someone who is quizzing for fun. The quizzer will invariably answer everything even before the others can enjoy the moment to press their grey cells to think about the question. The whole purpose of the quiz will be lost if the teams are not made up of equals.

2. Increasing diversity in quizzes is a bad idea if done for the sake of diversity, for the reason stated above. Quizzers need to be matched in their levels of passion to be grouped into a team. Otherwise, it won’t be an enjoyable experience for anyone.

3. Logistics and atmosphere have never been an issue in any of the major quizzes or quiz-club meets. But I can’t comment further without understanding the context of Sowmya’s unpleasant experiences.

The need of the hour is not a debate on how to simplify quizzing for everyone to enjoy it but how to create more avenues that’ll help engender an engaging quizzing experience for people with different levels of interest. There need to be more quizzes conducted by a lot more people, both men and women, with different interests. This needs to be done at schools, colleges (to ensure an early inculcation into the quizzing habit) and as hobby clubs (for lifelong pursuits). Online groups are good stepping stones and don’t cost anything (apart from an Internet connection) but they will, rather should, eventually help form offline groups as well. I, for one, prefer offline groups because their social incentives help sustain a longer-term interest in quizzing.

Veteran quizzers from prominent groups like the Karnataka Quiz Association and the Quiz Foundation of India are doing their bit to go out and conduct quizzes at many places and in institutions. But more needs to be done – especially more effort from all enthusiasts to help spread the passion among their social circles, by focusing on topics which are relevant to their daily lives. Ultimately, beyond being about entertainment itself, quizzing is also essential in creating a more enlightened citizenry.

Though many competitions like to stake claim to the proverbial idea, quizzing is among the few that’s actually more about the participating than the winning. It’s about inculcating the habit of questioning and understanding the world around us. Nobody becomes a lesser quizzer if she or he doesn’t make it to the finals of the annual Landmark Quiz. A true quizzer is one who sits through any quiz in the audience trying to crack the questions till the very end and enjoys the whole experience.

Arun Venugopal is a former regular from Chennai’s quizzing scene.

Note: This article was edited for clarity on January 27, 2016.

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